January 27, 2008

Surfing for Love: Dating in the 21st Century

On a Monday, Tracy Edmonds signed up with Match.com, saw someone she liked and winked at him. On Tuesday, he e-mailed back,and by Wednesday, they had met at a Henrico County restaurant.

"Which was kind of fast," acknowledged Edmonds, who was widowed last year. "But I don't know what you do. I haven't dated in 28 years."

Fast, maybe, but not unusual as single people increasingly turn to their computers to help reboot their love lives. According to the Online Publishers Association, romance seekers in the U.S. spent $503.4 million on online dating sites in 2005, up from just $40 million in 2001.

Dating sites such as Yahoo! Personals and Match.com teach the timid how to cyberflirt or make it as simple as sending an electronic wink.

Match.com -- which says it has more than 15 million members in 240 countries -- and eHarmony.com -- which reports 90 of its members get married every day -- cast a wide net for potential partners. Compatibility tests help narrow the field, but if you already know what you're looking for, specialty sites abound.

On EligibleGreeks.com, for example, there's Amazing Nisiotis, who says he's stable, outgoing and attractive on the inside and outside. Equally attractive choices pop up on BaptistFriends.com, blacksingles.com, BigChurch.com, jewishdateonline.com, etc.

"It makes dating really, really easy," said Chris Mixter, a 29-year-old management consultant from Northern Virginia who met his fiancee on Match.com.

Mixter and Bronwyn Davis, 30, who covers health-care issues on Capitol Hill for the Bureau of National Affairs, got engaged New Year's Eve at the Lincoln Memorial and plan to marry in December.

Mixter said he decided to try Match.com after a friend met his future wife online a couple of years ago. When he first heard about it, Mixter said his initial reaction was "you're going to meet some serial killer." But the friend's new wife turned out to be "fantastic" and Mixter signed up.

. . .

Fears of serial killers aside, psychologists recommend proceeding with caution.

Meeting someone on the Internet "can be kind of like a blind date," said Dr. Joan Winter, director of the Family Institute of Virginia. She sees it as a double process: Couples should meet online and court online, then meet in person and court in person.

"You still have to go through all the steps of courting," she said. She says problems arise when couples think they know each other so well from their online relationship that they rush into intimacy.

"If people start off with that, it's very risky," she said.

"Take it slowly, as with any relationship," agrees Rabbi Ben Romer of Congregation Or Ami, who recently counseled two couples who had met online.

While he views online dating as a positive way for people to meet, it's no replacement for face-to-face contact, he noted. "It's tough to pick up on emotion on the Internet."

Dr. Leticia Y. Flores, director of the Center for Psychological Services and Development at Virginia Commonwealth University, has seen Internet relationships "run the gamut of good to bad."

While the Internet offers a broad pool of potential mates, she sees it as also being limiting, letting people "stick to their own."

Flores, who is married, used herself as an example: As a Duke graduate and a Mexican-American with a doctorate, she could easily have narrowed her choices based on those criteria.

Dating sites in effect let you "create your person. But do you really know the kind of person who would be best for you?"

She said it's part of our consumer culture now that people think they can "special order who they're going to be with." The danger to the relationship lies in "falling for the idea of someone rather than the actual person."

. . .

As common as online dating is, there's still a bit of a stigma attached to it.

A 2006 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that 29 percent of people it surveyed think "online daters are in dire dating straits." But the survey of 3,215 adults also found that 74 percent of Internet users who said they were single and looking for romance reported going online for help.

Dr. Grace Hadeed, a therapist with the Family Institute of Virginia, says many women who have gone through a divorce turn to the sites when they're ready to date again. But they're reluctant to talk about it.

"People will still raise their eyebrows," she said.

Edmonds, 47, who said she is seriously dating the 42-year-old contractor she met online, thinks she understands why.

"There are more people out there than you think" who are meeting online, she said.

"They don't like to talk about it because it's just kind of weird. It's like they went shopping for a mate."

Her own family has had mixed reactions.

"My kids really didn't want me to date," she said. "My sister was skeptical. My parents said go for it -- you're not getting any younger."

Edmonds said she tried other ways to meet men. She hung out at hardware stores and even car dealerships. "The high-dollar ones -- I didn't want someone buying a cheap little car." But that didn't work.

"It's hard to meet people. It's not as easy as it used to be," she said.

"If you go to a bar, that's what you're going to get -- someone who hangs out in a bar. That's not what I'm looking for."