Looking for the Perfect "Match"

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

November/December 2003

Scene1: You meet someone, you decide first whether you like the way they look and act. Body language is very important. Then you discuss each other's likes and dislikes to see if there is a possible fit. Next you go out on a date and explore more of your commonalities. After a few dates and some phone calls in between, spread over a month or two or more, you decide whether you want to become more intimate and self-disclosing. If everything goes well, you progress gradually toward romance. According to researchers in the area of relationship formation, this is the typical progression of romantic relationships in our American culture.

Scene 2: You meet someone online. Within the first several days you send a flurry of dozens of email messages back and forth. These messages almost immediately become self-revealing and intimate. Sexual innuendos fly over the net. Within a couple of weeks or less you decide whether your online friend is to be a romantic relationship. More emails follow with even more intimate self-disclosure. Pretty soon each of you is telling the other their deepest darkest secrets. You talk on the telephone and then finally meet to decide if you like the way the person looks and acts in "real life." Notice that the progression is nearly backwards from that described in Scene 1.

Millions of Americans are joining online dating services. Match.com claims to have millions of profiles online. So do eharmony and udate.com and dozens of other sites. According to a New York Times article in June more than 45,000,000 Americans visit online dating services each month. It is easy to join. Spend less than an hour drafting a profile indicating your likes, dislikes, and your personality and you will have others deciding whether they want to talk with you immediately. One service has you fill out a 20-minute survey to create your "personality profile" on 29 dimensions of compatibility. Then it emails you profiles of potential matching partners to "match you with singles who are compatible not just on the surface, but also in the deep and important ways that truly matter in a relationship." Sounds scientific, right? Well, after answering what seemed like hundreds of ratings, my personal profile seemed like it could have been culled from a dozen or so questions. But it is a good gimmick. The owner even has a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Chicago!

Of course, all of these services encourage you to post at least one picture. Most will accept several. Theoretically, this should aid the subscriber in deciding whether to initiate conversation based on attractiveness (which is the first dimension mentioned in Scene 1 above). Of course, nobody posts unflattering pictures. With just a cursory perusal, many of them look like professional photo shots.

When you decide to email someone it's time to pony up the money. All of the services have a variety of plans ranging from the one-month plan to the one-year plan. Costs range from $20 to $50 per month or $100 to $300 per year.

So, how are these services relevant to the mental health practitioner? Sooner rather than later you are going to have clients who attempt to find a mate through one of these services. If not through a dating service, perhaps the mate will be found in a chat room or a discussion group. Perhaps you already have a client who has gone this route.

If the literature holds true, the client will claim to be "in love" very quickly and will vehemently object to any possibility that their assessment may be premature. I have read dozens of articles, empirical and theoretical, that talk about how strong a bond people feel when a relationship begins online in spite of the very brief passage of time.

Here's one online message culled from a 2002 book chapter titled "Studying Online Love and Cyber Romance that I think shows the power of online romances:

"How words can grab hold of you. Mr. North was so far away from me, I did not know him in person - and nevertheless I thought of him so often. The little flag on my e-mail program, which possibly indicated a new message from him, was the center of my attention. I do not know anymore what we talked about. I only know that I sat there for hours, with an empty stomach a lot of the time because I had skipped dinner to be online. And I laughed. It was unbelievable! As absurd as it seems, we played with words, invented dream worlds and created an unbelievably fantastic playground which we filled together with life."

Then, inevitably, the two must meet. Research, again, shows that the percentage of people who continue the relationship past that stage is small. Not surprisingly, either one or both are very disappointed at what they find when they meet offline. An overwhelming majority claims that their online love is nothing like he/she is offline. The most common complaints have to do with attractiveness. The person just doesn't act or look the way they expected. The second most common complaint concerns the truthfulness of the online communication. Let's face it. Most people will try to show themselves in the best light. Rarely do people online show their faults.

I am sure that this is no surprise to you. When you are communicating online you are in a one-dimensional world. The only cues you have come from the written word. Oh yes, you can add those little smiley faces or use punctuation and capitalization to portray mood and emotion, but they fall very short of success. When you talk with someone on the telephone you gain a few additional cues, including voice quality, tone of voice, even vocal inflections that can represent emotions. When you meet in "real life" you now have all the cues that are important to make for a successful communication.

At this point in time the number of people who meet online is small but growing rapidly. Although there is no research, just ask the person next to you if they know anyone who has met someone online. I think that you will be amazed. At least a third of my university class on the global impact of technology knows someone who fell in love online.

As the impact of the net expands, and people spend more time online, I fear that we will have an epidemic of "online love affairs." I'm not here to tell you your professional job when faced with a client who has met someone online. But I will tell you that from my perspective it is time to become aware of this possibility.

Copyright, 2003, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.