Why it's really possible to fall in love online

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 3:10pm

Jon's plane taxied to a gate at Los Angeles International Airport, and although he had been flying for 30 hours on a journey from South Asia to California, his heart pounded at the prospect of wrapping Katie, his fiancé-to-be, in a bear hug.

In a week and half, Jon would put his grandmother's diamond ring on Katie's finger and the ring would be woefully too big. The oversight was not due to thoughtlessness on his part, nor a mishap at the jeweler.

It was because Jon had never once held that hand in real life.

Katie, 24, is not a modern-day mail-order bride and Jon, 32, is not a moneyed lonely heart. The couple, who work as Christian missionaries and requested their last names not be published for security reasons, met online while she was in San Diego and he was on a mission in South Asia.

Two months prior to their October 2011 meeting in Los Angeles, Katie had sent Jon an e-mail, hoping to join his mission group. Jon, curious, had clicked through to her blog, which was replete with references to obscure devotional writers that he also admired. That initial contact led to months of e-mails and phone calls, costing Katie $600 in phone bills, culminating, at last, in their decision to meet in the flesh. Today the couple are happily married with a baby girl.

Their relationship may seem like an outlier at a time when the world is looking askance at online relationships. As we all learned last month, the Internet enabled Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o to fall for Lennay Kekua, a woman who does not exist. "Catfish," a popular new MTV series based on a movie by the same name, captures audiences with tales of online love that quickly devolve into lies.

And all over the Web, onlookers have been wondering: Is it possible to fall in love with someone you've never met?

A fast connection‬

Despite the current atmosphere of distrust, falling in love sight unseen, often through the written word, has been happening for centuries. The Web has only made it easier. Some experts say communicating online before meeting IRL (that's In Real Life) can actually foster strong relationships by helping those with similar interests come together over great distances. Potential lovers overlook superficial turnoffs, and people open up to each faster and more deeply.

"Online technology, as well as SMS, enables having a connection that is faster and more direct," said Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa and author of the book "Love Online: Emotions on The Internet." "It also enables ongoing dialogue as compared to the slow interactions that are typical of letters."

Translation: While it may have taken months to a year for couples to communicate and therefore grow closer in the past, today we can have lengthy, deep interactions with a stroke of a key (or touchscreen).

Grey Howe counts his relationship with his wife Michelle, both in their late 30s, as one of the earliest examples of online dating.

"It was 1994, so there was not really an Internet as you know it today," he said. "We met through IRC."

IRC refers to "Internet Relay Chat," a form of computer-based conversation that was developed in the late 1980s. "Internet Relay Chat, at the time, you had to know your stuff," Howe said. "So if you were on IRC, you were pretty much guaranteed to be talking to the smart people. And I lucked out; I talked to a smart woman."

Grey talked with Michelle for about six months on the phone and via IRC before climbing on his motorcycle and driving from San Diego to Denver to see her in person for the first time. He never left. Thirteen years later, they got married, ironically enough for the technologically inclined couple, in a 1870s Victorian-themed ceremony.

Since Grey and Michelle's 1994 love connection, the prospect of online love has become more and more mainstream. A 2010 study found that nearly one-quarter of heterosexual couples surveyed had met via the Web, making the Internet the second-most-common way to find a partner after meeting through friends.

Someone like you (who's like me)

So what makes these digital relationships successful? According to a 2002 study, "Relationship Formation on The Internet: What's The Big Attraction?" one of the key draws of Internet relationships of all kinds is the ability to find people who like the same stuff that you do.

This was the case for Amanda Goldstein Marks, 35, who met her future husband Aaron in 1999 via Jewish dating site JDate.

In the beginning, Amanda signed up for the site without any intention of going on dates, she only wanted to look at her cousin's pictures. But soon after putting up her profile, sans photos, she met Aaron, who was drawn to the mention of Jewish summer camp on her page.

Amanda talked with Aaron for months, without seeing any pictures of him, before the couple finally met -- like Jon and Katie, at an airport -- when he returned from summer vacation to attend college.

"I watched him walk off the plane, and I remember thinking, 'This is so weird because it's not weird.' It felt like I was meeting an old friend," she said.

A year later, by which point they were officially dating, the two discovered that their grandmothers had attended the same Jewish summer camp in Cleveland, Ohio, a strange coincidence considering Amanda grew up in Alabama and Aaron in New Mexico.

"[Jewish summer camp] was important to us, and it was important to us because it was important to our parents, because it was important to our grandparents," said Amanda, who works at an ad agency. "So it kind of felt like my fate was sealed."

While Amanda says that the two were not officially dating during the months preceding their first meeting, and although she had never seen a picture of Aaron, she still says their connection was deep.

"All I knew was that he was tall and had brown hair and blue eyes, so every guy I saw who kind of fit that description, I would look at him and I would say, 'If that were Aaron, would I still like him?'" said Amanda, who now lives with Aaron in Decatur, Georgia. "The answer was always yes."

Love can be blind -- literally

Amanda's attraction to a man she had never seen before is not uncommon: studies have been done on this phenomenon for decades. One of the most famous is 1973's ominous-sounding "Deviance In The Dark," in which interactions between students were observed in both pitch-dark and well-lit rooms.

Those who met in the dark room, on the whole, were much more open and intimate with their fellow participants than those who met face-to-face under the fluorescents. In short: When you get rid of all the stress attached to face-to-face meetings, people feel more free to be themselves and get to know each other.

That approach worked for Keith A. Masterson, 41, and Gabriel-Thomas Masterson, 37. After meeting via a Facebook group comment chain, the couple spent hours daily chatting on Facebook and the phone before meeting two months later. The couple are now married and living in Colonial Heights, Virginia.

"In our situation, (meeting online) gave me the opportunity to ask questions that I probably would not have asked face to face at that time," Masterson said.

Gabriel-Thomas agreed: "One of the reasons we moved so quickly was because we spent so much time on the phone talking."

Some research also suggests that chatting online first can have a beneficial effect on face-to-face relationships. In the "Relationship Formation on The Internet" study, the authors tested whether a group of students liked each other more after an online or in-person meeting. They found the online group was much more chummy, in part because of the quality of the digital interaction itself. In short: The Web allowed participants to pare away interpersonal distractions and focus on communicating openly and honestly.

Granted, there are some pitfalls with too much online interaction before meeting in person.

Dr. Artemio Ramirez, Jr., associate professor of communication at the University of South Florida, has done his own research on the effects of online communications on offline relationships.

"If you meet someone face to face shortly after you meet them online, it's not necessarily going to lead to someone having a positive relationship, but waiting longer increases the possibility that things are not going to work out," he said. "We tend to develop in our heads these impressions of what we think that person is like, even though the realities of communication do not reflect that."

Still, Ramirez says the effect of idealization can be mitigated by expanding a relationship beyond the bounds of the written word.

"When people rely on more text-based forms of communication, that's where you really see people idealizing. When people in relationships can talk on the phone or via Skype, it's more of a reality check," he said. "Each new form of communication incrementally gives us more information about that person."

"Catfishing" goes mainstream

Of course, not all online love affairs pay off as well as those detailed above. Manti Te'o fell for a woman he was told died of cancer, a woman he had to say "goodbye" to twice after he found out she never existed.

The Web is full of tricksters. One 2008 study found that 81% of online daters admitted to lying about their weight, height, age or a combination of the three on their profiles. The Web allows users to present their best selves to the public, and sometimes those selves are exaggerated.

However, just because the object of one's online affections isn't real doesn't mean that one's feelings aren't.

Nev Schulman, the protagonist in the 2010 documentary "Catfish," knows better than anyone about the heartbreak caused by falling for someone who doesn't exist.The movie details how he fell for a Michigan woman named Megan Faccio, who turned out to be an intricate fabrication created by a lonely wife and mother. The film, and the related TV series, has raised awareness of such hoaxes and even given the public a term with which to categorize them: "catfishing."

"Once I kind of came to terms with the reality that this daily soap opera that I was tuning into, and the long distance love affair that I was having, got canceled and everything sort of shut down, at first I was incredibly lonely," Schulman said.

"It's a double insult," said Dr. Michael Adamse, author of "Affairs of the Net: The Cybershrinks' Guide to Online Relationships." "Because on one hand it's the loss of a love object.... There's also the humiliation attached to it, too, feeling badly about yourself. Not only have I lost somebody that was never really in love with me, but I've also been duped."

Despite what happened to Schulman, and the unlucky souls on his show who fell in love with mirages, both he and his "Catfish" co-host, Max Joseph, say that it is possible to fall in love successfully online.

"Everyone, when they meet one of us, they want to tell us that they know people who have been in online relationships and half the time the stories are really positive," Joseph said. "They have really happy endings."

The trick, they said, is to be smart about your online love affair before getting in too deep.

To have and to hold

All the couples interviewed for this story have one integral thing in common: Each and every one of them eventually met in real life to solidify their relationship.

"If you're really starting to 'fall' for somebody, it's very important to have that IRL to see if the fantasy matches the reality," said Adamse. "Not until you're actually in a situation where you're face to face with that person, spending time with that person, will you be able to access really what that reality is."

When Jon the missionary got off that plane in Los Angeles, after flying halfway around the world, he was moments away with finding out if his fantasy matched the woman waiting for him, the one he described as "my heart in the form of a girl." The one he was so sure about that he had procured the (too-big) ring and planned to put it on her finger in the presence of family and friends.

"Everything struck me about her," he said years later, recalling that day when he stepped off the plane and into Katie's arms.

"In all reality, the thing that attracted me the most about Katie all along was her heart, which was and is incredibly beautiful. But when I saw her in person I was able to see her inner beauty radiate through her eyes and her smile. I was a goner pretty quick."

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