Virtual reality: Online relationships are often forged and maintained by myths

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Note: (This “My Turn” was originally published in the Concord Monitor print/online Saturday, January 3, 2015)

Several years ago, I remember watching an eHarmony commercial with my husband. It talked about the bulletproof nature of the company’s online dating service due to its surefire relationship questionnaire based on a patented compatibility-matching system.

My husband said he thought it would be fun for each of us to fill out the questionnaire and see if we were truly a good match.

I refused. Flatly.

In fact, I looked at my husband of more than three decades as though he’d just cheated on me.

“Why would you even do that?” I said. “I mean, what’s the point?” leaving out the internal monologue that included my fear that, on paper, I’m pretty sure we’re a terrible match.

I didn’t want to give him any more ammunition during one of our occasional epic arguments over politics, religion or how best to deal with the kids. I could hear it now: “I give up! What was I thinking? What did I expect from someone who’s 85 percent liberal and 15 percent Buddhist who doesn’t believe in spanking?” I don’t think he’s as acutely aware as I am of the behind-the-scenes work I’ve put in over all these years of marriage at redirecting his attention every time he gets a glimpse of the “real” me.

Besides, I feel it was the right thing to do, given what we are learning as a culture – that online dating isn’t necessarily the panacea to bad relationships and failed marriages that the deceptively reassuring founder of eHarmony, Dr. Neil Clark Warren, would lead us to believe.

That’s because what eHarmony doesn’t mention is one of the fatal flaws of virtual meet-and-greets, when it comes to making beautiful music together: asynchrony.

That is the word that describes how, through our computer keyboards, we have the ability to edit our thoughts and profiles, distilling out our human flaws and misguided ideas so that we present our “best selves.” We become out of sync with who we really are. Reality does not match up with our virtual reality.

If you spend any time on Facebook, you know what I mean.

Have you ever untagged an unflattering Facebook photo of yourself?
Raise your paw if you’ve untagged an unflattering Facebook photo of yourself.

A quick scroll through your news feed delivers an overload of shiny, happy people sharing the warm and fuzzy Kodak moments of their lives, untagging themselves in the less-flattering cell phone captures and re-editing their original posts for grammar, spelling and dazzling wit.

Now, extrapolate that to include online dating service profiles, which have for the past decade been replacing the bar scene as the most popular way to find a significant other. Instead of putting our best foot forward and stepping out to hunt and gather, we sit at home in our sweatpants scrolling through dating profiles with the stealth of a heat-seeking missile.

In his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin has done the research and the math. He says 81 percent of online dating profiles are built on lies – most commonly underestimating weight and overestimating height. Politics and religion are hardly ever included as a selling point, and continue to be taboo when trying to catch a soulmate. Agreeing to disagree is not a popular option.

But that’s not all.

While virtual dating may ease the stress for introverts a little, it also creates an illusion of being social, when in fact our over-reliance on “social media” is isolating us in real time from connecting with live human beings.

While we may believe we’re just being smarter and more selective by weeding out those who aren’t worth meeting or socializing with, we are also underestimating the chemistry of first impressions and the unpredictability of human interaction by editing out the possibility of meeting someone who otherwise might make us swoon.

Relationships require a balance of same and different, yin and yang, honesty and acceptance.
Relationships require a balance of same and different, yin and yang, honesty and acceptance.

This also applies to our relationships in general. No need to actually meet with a friend to catch up over coffee when you can spend a few minutes scrolling through the highlight reel of their day, week or year. Missing, thanks to asynchrony, are the hurdles and heartaches, which are left unchronicled and often, unresolved.

A friend of mine who found herself on the other side of a long marriage dipped her toe into the virtual dating pool this year, hoping to meet her match in someone who shared her zest for life, heightened sense of humor and self.

Last week she posted this: “Well, I just canceled my Match.com and eHarmony accounts. I’ve had some really nice dates with some really good guys (sex tapes notwithstanding) and I’m grateful for having had a few moments with each of them. But I met this really, really amazing person recently who is cool and funny and wicked smaht and loves adventure, hiking, good books, long drives, sappy movies, long conversations, and really digs my kids, my friends, my family and my co-workers. I’m going to hang out with this person for a while, probably forever. I’ve never been happier!”

I immediately knew that the person she was referring to was, in fact, herself. The road to finding Mr. Right led her back to a crossroad of self-discovery. Many of her Facebook friends mistook her post for victory in the virtual trenches, offering congratulations and seeking more details.

While Levitin notes that, by the numbers, online dates that result in marriage seem to be lowering the risk of divorce by a measly percentage point or two, I firmly believe there is no substitute for actually putting yourself out there.

First step in that journey is knowing who you are and accepting your authentic self, so that you can present it to someone else ready and willing to accept the challenges.

 

Our marriage: Still a work in progress, as are we.
Our marriage: Still a work in progress, as are we.

When I first laid eyes on my future husband he was wearing bell-bottom jeans that were too short – a hazard of coming from a large family where hand-me-downs were the only fashion option. He carried a Bible around with him, along with the weight of a difficult adolescent world. I’m not sure what his dating profile would have looked like, but I’m 100 percent certain that it wouldn’t have showed up on my compatibility match list.

In the same way, my profile would not have come close to revealing my baggage, insecurities and fears, all of which don’t seem to faze my husband. He is my awkward knight on an unconventional steed, armed only with the kind of dedication and love that’s forged through time, taking the good with the bad, the flaws with the frills.

Through 35 years of marriage, we’ve created an unfinished symphony. There’s harmony and discord – and even some asynchrony. But there is also honesty. We don’t agree on politics very often. We approach religion from differing philosophical angles. We have both shrunk a little in stature, and my weight, on paper, will never be disclosed.

But anyway, those aren’t the things that have mattered.

About Carol Robidoux 5602 Articles

Journalist and editor of ManchesterInkLink.com, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.

  • Diane Sheehan

    Great piece, glad you brought it back out. I missed it the first time.