Copyright 1997 U.S. News & World Report  
U.S. News & World Report
February 17, 1997
SECTION: CULTURE & IDEAS; Pg. 60

LENGTH: 1194 words

HEADLINE: Saturday night and you're all alone?

BYLINE: By Beth Brophy

HIGHLIGHT:
Maybe you need a cyberdate. All it takes is a keyboard, an alias, and a tiny bit of nerve

BODY:
   Forget roses, candlelit dinners, pillow talk--or even two people in the same room. And read on for answers to those burning questions
 
How is cyberdating different from meeting at a club?

It's a lot different. Everybody in cyberspace is tall, thin, blond, and rich--at least in theory. Without physical cues to provide a reality check--how someone looks or speaks, or whether he leaves his dirty socks on the floor--the person on the other end can be imagined as the ideal lover. The blank computer screen becomes a projection for hopes and dreams.
 
I meet lots of people on the Net, but most of my romances last only a day or two. How come?

It's easy to deceive in cyberspace, but it's also easy to fall into premature intimacy. Revealing secrets to a stranger can be intoxicating and, like most stimulants, dangerous. The Internet "seems to be laced with truth serum," says therapist Marshall Jung, co-author of Romancing the Net. "All this truth-telling puts enormous pressure on fledgling relationships." So it's no wonder that the cycle of "love, infatuation, and disappointment may take three weeks," says MIT sociology professor Sherry Turkle, author of Life on the Screen.

Unlike real time, which involves annoying waits in traffic, time in cyberspace is compressed. Sometimes that leads to impulsive actions. Old-fashioned mail, on the other hand, allows time for reflection, for letting a passionate letter sit overnight, or even for tearing it up.
 
My husband says I spend too much time online. He's worried I'll find somebody else. Is he a control freak, or what?

The relationship gurus of popular culture disagree as to whether extramarital cyber-romance is cheating or not. John Gray, omnipresent author of the bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, gets huffy about online dalliance. "Indulging in sexual arousal is adultery as far as your partner is concerned," he says. "It's not innocent and harmless; it's a betrayal." Advice columnist Ann Landers is more pragmatic: "It's not adultery; it's just foolishness," she says, "and a little bit on the sick side."

Cyber-romance can strain a marriage, sometimes to the breaking point. One woman, an attractive professional in her mid-30s, compares chat rooms to the temptation of drugs. Her husband's clandestine four-month Internet romance with a married woman living in another state nearly wrecked their 10-year marriage. "He wouldn't have gone to a singles bar. A friend or client might have seen him," she says. When she asked him why their monthly bill for using the Net exceeded $ 200, she says, her husband told her, "I'm in love with the perfect woman and I'm leaving you." His "true love" was planning to leave her husband, but plans changed following an out-of-state tryst. "Each of them thought the other was the greatest--until they actually met," the woman says. Her husband begged to come back. She relented, and they're now in marriage counseling. So ask yourself why you're spending more time online than with your husband.
 
I met this woman on the Net two months ago. She thinks I'm "Cowboy," a daring Hollywood stuntman. But really I'm just a quiet, skinny accountant. Now she wants a face to face. Help!

Meet her, come clean, and hope she's been lying, too. As Cowboy's dilemma illustrates, cyberspace can lead to a curious paradox: The anonymity of a computer screen makes people bolder and often leads them to try on more daring personas. At the same time, cyberspace allows users to exert tight control over information flow, which can lead to deception and disappointment. "Online is simply a starting point. You don't already have a relationship. You have a cyberflirtation," says Rosalind Resnick, host of the Web site LoveSearch.com, a combination dating site, personal data base, and advice column.
 
I've been E-mailing somebody for three months who lives 60 miles away. I drop hints about a face to face, but he's slow on the uptake. Should I ask him directly?

Sure, but be prepared for rejection. The sad fact is some people are better suited to being behind the screen--they don't want to reveal themselves in person. "True intimacy is not one aspect of the self, it's all aspects," Turkle says. "They may not be up for the lack of fantasy and the challenge of commitment." If that happens, say goodbye and try again.
 
I've heard there are weirdos on the Net, like the case of that woman who traded fantasies with a guy in an S&M chat room, met him in person and later was found strangled. Is online romance safe?

Yes, there are some strange people online. But there are weirdos everywhere--in cyberspace, in singles bars, at parties, maybe even in the apartment next door. For some people, the Net offers an opportunity they despair of finding elsewhere. Melinda Stevenson, who works for a Washington, D.C., international organization, says between her age and a long commute that left her exhausted at the end of the day, she'd stopped investing energy in dating. "I'm in my 40s," Stevenson says. "I'd given up."

But then she received an E-mail from "Bob," an avid sailor who lived in the Annapolis area. For six weeks, she and Bob E-mailed daily. Finally, Stevenson says, she "tossed out conventional wisdom" and invited him for dinner. He showed up 30 minutes late bearing "flowers, a bottle of wine, no ax--I checked." Their worst fears about each other (that she would be grossly overweight; that he would sport a comb-over hairdo) didn't materialize. Their first date lasted 10 hours--no touching, but "there was an electric sense between us," she says. After a few hours, he politely inquired if they could "share a bracket" (Web talk for hug). Three weeks later he said, "I love you." And five months after that, he proposed. The couple recently returned from their Hawaiian honeymoon.
 
I hear the Internet is a good place for shy people to meet others. Is it true?

Cyberdating, says Frances Maier, general manager of Match.Com, an online personals ad service, "is not about lonely hearts. The Internet is a screener. Generally, the people on it have higher incomes and better jobs." Some shy people find that the Net allows them to meet someone outside their immediate geographic area. For example, attorney Heather Williams and 911 dispatcher Gerald Harrington, both divorced, lived 200 miles away from each other. After meeting in a chat room in December 1995, they E-mailed for two weeks, then talked on the phone. A month later Harrington drove to meet Williams. "I am a shy person who does not interact with people I do not know," he says, but the opportunity to build a relationship online first smoothed the way. "I felt totally at ease after several minutes and knew this was someone I could feel comfortable with." Within a few months, Harrington packed up his belongings and moved to Hollidaysburg, Pa., to be with Williams. He proposed nine months later. They plan to marry in June.

Sound like a Valentine's Day fairy tale? In cyberspace, just as in face-to-face dating, things often don't work out so perfectly. Luckily, the Internet also has a Web site for divorce.

GRAPHIC: Picture, No caption (Photo illustration Kevin Horan for USN≀ Styling by Heather Brooks for USN&WR)

LANGUAGE: ENGLISH

LOAD-DATE: February 13, 1997



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