Can Internet dating be successful (and safe)?

A Wave reader from Selbyville writes:   

I’m afraid of Internet dating because of the possibility of encountering somebody undesirable (or worse, like a serial killer). It’s so easy to lie on the Internet, and you just don’t know what you’re getting. At least when you meet someone in person, you gain the whole experience and it’s easier for a relationship to take off. How can a single person cope with loneliness, especially in a rural area such as ours, without looking desperate by relying on the Internet?’

Dear Reader,

 The vast majority of people engaged in Internet dating are not serial killers. Also, I don’t see any basis for the ‘conventional wisdom’ that those who engage in Internet dating are desperate. Millions of people log on to dating web sites every day—with, I am sure, very mixed results. But making this effort in no way implies that you are desperate. Desperate means that you’ll agree to meet with anyone, anytime, any place. I’m sure that there are people like this engaging in Internet dating, but it’s not all that different from the traditional ‘bar scene,’ a blind date or a chance meeting at the grocery store. As you get to know a person better (no matter where or how you meet), you’ll know soon enough if they are desperate and lack self-esteem.

The unspoken (and incorrect) premise behind the blanket dismissal of Internet dating is that people will always handle it irrationally. Internet dating, like any other activity, can be managed with care and common sense. You chat online, then you move to the telephone, and then you have your first get-together in a public, unpressured setting like a restaurant. As with anything else, common sense and good judgment are the keys. If people engage in Internet dating with little or no idea of what they want, they are setting themselves up for trouble—probably not a serial killer, but trouble in the form of disappointment. But again, this is just as true with any other system for meeting people.

Internet dating has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is convenience. You can click your way through hundreds of potential partners, all in the comfort of your bunny slippers. The main disadvantage is the random aspect (after all, cyberspace is a vast, open area where anybody can go). Traditionally, you would meet people in a context where you share one important value or interest in common, and then take it from there. But, especially in a rural area, there aren’t many opportunities to do that, so it makes sense to widen your net (no pun intended) and explore every possibility—rationally and with good sense.

The deeper issue here, as your question points out, is loneliness. From my experience, loneliness falls into two major categories. The first is the view that the loneliness is short-term and can be dealt with. ‘I’m lonely and I don’t like it, but it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m going to do something about it.’ Another is a feeling that loneliness is inevitable and permanent. More than anything else, it comes down to a sense of abandonment. Psychologists speculate that abandonment is a universal human fear. Everyone wants to be loved, and the threat or reality of not feeling loved is a powerful motivator to do things that might or might not be emotionally prudent. Spouses will secretly check their loved one’s email or voice mail—for no particular reason other than an intense worry over being abandoned. People will stay in relationships that they know are unhealthy or even destructive, just to avoid the pain of abandonment.

A lot of the problem here is that people have not thoroughly examined their abandonment issues—issues that are fairly normal and universal. Abandonment is not desirable, and can be quite painful, but it’s absolutely survivable. You can’t just snap your fingers and feel this way, especially if you have issues complicated by unpleasant experiences with close ones in childhood or adulthood. But you can confront your fears, sometimes with professional help, and learn to see that they need not rule your life.

That being said, let’s click back to Internet dating. I see no reason whatsoever to rule out any form of meeting people. Close, healthy and happy relationships are part of what make life worth living, and the possibility for such a relationship is open to everyone, regardless of prior experiences. A person can confront his or her fears about abandonment and loneliness by first acknowledging that they have such fears, then trusting themselves to pursue Internet dating—or the ‘bar scene,’ blind dates, chance encounters at the mall, or any other form of meeting people—with awareness and common sense.

So, before you set out on the adventure of meeting somebody new, especially in and around the nooks and crannies of cyberspace, get to know yourself a little bit better first.