Can the Internet Cure Loneliness?

In spite of the media’s relentless holiday jingling and jangling, we all know that there are still people out there who are single and maybe even live alone. Not every unattached person longs for companionship, of course, but there are probably some who would prefer not to spend winter nights alone. The computer age has brought major changes to the dating ‘scene,’ and one of the things that many people ask me about is Internet dating. One reader emailed that she’s afraid of searching for a potential mate on line because of the possibility of encountering somebody undesirable (or worse, like a serial killer). She also told me that she didn’t want to appear ‘desperate.’

Obviously, the vast majority of people engaged in Internet dating are not serial killers. I also don’t see any basis for her assumption that those who engage in Internet dating are desperate. Millions of people log on to dating web sites every day, with, I’m sure, very mixed results. But making the effort doesn’t imply that you’re desperate. Desperate means that you’ll agree to meet with anyone, anytime, any place. I’m sure that there are people like this who engage 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 know soon enough if they’re desperate and low on self-esteem.

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’re 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 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 is loneliness. From my experience, loneliness falls into two categories. The first is the idea 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.’ The other is the feeling that loneliness is inevitable and permanent. More than anything else, it comes down to a sense of abandonment. Mental health researchers speculate that abandonment is a universal human fear. Everyone wants to be loved, and the threat of not feeling loved is a powerful motivator to do things that might (or might not) be emotionally prudent. Some tell me that they 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.

The problem is that many people have not thoroughly examined their abandonment issues. Though it is fairly universal, abandonment can be quite painful — but it’s absolutely survivable. You can’t just wish away the hurt feelings, especially if you have issues complicated by unpleasant experiences in the past. But you can confront your fears and doubts, sometimes with professional help, and learn that they need not rule your life.

That being said, when it comes 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 should 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 caution and common sense.

So, if you’re single and you’re planning to embark on the adventure of meeting somebody new, especially in and around the nooks and crannies of cyberspace, first take a little time to get to know yourself better.