RSS
A common sense guide to online dating
Whether you're looking for a ring, a fling, or something in between, the internet is a good place to start
 
Yes, you can find love online, but you must take that relationship into the real world.
Yes, you can find love online, but you must take that relationship into the real world. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

Depending on whom you ask, anywhere from 17 to 35 percent of marriages entered into in the U.S. each year are formed between couples who met online. That's a lot of people getting hitched thanks to the internet.

Throw in those folks who use various sites to make more "casual connections" (thank you, Craigslist), and the figures get even more impressive: According to statisticbrain.com, roughly 41 million single Americans have tried online dating, with varying degrees of success.

Thinking about joining these ranks and seeking companionship through a screen? Maximize your chances of making a love connection by heeding these simple truths:

1. Be honest with yourself — and others
Before you log on, engage in some serious introspection. Are you a freewheeling extrovert who loves going out every night? Or are you a shy homebody who just wishes he were more energetic and outgoing? Is marriage your ultimate goal, or are you just interested in hooking up with someone for a short-term relationship, sexual or otherwise? It can be hard to admit to aspects of your own personality and motivations that you may not consider admirable, but if you can't be honest with yourself about who you are and what you want, how can you be honest with others?

Honesty is crucial in online dating, because your goal is to find a partner whose personality, interests, and goals align with yours, not those of some idealized self you've conjured up. News flash: If you lie about your age, your weight, your height, your income, your present or desired relationship status, your love of margaritas and long walks in the rain or anything else elemental to your true self, then you are ultimately wasting your time and that of any potential partners who are responding to false advertising.

Once you stop worrying about how others perceive you (or your intentions), you have a much better chance of connecting with someone compatible.

2. Narrow your options
Sure, online dating can widen the possibilities beyond the number of people who could cram into a bar on a Friday night. But joining a dating site can sometimes seem like you've opened the flood gates to every single available person in your area. That's overwhelming. Thankfully, some dating sites can also serve to narrow your focus.

Committed to the idea of committing to someone of the same faith? There are dating websites geared toward men and women who would prefer to meet others with similar backgrounds and beliefs. If you would rather kiss a pig than someone who eats meat, vegetarian- and vegan-only sites can save you the angst of meeting an attractive carnivore.

There are dating sites geared toward straight people and sites geared toward gay men and lesbians. There are sites exclusive to people hoping to get married and live happily ever after, and sites for married people whose "happily ever after" entails a little something on the side. Some sites break down potential contacts according to geographical area or even colleges or universities attended. How discerning you want to be —or how much money you want to spend to join an online dating service — is entirely up to you.

3. Be smart. Be safe.
Like pretty much anything posted on the web these days, your online dating profile is ultimately a public document. As you think about what to post, and where, consider that your employer, your colleagues, your parents, your children, and pretty much anyone else in the universe might see your profile and trace it back to you. (Many of the people interviewed for this article mentioned seeing co-workers' profiles on various dating sites. Most wisely chose not to pursue colleagues as potential dates.)

Be sure to ask yourself what present and future impacts your online profile and messages to other users might have on your relationships, personal and otherwise. There is no stigma attached to meeting someone online these days. What might get you in trouble is sending pictures of yourself in a thong doing shots to a man who is not your husband — not that there is anything inherently wrong with this, but if you one day decide to run for public office as a family-values conservative, you might have a lot of explaining to do. And don't expect an anonymous username to protect you, either. Just ask Carlos Danger.

It's not just your reputation you have to safeguard, either. While the vast majority of people out there in the online dating world (just as in the real world) are decent, well-intentioned men and women looking for some sort of companionship, a minute percentage of the people out there aren't so good. Don't anxiously obsess about your personal safety; just be smart. If you post a picture (and many people don't, preferring to exchange photos with other individuals only by mutual agreement), don't include any identifying features (such as a house number or obvious landmark) that might make it easy to find you should you decide you don't want to be found. Don't be too quick to share too many personal details (your children's names or where they attend school, for example) with someone you've only just met online.

There's also no harm in doing a little research on the side. Google the name and hometown and/or profession of anyone with whom you might be developing a mutual interest. If he claims to be single, but a quick search produces a very recent wedding announcement from his local newspaper, there's a very good chance you're being played.

Trust your instincts. If you get a weird vibe from someone you meet through a dating site, listen to your inner voice and decline a personal meeting with her. (Yes, guys, this all applies to you too.) When you do set up that personal meeting, make it in a busy, public place — ideally at a café or restaurant where you are known. Tell a friend where you're going and with whom. Again, you don't have to be paranoid. Just smart.

4. Get real!
The internet is a great place to meet people. It is not a good place to develop a "real" relationship. Every person interviewed for this article — and there were many, of all ages and inclinations — agreed on this point. Once you have established a rapport with someone you've met online, arrange to meet in the real world.

Why? Because chemistry — that elusive, difficult-to-define dynamic of attraction between individuals — is a critical part of any significant relationship. It goes far beyond looks, interests, and intellect. No matter how much texting or Skyping you do; no matter how much you chat on Facebook, you cannot know if you have chemistry with someone until you spend time with her. And if you don't, it's better to know that sooner rather than later. As one man told me, "It sucks to get emotionally invested online only to find you don't 'click.'"

5. Be nice
Sometimes — lots of times — you won't click. In fact, if you approach online dating the right way and explore introductions with lots of potential partners, you are going to encounter plenty of people for whom you feel no attraction and might even feel some revulsion. That is just the way it goes. In the real world, when we meet someone we don't like or admire, we usually just walk away and leave it at that. Why complicate things by being a jerk?

Unfortunately, there is something about the anonymity of the online experience that throws the old golden rule right under the bus. People will say or do things on social media they would never do in real life. I know there are complex sociological explanations for the reasons so many of us think it's ok to be mean from behind a screen, but reasons are not excuses. Every single profile, every snapshot, every username you see represents a real human being. If you find someone unattractive or off-putting — and this will happen, online as in real life — just figuratively walk away. Don't engage in negative behavior. You want to attract someone good, don't you? Then be good. And good luck.

 
Leslie Turnbull
Leslie Turnbull is a Harvard-educated anthropologist with over 20 years' experience as a development officer and consultant. She cares for three children, two dogs, and one husband. When not sticking her nose into other peoples' business, she enjoys surfing, cooking, and writing (often bad) poetry.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week