In light of the Manti Teʻo scandal(?), I felt like I should weigh in but I wasn’t quite sure what to contribute. I have no idea whether the guy was lying about whether his online relationship with Kekua was a hoax or not, and the ultimate truth or fiction determination isn’t what interests me most in this story. I’m no sports expert, and I know even less about college football than about the NFL. But what I *do* know about us online relationships. Even though Teʻo and Kekua allegedly communicated via Facebook and later phone, I think we’ve still got some salient points to explore here, so let’s dig in.
Imaginary girlfriends serve their purpose. Once upon a time, an fake (or even super long distance) significant other would be the height of patheticness (pathetitude?) on the playground or in the office. But if you think about it, even before the Internet, we had pen pals. We had the “girlfriend back at summer camp” trope. There’s something safe and special and intimate about a confidante one only communicates with in writing, or during separation, or in wishful thinking. It allows you to get through the painful awkwardness of still being single (and possibly a bit scared, or just not ready) when other people are taking the dating plunge around you.
Dating in real life can be scary, messy, and demanding. And realistically, while we might think of a college-age dude as being all grown up and ready for some action, many young adults don’t even begin to explore grown-up adult relationships until they leave the nest and fly away to university, where they escape parental supervision, and perhaps their more conservative community at large, and they attend parties with the opposite sex for a couple years until they feel comfortable enough in that setting to actually start dating. And in the face of that messiness and fear, TONS of women (and an increasing number of men) seek emotional connection, flattery, and straight-up practice at romantic interactions via online dating sites. That’s a big part of why it can be so maddening to move from flirty back-and-forth to actual dates in an online dating medium; plenty of Match.com members are in it more for the ego boost than the actual date, whether they’re aware of it or not. Regardless of the online medium used, sometimes we just use it to get the boost of some kind of romantic connection without all the strings attached to in-person romances.
Put yourself in Manti’s cleats for a sec. He’s a college kid balancing a major role on a high-profile team, demanding academics, friendships, and perhaps logistics like having to pack his own lunches and do his own laundry for the first time. Perhaps retreating into the glow of an online, sight-unseen relationship was easier to manage, emotionally and logistically, than getting entangled in a full-on relationship with someone he’d have to see around campus, for example. And how would his fans be reacting if he’d gotten a one-night stand pregnant at some boozy Notre Dame party, or gotten an STD whose results were leaked to the public, or passed that STD on to a media-hungry sorority girl? Perhaps there’s a certain safety and prudence in keeping it online when you’re in his position. (Which is linebacker. I looked it up.)
Bubbles are easily burst in person. Many online daters subconsciously string out their pre-in-person communication because they’re not looking forward to the inevitable disappointment of discovering that their Internet paramour was deceiving them, and actually has forty extra pounds or ten extra years or laughs like a baboon or simply shares no chemistry or conversational fodder with them in person. Disappointment sucks. Sometimes people let things go on when they know they probably shouldn’t, because the possibility of love is more tantalizing and exciting than the letdown of that attraction screeching to a halt when reality sets in. Manti would not be alone in this behavior.
So, what does this mean for YOU? How can you avoid being “duped” à la Teʻo during your own forays into online dating? (I know you’re not a Notre Dame linebacker, but perhaps I can still help.)
Maintain a healthy dose of skepticism, and don’t engage with creeps. If someone sounds or looks too good to be true, pay attention to that flag. Exchange photos and relevant details about your lives, while remaining prudent and safe since you have not yet met this person. Don’t use your real name (first or last, but especially not both) in your profile or username or the email address you exchange at first. Drop off communication if someone rubs you the wrong way or seems fishy. If things really get bad, and you feel stalked or harassed, report the user and consider wiping the slate clean with a new account. You shouldn’t feel so attached to your dating profile that you couldn’t just delete it and start over fresh if you needed to. After all, if any of those winks in your inbox were REALLY into you, they’d either follow you to your new identity when you communicated the shift, or you’d already have exchanged contact info with them. Nothing dissatisfies a scammer more effectively than your refusing to engage or participate.
Practice basic safety. Don’t give out your address before you’ve met! Meet in a public place! Don’t loan people money! Don’t use your work email! Don’t go on dates at weird times in weird back-alley clubs! Don’t fail to tell someone what you’re doing and where you’re going! Don’t leave your cell phone at home, don’t drink too much or take weird drugs, keep tabs on your drink, don’t get pressured into hopping in a car or staying over or being dropped off or taking things too far for your comfort or ANYTHING you don’t want to do. Even if you never ever hire me, or anyone like me, read through my online dating safety tips or Google up some other basic online dating safety tips, and actually follow them. The Internet is still a relatively new way to connect, so it requires some new protocols, unglamorous as they may seem. We consultants are just bursting with free safety advice because even if we don’t get the honor of having you as a paying client, we want you to know how to stay safe.
And above all else:
INSIST ON MEETING IN PERSON. This one is so easy, guys! Sure, it’s possible your potential date would send a double, but now we’re in “rejected Alias plot lines” territory, so let’s focus on realistic outcomes. If someone keeps saying they want to meet up and then always cancels or reschedules, you’re done. (Twice is bad news; three times is too much.) If someone stands you up, you can gauge their reaction and choose to drop contact with them. If it seems like someone is dodging you or just playing games, well, they probably are. You are the agent of your an dating destiny, and you’ll never truly know if you have a possible connection for a real in-person relationship with someone until you meet them in person and get a feel for that chemistry. Despite everything I said above defending why Manti might have been A-OK with an online-only thing, the reality is that most online daters want to meet up in person eventually. If you make it clear that’s what you want, but someone is making that difficult, it shouldn’t sit well with you. Stand up for yourself! If you refuse to engage with fishy or just plain wishy-washy daters, you’ll eventually only make connections with people who treat you well, respect your time, and value your honesty just like you value yours. Yes, it can take a LONG time to find those people, but it’s usually worth it in the end. And you get much better at making connections with people you might actually be compatible the more you practice.
Happy dating! ♥