Online dating can be a minefield of deception. There's the woman with the profile photo from 1992. There's the Don Juan who says he's single, but isn't. And now, there's the lover who seems interested only in an ‘elationship.’
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/10/2010 7:45:57 PM ET 2010-02-11T00:45:57

When it comes to online dating, we’ve come to expect deception, the posting of decades-old pictures and blatant lies about marital status, height, hair (or lack thereof). We’ve learned to deal with people who dematerialize after a few days or weeks of steady contact. “It’s the online equivalent of ‘going out for cigarettes,’ ” says one seasoned single.

Now, there’s a new online annoyance — the person who doesn’t want to meet but is all too happy to e-mail, text, tweet, IM, or scrawl on your Facebook wall indefinitely. They don’t want a real relationship as much as its virtual doppelganger.

Welcome to the world of the “elationship.”

“I’ve been involved in five or six of these,” says Rich Giorgi, a 48-year-old tech writer from Carrboro, N.C., who in recent months found a “peach” of a girlfriend and left the online scene. “One woman was always popping up on chat programs — ‘What are you doing? Where you have been?’ This went on for a month and then I proposed we meet. But she was always busy. So I called her on it and? she said, ‘I’m getting what I need out of this. There’s no need to go any further.’ So I cut it off. I didn’t have the time to waste.”

Harem scarem
Why would someone spend all that time communicating with a person they never planned to meet? Giorgi says he thinks some singles just like to collect “cyber-harems.”

“I have a friend who’s on a dating site and I can see that a lot of the people from the site have started following her on Facebook,” he says. “She has 12 to 15 guys all commenting on her posts and looking to get with her but she’s only interested in the attention. She’s told me plainly that she’s not interested in meeting anybody, she just wants to feel like people want her every now and then.”

Jennifer Worick, author of “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Dating & Sex,” says people do have different agendas when it comes to dating.

“For me, the end goal is to be in a loving relationship with someone,” she says. “But for others, the end goal might be that they’re passing time, preventing boredom or just collecting men and women.”

Deception — people pretending to be something they’re not (whether it’s single or a certain gender) — can be another reason relationships stay in the virtual realm, says Patricia Wallace, psychologist and senior director of information technology at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth in Maryland. 

Another big factor: fear.

“There’s the fear of failure, the fear of rejection, the fear of making a fool of yourself,” she says. “An online relationship is perceived as being lower risk as compared to meeting in person. When you pick up the phone or meet in person, you have a lot less control over your message and your impression as compared to a Facebook wall post or an IM where you can rewrite and think about what you want to say.”

Having more control means having the ability to create a better version of you, she says, which can then be marketed to a better version of someone else.

“A woman might feel really smart and attractive when she’s online because she comes up with a lot of witty things to say, she controls the pictures that she sends and she meets a man who does the exact same thing,” says Wallace, author of “The Psychology of the Internet.” “They can have a magical interaction — a meeting of the minds, sort of — whereas meeting in person would just spoil it. He stutters; she burps.”

Long-term elationships
Incredibly, some virtual relationships last as long as the real thing.

In 2007, Elaine LaPersonerie, a 33-year-old PR maven from Manhattan, answered a Craigslist ad that kicked off an intense year-long elationship.

“At first, he made all kinds of excuses for not meeting,” she says. “The first date it was the stomach flu and then it was everything from a missed flight to a last-minute meeting to his uncle dying to getting lost to falling asleep.”

LaPersonerie says she knew something was hinky within three weeks, but became intrigued — both with the guy (there was a definite click when they talked on the phone) and with his elusive nature.

“We only corresponded via phone or IM or whatever, but he really knew who I was,” she says. “He got under my skin even though I knew something was wrong. I wanted to figure it out.”

World-class liar
What she eventually figured out was that her online admirer was a world-class liar. Although he told her he lived in New York City and would often reference weather or traffic problems as excuses why he couldn’t connect (“He’d call and say, ‘It’s raining so bad, I can’t get a taxi, things that were relevant to where I was”), he actually lived in London. LaPersonerie also discovered that an “ex-fiance” he frequently mentioned was actually another online girlfriend who, just like her, had never laid eyes on the guy.

After 12 months of e-mails, excuses, lies and late-night phone calls (all on his dime), she finally pulled the plug.

“I confronted him and he admitted he’d lied,” she says. “He said he’d put his ad up on Craigslist as kind of a spoof — he wanted to see what it was about — and never thought anything would come of it. Then he started developing real feelings for me but had spun the web of lies so big, he couldn’t get out of it. But who knows what was going on.”

LaPersonerie says she still hasn’t decided if the guy is a pathological liar or “a regular person that had a bet with a friend,” but there’s no doubt she’s come to appreciate the power of a virtual relationship.

“I’m an attractive, successful woman from a good family with great values and amazing friends,” she says. “I definitely fit into a demographic of someone you would never think could fall victim to this. But I did. And it was easy. With online dating and e-mails and texting, you can take things to a point where you still feel like you are ‘dating’ and getting attention without having to deal with all the rest. In some cases, that fantasy relationship can exist for a long time.”

The power of a pen pal
Even Worick admits she’s had online encounters that have played out like mini-relationships: a bit of flirtation, followed by some miscommunication, followed by a spat, followed by a split.

“With one guy I ‘met’ on Match.com, it was like we were playing out the whole beginning, middle and end of a relationship via text when we’d never even talked on the phone,” she says. “First he e-mails, then he begins texting all day. Then he’s guilting me out for not being available when he calls. Then I don’t hear from him for a week. Then he’s back and wants to know if there’s anything new in my personal life. Then he starts playing the hurt puppy and sending passive-aggressive texts. I finally texted him and said, ‘I think we’re having a miscommunication.’ ”

According to psychologist Patricia Wallace, elationships can be troublesome because of the opportunity for deception and the false sense of intimacy (“You don’t have those salient cues that would tell you to put on the brakes so you’re more intimate than you should be.”)

But that doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

“I think for some people, that kind of relationship could be quite fulfilling in itself,” she says. “We’ve always had pen pals. In the old days, they could be very meaningful.”

The key is that both parties need to be on the same page.

“Some people are looking for a spouse, some people are just looking for novelty,” she says. “They never want to meet, or at least one of them doesn’t want to meet. There’s the rub. But it’s not unheard of in the face-to-face world that one party has a longer-time commitment in mind than the other.”

What can singles do to separate the relationship wheat from the casually-minded chaff? Worick points to boundaries.

“It’s good to set up guidelines,” she says. “I think people should cut to the chase and get together as soon as possible. I also think they should communicate their preferences. Say, ‘Look, I would prefer not to text during the day but I’m happy to talk on the phone or get together.’ ”

Finally, she suggests singles take a long look at their own dating agenda, which can shift over time.

“You have to assess what you want out of it, too,” she says, “There have been times in my life where I’m really busy or not feeling particularly good about myself and texting and IMing is a temporary Band-Aid. It’s not a long-lasting solution, but it can give you a little sparkle temporarily.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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