by Key Sun, Ph.D.
Some people believe that recent research on online dating/matching sheds a new light on understanding attraction, love, and romantic relationships. I argue that, however, although the internet has helped few find romantic relationships and marriages, the research has overlooked various defects and problems associated with this type of "contact." I will examine a couple of them.
The research findings can be summarized as followings:
1. Online daters tend to fill in the information gaps with positive qualities in a potential partner; on the other hand, everyone wants to make the self appear as attractive as possible to potential dates by exaggerating the self desirable traits.
2. There are gender differences in both preference and messaging behavior on online dating sites. Women weigh income more than physical characteristics, and men sought physical attractiveness and offered status-related information more than women.
3. The service users preferred similarity on a variety of (mainly demographic) categories (including child preferences, education, and physical features like height, age, race, religion, political views, and smoking).
It is accurate to say that the research findings showed some behavior and attitudes of the online daters who joined the internet community with different motivations, expectations and backgrounds, but it is inaccurate to assume the behavior and attitudes reflect real interpersonal attractions. This is because the online dating/matching (as provided by the commercial websites) lacks the basic ingredients for developing real love. The most evident problem involves its use of several categories (plus a few photos) for the daters to predict and decide the effectiveness and success of their further interactions with one another. This type of artificial "contact" contradicts the process of meaningful interpersonal interactions (to be explained), which generates love and attraction.
To explain the problem, I need to first elucidate the ingredients for love and the meaningful interactions.
The basic ingredients for love
As demonstrated by studies on interpersonal attraction, creating and maintaining love involves validating communications between the partners on a variety of issues, including understanding and concern for the partner's personal and emotional needs, developing companionship, physical attractiveness, cultivating and nurturing physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well beings, respecting, supporting, forgiving, accepting and encouraging, expressions of appreciation and affection: sexual pleasure and fidelity, commitment, shared activities, as well as the absence of controlling, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling, and blaming, among other factors.
To accomplish the above tasks, the partners need to engage in the meaningful interactions (face-to-face interactions, including both verbal and nonverbal communications), which allow one person to give to and receive from the other. (Although online daters may be able to exchange messages after they pass each other's initial screening on the basis of evaluating the category-based information, the process is the opposite of the interaction-based attraction). The meaningful interactions depend on two factors: (1) the right opportunities (the right time, place, persons, and further communications) and, (2) the right mind (absence of biases about the self and others).
The right opportunities are significant. Although psychological research on attraction has identified several variables, such as disclosure reciprocity (revealing intimate aspects of oneself to others), mutual eye gazing, mutual reward, similarity and physical attractiveness, these variables are worthless unless people who possess the attributes and tendencies have the opportunities to implement them to the targets of attraction.
On the other hand, the right mind is more important factor. Why have some individuals who have encountered good opportunities of meeting their ideal mates lost the chances to develop the desired relationships? The answer is that mostly they have the dysfunctional mind, with the emotional baggage of fear, anxiety or other mental conflicts and past hurts in interpersonal situations. They fear experiencing invalidation from the target of attraction because they use superficial categories to define the self and others as well as to predict the effectiveness of their possible relationships, ignoring the affection messages from the real people who are attracted them. All categories are just the maps or substitutes of social reality, not the reality itself. When people use categories to predict an interaction (but not pay attention to the other's real communications, they will produce two outcomes:
a) avoiding love from right individuals, and,
b) approaching the wrong person(s).
This kind of distorted cognitions can only be rectified through the regular and meaningful interactions, which help individuals find out that they are worthy others' love and appreciation.
The problems with online dating
It is clear that online dating has at least two problems. First, it is an opposite of face-to -face interaction. Second, it does not help heal the emotional pains of some online daters. Online dating is a category-based, rather than an interaction-based process. In the category-based process, one uses some concepts to predict both possibilities of acceptance and rejection by the others. It is an artificial type because both rejection and acceptance by the daters are not about the rejection and acceptance of real persons, but of the imagined or perceived attributes of their categories.
People never fall in love with categories (even eHarmony's use of personality traits as the basis of matching does not represent real diverse human experiences and characteristics), because only real interpersonal process can create the feeling of love. Love is created and maintained by the process of meaningful communications (including validating accurate perceptions and invalidating inaccurate perceptions of interpersonal reality). Online dating cannot do so. Additionally, love is highly individualistically based. One loves another person because the Mr. Right or Ms. Right is unique individual in one's eyes.
I make a distinction between online communications and online dating/matching. New computer technology has greatly expanded people's potential and freedom to communicate with one another, some of which may generate love and romantic relationships, but online dating/matching, at least in its current format, has restricted the freedom.