published Friday, May 10th, 2013

Social media adds new dimensions to finding love online

  • photo
    Jeremy and Anna Belk, who met online, are the parents of 4-month-old Giovanni. The Belks will celebrate their third anniversary in August.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

READERS RESPOND

The Times Free Press went to Facebook and asked: Is social media changing relationships for the better or the worse?

"Facebook was a positive factor for me. I joined Facebook in 2008 and became 'friends' with a former high school classmate that lived in another city two hours away. Long story short, we ended up getting married and now have two beautiful daughters."

-- Jamie Harris Tidwell

"For anyone long distance, whether deployed, employed or educated ... Facebook provides another medium to connect. Which is everything. For dating, social media provides a great low-pressure platform to connect. Dysfunctional people will be dysfunctional. As with most technology, it is all in how it is used."

-- Jeremy Dahl

"For the 30-and-younger crowd it helps because that's what our generation knows best -- technology. Plus, let's face it, I'm 24, I don't have time to talk to the phone or always have time to meet face to face with people."

-- Brittany Williams

"Sometimes it's difficult because you just don't know who to trust anymore. I do text instead of calling because, for me, I am shy."

-- Denise Anderson Edwards

"The Internet kills relationships. People are too scared to actually go out and meet someone."

-- Jake Davenport

"People look to Facebook to try and get to know someone before they even go out with them. I say it's a relationship killer for sure; you can't get to know a person from what a webpage says. ... I guess if you aren't willing to actually communicate with someone, then you probably aren't grown up enough for an adult relationship anyway."

-- Jana Hirth

"I am a texter all the way. I have been working on calling girls more lately. It's more personal. ... I work in a big date restaurant in the downtown area and I see too many couples who are both on their phones. I actually talk more to them than they talk to each other. It's kind of sad."

-- Lanse McLain

"My husband and I were introduced on Facebook and talked online and texted each other for a month before we met in person. It was a good way to learn about him and who he is before meeting."

-- Melissa Smith

MARTHA MATCHING

Martha Stewart is looking for love. And, like a lot of other folks these days, the 71-year-old is going the digital route -- online.

"Go, Martha," says local couples therapist Carol Burns. "I think Martha Stewart's being on Match (match.com) is a terrific statement about the challenges of finding a partner later in life but also a reminder that we really are wired for connection and love."

On the "Today" show Thursday, Stewart, along with "Today" host Matt Lauer, met face-to-face for the first time with two men she had connected with on match.com. When the men were introduced on the set, Stewart seemed awkward and nervous.

After going out to coffee individually with each candidate, Stewart will announce on the "Today" show which man she has selected to go with on a first date.

Though the ages of the men were not told on Thursday's show, Stewart did specify on her match.com profile that she was seeking men ages 55 to 70.

Anna Belk, who moved to Chattanooga from England in 2008, had mediocre results with online dating.

Until she met her husband online, that is.

"I used online dating sites in England with limited success," says Belk, a local assistant public defender. "I had met some nice men and got lots of free dinners but hadn't found it led to any relationship. I was extremely wary of trying it again."

Thanks to the encouragement of a friend, Belk gave it another shot. This time, she hit pay dirt on plentyoffish.com, a free site.

"I sat down with my friend and her husband and began the excruciating task of trying to 'sell' myself on an online profile," she says. "How do you come across as genuine, not make things up and not give away too much information for safety reasons? It is a hard balance."

But online dating isn't limited to going Match.com or eHarmony.com. The tsunami of social media usage has changed the rules, too, adding a whole new set of mazes to navigate and questions to ponder. That's especially true for younger folks who use Facebook, Twitter and text messages the same way their parents used the telephone.

Even AARP has tips: "The first rule of digital dating is that there are no rules."

"I know happy couples who have met online and feel so grateful," says local couples therapist Carol Burns. "They are married to people they never would have met without online platforms."

But there are problems, especially with the way technology can distance people from each other. Phone conversations are pretty much a thing of the past for young adults; it's mostly texting, even email is slow and old-fashioned.

The most noted incident of Internet-dating-gone-horridly-wrong came earlier this year when Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o's girlfriend turned out to be an online-only fake and became headline news.

"He connected with a fantasy that seemed real," Burns says. "I can imagine that the busy life of a college football player or the busy life of any of us with jobs and families makes it easier to fool ourselves into believing that a love that seems to be too good to be true is real."

Belk says after she and her husband's initial introduction online, they text-messaged back and forth for a week before having a face-to-face meeting.

"I am a firm believer you have to meet a person to see if you click," she says.

Whole new world

Yet finding and keeping a partner using the Internet and social media is still a relatively new experience, Burns says, and emotional issues are popping up.

"While we may be great at updating our software or mastering computer games, dating via the Internet is such a new experience in our culture that we just don't quite have the tools to handle it," Burns says. "This isn't the way people have found mates throughout history, so it's going to have some confusion attached as we learn what works and what doesn't."

Even people who live together may find technology getting between them, Burns says.

"So many people are connecting with their screens and not their partners first thing in the morning and at the last moment before bed," she says. "Some of my clients deeply dislike texts from a partner and feel discounted by not getting to hear a voice and have a real dialogue.

"The key is to know your partner and what works for him or her and to make sure that couple time really is sacred technology-free time," Burns says.

Still, technology is inescapable and daters are desperate for advice on how to use it -- or avoid misusing it.

The recent book "Not Your Mother's Rules: The New Secrets for Dating" gives advice on just how long women should wait before responding to an interested man's text message. It tells them whether they should initiate Facebook friendships or wait for men to make contact.

About 1 in 5 adults uses Facebook for flirting, according to a 2008 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And a hot topic of conversation these days centers on exactly when you should announce on Facebook that you're in a relationship. When you update your status from "Single" to "In a relationship," you've become "Facebook official."

Mark Tremayne, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies social media, said texting and social media have become so woven into young people's lives that they can carry out their entire relationships online, sending instant messages and posting photographs on Facebook.

Changes in attitude

A huge change in dating in our culture has been the loss of family input into the choice of a mate, Burns explains.

"When towns were smaller and access to the rest of the world much more limited, families had much more information about each other," she says. "There was a built-in way to get background information. Not having access to and familiarity with a potential mate's family culture has been a huge loss to the decision-making process."

Initial online conversations are important, Burns says. Daters should use conversations over the Internet to get to know each other's views on the issues that are most meaningful to them, Burns says.

And "Googling" potential partners is a good idea, she says. "Find out as much as you can about the person with whom you might be paying bills and sharing kisses and children."

But the Internet can be a real danger for some.

"There is real danger for couples who are going through a difficult phase and have one partner reach out for companionship or attention from another partner on the Internet," Burns explains. "The brain easily and quickly can become attached to the novelty and the fantasy of the Internet partner, and the attention needed to repair the couplehood is diverted."

For Belk, finding a spouse was a goal, "but online dating gave us the introductions we weren't getting in our daily lives," she says.

The couple, now the parents of a baby boy, will celebrate their third wedding anniversary in August.

Julie Leventhal, a lecturer at the University of North Texas who teaches a course on courtship and marriage, says there might be some longing for days-gone-by when things seemed simpler, more innocent and less computer-controlled. But dating in the digital age presents plenty of opportunities, she adds.

"There is something to be said for being rejected over text," Leventhal said. "You can be more daring and take a chance."

Laurel Sapp and her husband connected online at ChristianCafe.com. Though they had met five years earlier, it was the online introduction that placed them together, Sapp says.

They met for coffee and talked for hours. Two weeks later, they had their first official date.

"We dated for two years and have now been married for eight years. God told him the day we briefly met, that he would meet his wife that day, but it would not be time yet. Five years later, God used technology to bring us together."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/karennazorhill. Subscribe to her posts on Facebook at www.facebook.com/karennazorhill.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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