“On a first date with a guy I met in real life, we swapped Tinder stories. … He told me that he had been matching with a girl who he knew was still in school and lived with her parents. He asked her before picking her up how long she intended to live at home and her response was Well, Im 14, so …To make matters worse, he continued, saying, Can you imagine if I had had sex with her? I would be a sex offender! Can you imagine?! No, guy I just met, I dont want to imagine you having sex with a 14yearold. Why is that even a thing that might have happened?! He thought [our] date went really well and wanted to go out again. I thought differently.”
When it comes to his romantic resume, Ben Wallace figures nothing will out-weird the time a woman he met online asked him to be her impromptu plus-one to a funeral service for her grandmother.
It was their first date.
"She said, 'I don't know how to ask this, but I don't have anyone to go with me to the funeral. Would you go with me even though I've never met you?'" recalls Wallace, 35, who is now married — but not to his bereaved companion.
"She basically said, 'Just pretend you're my boyfriend and that we've been dating for a while,'" he adds, laughing. "That's all I had to go off of. There was no back story. It was definitely my most interesting, strange, 'Oh my god, what did I do here?' dates."
Even though it's gained mainstream acceptance, fueled a $2 billion industry and helped kickstart more than one-third of American marriages, online dating can be a bizarre, surreal, occasionally downright horrific way to seek a romantic partner.
Several Chattanoogans who have gone online in search of their one-and-only have ended up with a string of one-and-dones. Their dating nightmares are rife with awkward conversations, odd sexual advances and even some near-misses with unintended adultery or illegal underage trysts.
In the year that she's been trying out online dating, Tracie Bierman, 44, says an outing in February stands out as a perfect storm of romantic faux pas. When she met her date at Buffalo Wild Wings, she discovered he'd invited along a friend, who also was single and keen to change that status.
"After the date, the friend started sending me Facebook messages telling me how hard it was to not imagine me without clothes on while we were across the table from each other and how long it would be until his divorce was final," Bierman says. "But maybe even worse than that, the guy I went out to meet talked negatively about his ex the whole time we were there. That made me miserable."
That date was Bierman's last with the ex-basher but, like many who have been burned by online dating, she continued to try her luck on various services such as Tinder, Plenty of Fish and OK Cupid. Recently, she says, she's been feeling "anti-dating site," but she still sees the value in online dating for others.
"I've had some terrible experiences," she says. "However, I still believe there's someone out there for everyone, and I wouldn't discourage anyone from giving [it] a shot."
According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, one in six Americans have used an online dating site or app, and use of online dating has risen in nearly every age category between 2013 and 2015, including a 400 percent increase among 18- to 24-year-olds. A second study by Pew released in February found that 66 percent of those with dating profiles actually go on at least one date with someone they met online, up from 43 percent in 2005.
But most would-be romances, whether online or off, rarely make it past this first date, says Julie Spira, a California-based romantic consultant who bills herself as "America's Top Online Dating Expert and Digital Matchmaker."
"One-and-done dating is across the board," Spira says.
Many online pairings end because one or both parties feel duped by the disparity between an online profile and the offline reality, Spira says.
"One reason [for a relationship not to work out] is that the person is unrecognizable. They've posted old photos; they don't look like the photos, whether it's height or weight or whatever," she says. "If it gets to the point where someone isn't telling the truth about what they do for a living or hiding the fact that they have children or saying they're divorced when actually they just filed or are legally separated, it can be a turn-off."
Despite these pitfalls, 80 percent of Americans who have tried online dating describe it as "a good way to meet people," according to Pew's 2015 study. About 60 percent of those surveyed in the study who have tried online dating say it's easier, more efficient and helps them find better matches than offline alternatives.
But online dating misses more often than hits, according to Lonnie Henderson, a 32-year-old corrections officer who dated "around 10" women he met through social media or dating sites before mutual friends introduced him to his girlfriend Amber.
"Online dating now is becoming a mess, to be completely honest," he says. "There is always the possibility of meeting someone who will click with you, but the chance has gone over the past 10 years from one in five to more like one in 100."
Part of the problem, Henderson says, is that women have become increasingly gun shy after bad experiences with previous online matches.
"Hook-up culture has all but ruined the online dating scene," he says. "Every woman you meet online now has horror stories, and it makes those women less likely to trust you, making things more difficult in the long run. Online dating may be worth looking into, but it's more or less a situation where you need to go into it expecting the worst but hoping for the best."
Henderson says he's certainly experienced the worst. During a date on Super Bowl night in 2008, he went out to dinner with a woman he met online who lived in Rome, Ga. Afterwards, she invited him back to her place, where her mother soon interrupted them and angrily confronted him. He believes she was drunk at the time.
"I was afraid to make any kind of move for fear of this woman, being heavily intoxicated, perhaps pulling a gun or a knife before I could get out of sight in my car," he recalls. "Finally, after a good half-hour, the daughter talked this woman down and we left.
"Over the next couple of weeks, the daughter actually had several of her friends message me, telling me how much [she] supposedly cared for me after just a few hours of hanging out. I'm so glad, in hindsight, that I dodged that bullet."
Although online dating can be a treacherous, hilariously awful experience for some, there are some users for whom its ease and massive pool of potential matches becomes almost addictive, even if they experience it as an unending stream of one-off dates.
Spira describes these users as being afflicted with ODAD (Online Dating Anxiety Disorder) and suggests they're handicapping their search for romance by holding fast to a "grass is greener" mentality.
"They don't want to take down their dating profiles because they think when they get home, they'll get five more emails from someone who might be a little bit better than the person they just met," she says. "There's nothing worse than going on a really great date with someone and finding out that the second they got home they logged on to book dates with other people.
"If you live in that world, you won't find love. Or you will find someone and they won't tolerate it and they will dump you."
Meg Greene went on "at least a dozen" first dates in the year and a half she spent on Plenty of Fish and Match.com before meeting her current flame in March at a concert in Chattanooga.
Many of Greene's online dating experiences weren't pleasant ones. She went out with men who lied about their age on their profile or who were patently unable to hold a conversation. One was married. Another psychoanalyzed "everything he thought was wrong with my life."
"No second date there," she says.
Now that she's seeing someone, Greene has retired from the online dating fray but, despite her bad experiences, she understands how people can look past the horror stories to try their luck fishing in a dating pool packed with millions of potential matches.
"Would I do it again? No. But in a time when we live so much of our lives online anyway, I don't see any reason why people shouldn't expand the pool of possible matches," she says.
"Maybe you'll find the one. Maybe you'll make a new friend. Or maybe you'll just get a crazy story to tell in the nursing home someday."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Online dating survival guide
Nationally renowned online dating expert Julie Spira offers the following tips to would-be online daters for how to deal with bad dates and ensure the right one doesn’t slip through your fingers.
* Be honest in your profile. Many online match-ups end after the first date because one or both parties feel duped by discrepancies between a user’s profile and what they’re like in real life.
* Don’t lie about your age, even if you’re worried it means you won’t show up in the right search results. Caption your photos with dates so potential matches aren’t surprised if a picture from eight years ago doesn’t reflect your current appearance.
* Even if a date doesn’t go well, be polite in your dealings with potential matches. You never know if a would-be suitor could introduce you to the person of your dreams.
* Conversely, if you do feel that the date went well, be explicit about your interest in a second. Even if you don’t feel an immediate physical attraction, remain open to the possibility of a second outing, when nerves have a chance to settle and let more personality shine through.
* Treat first dates like “pre-dates.” Keep conversation light and pleasant. Avoid pitfall topics such as ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife. If your date brings past romances up, try to change the subject.
* When you feel that you’ve found a good match, take down your dating profile. Most sites will let you reactivate later if the romance fades down the road, but disabling your account is an act of faith in the relationship.
* Be up front about your long-term intentions. If you’re looking for a one-night hook-up, tell the other person. If you want a long-term relationship, let them know.