Valentine's Day for many people is a celebration of a romantic relationship or an opportunity for secret admirers to communicate their affection to a love interest. For others, Valentine's Day is a depressing reminder of an unrequited love, of a faltering relationship, or loneliness. Dealing with these sorts of problems is never easy, but today, the lonely hearts among us have a new and convenient way to find their true love -- through the growing number of commercial dating services popping up on the Internet.
Online dating is big business in the United States. According to Jupiter Research, about 20 percent of Americans using the Internet today have at least glanced at an online dating site. 17.2 million people viewed online personal ads and 2.5 million of them have actually paid to use an online dating service. And why do people choose to go online to find a life partner?
"The reason is, it's easy, its fun, you can do it from your house or even though employers don't like it, your work, " says Howard Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver and has authored many books on relationships.
"I think it meets the needs of people who are busy and also expands the range of people who you can meet to the whole world," he says.
You don't actually have to meet people from around the world if you don't want to. Here's how online dating works: Most commercial services will allow you to search the ads for people who live near you. You can also narrow the field down with other attributes like age and interests. The computer will then show you some personal ads from people in your selected area that might be a potential match. You might even get to see a picture of the people selected. However, you won't know anyone's name. You'll have to put up an ad of your own and then pay a monthly fee in order to communicate with other people on the system. Initially, e-mail communication between you and your prospective date is handled by the service, so that personal information is not revealed to either party, until they feel comfortable sharing it.
Internet dating is relatively easy, but it's not without challenges, and people who are shy or lacking in social skills might not fare any better online than they do face-to-face. People using online dating services must still try to make a good first impression.
Aside from the obvious errors of putting misspelled words, grammatical mistakes and unflattering pictures of yourself in your online ad, psychologist Howard Markman says there are some basic things online daters should consider to improve their odds of finding the "right" person.
"We have a lot of evidence about what people are looking for. The first thing is physical attractiveness," he says. " Most people realize that's not the basis for a serious relationship, but particularly if you're a woman writing an ad, you want to stress physical attractiveness, youth, sexiness. That's for a woman. For a man, physical attractiveness is one of a couple of things. A second one is being successful, and a third one that I'm seeing more and more of, is women are saying they want a man who is really confident."
Professor Markman adds that it is important not to lie, and to remember that people are also looking for someone that they can have fun with. Trish McDermott is Vice President of Romance at Match.com. In addition to running the company's website, she also holds dating classes and helps people use the system. She shares Dr. Markman's belief that people should tell the truth about themselves online. She says that her research indicates that most people on Match.com are honest.
"In general about 92 percent of subscribers said they tell the truth when it comes to describing their body type. Of the people who don't tell the truth, it tends to be women and they tend to be reporting that they are a size smaller than they actually are," she says. " What I always try to remind people is that there is an issue of truth in advertising when dating online. If you create a profile that truly doesn't represent who you are, when you sit down for that first face-to-face date, that becomes apparent immediately. Relationships that are built on any type of deception as a foundation, just don't succeed."
When you are ready to go on the first date with a person that you've met over the Internet, Ms. McDermott suggests meeting in a public place and learning as much as you can about the other person. However, both Ms. McDermott and Dr. Markman downplay the need to run criminal background checks on the person you're meeting. Dr. Markman adds that if you have reason to be suspicious of anyone on the Internet, you shouldn't pursue the relationship.
Meeting in a public place is quite easy when you live in the same area, but Internet dating has expanded the playing field to just about anywhere in the world. Mary Tinsely is an online dater who has seen both the good and the bad sides of Internet match-ups. She says a friend of hers once flew from Ontario, Canada, to the state of Florida to find what she thought might be her soul mate. When her friend arrived in Florida, the person she met turned out to be a convicted sex offender. But her friend's experience didn't stop Mary Tinsley from pursuing her own love on the worldwide web. She met her current husband David, a resident of England, though Match.com.
"And I had just told all of my other friends about this woman. So I didn't dare tell them about David and I until much later," Mary says.
"I've said to her many times that she was very brave to basically walk out of the airport into a car in a strange country that she'd never been to before and we drove off into the dead of the night. I could have been something very weird," says David.
Before flying to London to meet her husband, Ms. Tinsley says that she didn't conduct any criminal background checks, but made sure that what David had told her about himself was correct. She verified his address, work phone number and other information until she felt safe enough to meet him in person. After she returned to Canada, David Tinsley then visited her. Not long after, he decided to relocate to Canada to be with her. The Tinsleys say that a few years ago they were a little embarrassed to admit that they met online, because they felt there was a stigma attached to it. But they say the public perception of online dating is becoming more positive. Christina Stanton of New York City also met her husband, Brian, online. She says that she was never ashamed of the way they met, but her mother was reluctant to tell their friends and family members.
"When we got married, for our wedding cake toppers, we had two little computers," she says. "One was a guy computer and one was a girl computer made out of icing. So my mother had not told many of her friends how we met, they had no idea what that was, but eventually I think most of them found out. We were pretty proud of it and we think it's a real fun story."
Both the Stantons and the Tinsleys say that online dating really sped up and simplified the process of finding soul mates and both recommend that other single people try it.
For more information on online dating, you can visit the industry leaders Match.com and Yahoo.com Personals. There are many other popular dating sites, some of which even cater to specific racial and religious groups and to people with "alternative lifestyles."