WEST JORDAN — Pat and Alan Bell link arms as they walk though Gardner Village, chatting companionably as they enjoy the end of autumn's changing foliage.
It's date night for the couple, who met online nearly a decade ago, well before online dating was an established way to find a partner. It took some daring then to meet a stranger online. Both had been widowed and each approached dating at all with both excitement and trepidation. They clicked, though. They wooed, then they wed.
Online dating is now more common: Some 40 million Americans have tried it, according to StaticBrain, which collects data from reputable sources. Online dating has become a billion-dollar industry. Fully 17 percent of marriages last year began with online dating.
It is a tool unthwarted by geography. It attracts older couples like the Bells, in their 50s when they met, but a new Pew Research Center Internet Project study said it's most common for people in mid-20s to mid-40s. Eleven percent of Americans are “online daters,” including using a mobile dating app. Online dating is more accepted and is gaining among the college-educated and urban and suburban residents, a tool Pew said is used by 38 percent of Americans who are single and looking for a partner.
Dating websites have their own personalities and rules. For instance, eHarmony relies on a detailed questionnaire to suggest who's compatible. Match.com lets a user browse member profiles. Some sites, like LDSsingles.com, are specific to a faith. Some are free, some charge; a free version may have enhancements with paid subscription. StaticBrain said the average dating site customer spends $239 a year.
Pew said 40 percent of online daters have used dating sites created for people with shared interests or backgrounds. One-third have paid to use a dating site or app. Twenty percent have had someone review their profiles.
Adam Vedomske tried several sites before meeting his bride, Bonnie Riley. They live in Vallejo, Calif. A Mormon, he dated within his singles wards in Virginia and later Utah, and had free profiles on several sites.
Know what you're looking for, said Michelle Hall of Alexandria, Va. That includes whether you're willing to date outside your faith. Divorced, she started dating online four years ago. "Success doesn't mean I marry someone, but it means I stopped long enough to engage in at least a six-month relationship, that I spent time with someone I could rely on for a little while."
Hall works at a community college and said she loves and hates online dating. She likes three-month stints online because it's enough time to get to know a few people. Then, "you have to disengage and pay attention to a couple of people you are trying to date." Fresh faces get the most attention. "If you've been on for a whole year, you haven't been a fresh face for most of a year," she said. Hall also dates people she meets offline.
Cat Crawford jokes she built a family online. The West Windsor, N.J., woman found her husband through online dating 10 years ago. More recently, they found their son Max online, adopting him from Russia.
Online is a sometimes-strange place to date, she said. "You end up sort of meeting a lot of different people."
She was in graduate school in Michigan and hadn't met many interesting, available men. Her mom suggested online dating. She "met" lots of people, enjoying how casual it was, but not always sure when to give out her number or meet in person. Sometimes, men who appealed to her were elsewhere, which meant dating could be expensive: "Am I going to buy a plane ticket?"
Matt Prestwich, now 43, lived in Utah when he met his future bride, Rose Goncalves, a Brazilian living in Switzerland. He wasn't looking for an international relationship, but thought it would be fun to chat. They hit it off.
She was planning a visit to America and changed her itinerary to meet him. He visited her a few times. "I was online mostly looking for friends. I was potentially looking for someone to marry — I wasn't opposed.
He had dated more than a dozen online acquaintances just once and with a few he went out more. He married her in 2003.
Nearly 60 percent of Internet users agree “online dating is a good way to meet people,” up 15 percent from 2005, said Pew. More than half think online dating lets people find a better match because they meet more people. Still, 21 percent of Internet users believe those on dating sites are “desperate,” down from 29 percent in 2005.
Nearly a third of Internet users believe online dating keeps people from settling down because of never-ending options for people to date.
Most online daters (79 percent) say it’s a good way to meet people and 70 percent believe having more choices leads to a better romantic match. Still, 13 percent of even those who date online think it's a sign of desperation.
People don't usually fall in love with the first person they date — online or off. Some, like Crawford, will look out of their area for a match; others prefer to date nearby. "It takes a lot of patience," she said, "but I'm not sure it takes more patience than any other kind of dating."
Crawford believes online dating has become better as it has become more common. It opens up new avenues for meeting people. "If you don't want to date at work, what do you do? If the bar scene is not your scene, what do you do? It's a neat tool to be able to have.
"One of the things I liked about it and still do: You end up talking to a lot of people,” said Crawford. “It's a quick and easy way to understand yourself, what works for you and what doesn't. I tell everybody to try it. It's one of those things that's never a success until it is."
Still, online dating is not all flowers and butterflies. "It can be rejecting and your self-esteem can take a beating," said Laura Jackman of Corinne, Utah. "But I made some great friends and I learned a lot about myself. I would use caution, but I would definitely recommend it."
Sometimes people lie. StaticBrain said that women fib most about weight, physical build and age, men about age, height and income.
Jackman was 47 when she began online dating. In five years, she's dated about 35 men and made great friends. She's also been burned a couple of times. She really liked one fellow a lot. It turned out his wife did, too.
Still, she thinks online dating allows men and women to meet individuals whose paths they might not otherwise cross. They can winnow down to traits that matter to them.
Hall's experiences have been mostly positive, although one date used a very old photo. She's not sure why he didn't think she'd notice when they met. "I didn't even recognize him," she said. "What's the etiquette there? I walked into the restaurant to meet a guy who said he was 37. He had to be late 50s."
One date confused her by handing her "a big old grocery bag full of animal cookies. That was a little strange." They didn't have a second date.
Staying safe, comfortable
Just over half who dated online told Pew someone seriously misrepresented themselves in a profile, and 28 percent, mostly women, “have been contacted by someone through an online dating site or app in a way that made them feel harassed or uncomfortable.”
If a person seemed interesting, Vedomske exchanged phone numbers. Early on, he'd been emailing with someone who wouldn't let him hear her voice. He began to wonder if she was, indeed, female. She said she was shy. He let her go.
Vedomske was on the other side of precautions, too. Bonnie Riley sent a friend who lived near him to see, as he described it, that "I didn't have any face tattoos." The friend took her duties seriously and she and her husband grilled him. In February, he met Riley in person and they married in July.
The Bells didn't use real names online at first. When they first met, at a restaurant, they drove themselves. Pat Bell had already had a friend do a background check on him. Her clergy asked his about him.
When Jackman first meets someone, it is deliberately quick and they each drive themselves. She suggests lunch or ice cream — start small and decide if you want more, with little risk.
Women often said they made sure someone knew where they were going to be that first date.
Both genders suggested getting an email address just for online dating. If things go wrong, you can dump the account.
Crawford said the Jason she met online and the one she married were the same. "There's a temptation to put yourself out as something you think people are looking for. That's tempting in dating, no matter what. It's valuable to be honest. If everybody does that, you can quickly see what works for you."
Crawford was in two online relationships that didn't take off. One flopped quickly; she "sort of dated the other for a few months."
She and Jason share a sense of humor. They got engaged quickly, then married a few months after that. She was 26, he was 28.
Jonathan Sandberg, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said online dating provides a bigger pool in which to seek companionship. "But you have to move into real interaction, to look and be real."
He was struck by advice he once heard about improving the public image of organizations. They were told their people should stop wearing masks. It's a truth that applies here, too, Sandberg said. Relationships, to progress, require that one drop the mask of the Internet.
"Texting and Facebooking, meeting people online gets an unnecessarily bad rap," he said, "but it gets used beyond the point of effectiveness. It is meant to superficially connect, to share parts of life. But if you want to really connect, you have to speak and touch each other."
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