When it comes to online dating, Sue Liang has seen it all.
The guy whose profile says he’s 30, when his real age hovers above 40. The date who becomes instantly overbearing and won’t stop texting. Even the seemingly normal Tinder user who starts flirtatious messages with lines like, “Hey, I’m dancing in my undies.”
“At this point, I don’t even want to do traditional online dating anymore,” said Liang, a 30-year-old Jamaica Plain resident. “Sometimes, I get so tired of it. It’s so hard to tell if someone’s really genuine, or what they’re looking for.”
Liang is not alone. Various news reports and statistics show Americans have increasingly accepted — and tried — online dating in recent years. But, despite the advances, there remains a significant number of singles who say they were underwhelmed or even painfully disappointed by the experience, according to counselors and former clients.
Almost everyone who knows someone who has used an online dating service is well-versed in these complaints — the harassing messages, profile misrepresentations, the sometimes seemingly constant sting of rejection. But perhaps the biggest letdown involves the puncturing of high expectations.
“I have seen hundreds of patients over the years, and the general trend is that online dating is not satisfying,” said Dr. Nancy Goldner, a Jamaica Plain psychotherapist and author of “Living Solo: A Practical Guide to Life on Your Own.”
It seems that almost everyone knows someone or knows of someone who was matched up by a service. Certainly more have tried online dating, and while it works for many the results are nothing close to universal.
Eleven percent of American adults have used online sites, according to a 2013 national survey from the Pew Research Center. Though cyber romances appear to be on the rise, only 5 percent of committed Americans said they met their partner online. About 23 percent of dating-site users met a spouse or long-term relationship partner through these sites, the survey shows.
Goldner said that in her view online dating companies often mislead singles — women, in particular — with advertisements touting the effectiveness of their matchmaking systems and suggesting the enhanced probability of meeting the perfect match or future spouse.
“Sure, some people find their match online, but I think it’s much rarer than these ads have you think,” Goldner said.
The dating services disagree. They say they make no attempt to trick or manipulate. instead, they say, the problem comes of a misunderstanding of what they actually do.
Typically prospective clients fill out profiles detailing various pieces of personal information and likes and dislikes. Then either the participants search the profiles themselves for likely matches or the service does so using a computer algorithm and interested parties contact one another.
Match.com president Amarnath Thombre said his service, one of this country’s heavyweights with 2.5 million subscribers, aims to help people find others who are compatible, not necessarily guarantee true love.
“We have a really honest approach to what online dating is and is not,” Thombre said. “When you give a lofty expectation to your users, if it doesn’t match, it leads to unnecessary disappointment. Our algorithms are the best at finding people you’re going to like. It’s what you do with it that determines whether you find success.”
As far as the most common online dating complaints, such as profile misrepresentation and dissatisfaction with not being able to land a date, Thombre said the site aims to combat those by offering responsive customer service and feedback forms and improving upon the company’s matching algorithms, which he said “corrects for a lot of those features.”
Despite attempts by online services to head off problems they still occur, one of the toughest being couples who simply feel they’ve been mismatched. Goldner said that often happens because a true long-standing relationship is defined not solely by shared interests that can be ticked off on a questionnaire, but by bigger-picture characteristics.
“You need to have some compatibility when it comes to money, sex, orderliness, division of labor, and family relationships,” she said. “For example, if your partner drops everything when their mom is calling, that will get in the way of a relationship.
“Those are the things that determine if there will be a match, not whether or not you both like to go bowling.”
Elly Berke, a 27-year-old graduate student at Harvard, knows about this firsthand. Recently, she found one profile on OKCupid where the guy ticked off everything on her checklist — attractive, loved hiking and yoga, could cook from scratch — and decided to meet up.
“He was so nice, and we had so much in common, but I felt like the whole date I was almost just networking with him,” she said. “The whole time I was thinking in my head that he would get along with my friend so-and-so, or maybe he should meet my former employer. There was no romantic tension.”
In fact, after five years of dating online, “I’d say there has really only been chemistry twice,” Berke said. “Sometimes I wonder if the online thing takes away some of the chemistry. There’s already an element of business because you met online, and you’ve been e-mailing.”
Goldner says that the disappointment and rejection that seem a part of online dating — Match.com and eHarmony even post articles to their sites on how to deal with it — help feed a kind of cycle that she sometimes sees among her patients.
“You reach a moment where you say, ‘It would be nice to have someone in my life,’ and go online,” Goldner said. “But then it can be disappointing and even hurtful because of all the rejection that takes place.”
And the endless possibilities presented with apps and online services can lead to a feeling of shopping for a potential mate and a false sense of control that’s bound to dissipate at some point, says Berke.
“Online dating gives you a false sense that you’re in control, but just like with a lot of things in life, you’re really not,” she said. “For me, the disappointment comes when I feel like I can go on the Internet and find just about anything I want. So sometimes I feel like if maybe I just search a bit more, I’ll find someone who meets all these things I want in a guy.”
Liang, whose personality comes across as bubbly, witty, and ambitious, said she’s been on dozens of dates since she became single in June. But she’s still looking for that special someone.
“I know so many amazing, smart, attractive, talented, driven, humble women, and if I was a guy, I would say ‘No problem,’ ” she said. “But it just seems sometimes like there are more quality women than guys out there.”
While there may be some disagreement about online dating services, in the end all involved are pretty much in accord with the idea that while shared interests and compatibilities are important, finding the right someone still requires factors that are less predictable.
“Match allows you to meet the person next door you wouldn’t have met through work, school, or friends,’’ said Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist affiliated with Match.com. “But once you meet that person, the human brain springs into action, and you court the way humans have always courted.”
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