I’ve been taking a break from online dating. I’m not sure how long it will last, probably another month or so (or maybe forever, if you introduce me to Mr. Right). Work is especially engrossing and demanding now, and I want to focus.
But not without a certain ambivalence. The writer’s life tends to solitude, with long stretches in front of the computer: just you, your imagination, and the keyboard. If you can step from your desk into the arms of a loving family, that moderates the effect. But me, I get lonely. The online dating site I’ve been using has an iPhone app that pings melodiously every time you get a message. I got a little addicted to that sound, a pleasurable reminder that Someone Out There was interested in me. It’s not exactly Pavlov’s dog: even without the ping, online dating seasons the quotidian with the sharp taste of possibility, my favorite flavor.
If you’ve been reading this series (if not, be my guest; it’s all at my website, filed under “Annals of Online Dating”), you know that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my re-entry into the brave new search for love online. In the decades I was married, dating morphed from something that originated in the physical world into a virtual encounter, where browsing through words and images replaces the ways people met when I was young. In the time I’ve tried it, I’ve fallen in and out of love, made wonderful friends, met some interesting men whose paths I would otherwise never have crossed, and learned a lot both about myself and about heterosexual men operating under these conditions. Whenever I have time again, I’m looking forward to re-entry (unless you introduce me to the right man first—did I mention that?).
So work is the main reason I’m pausing, but not the only one. I also want to use this pause to consider how to deal with a phenomenon I’ve discovered online. I’ve been searching for a way to describe it, and today, the words came to me: the enchantment effect.
I think it works this way: when two people who are sincerely seeking relationship (rather than just looking to hook up) meet online, from the outset, the encounter is infused with hope, which makes perfect sense. It doesn’t take much more than an attractive photograph or a well-turned phrase to ignite the internal engine that generates hope. If you exchange a few promising emails—he makes a clever joke, you both love the same book or music, she tells a charming story—the effect intensifies. One night, you talk on the phone, and that is fun. That first conversation leads to another and another, stretching into hours.
The intimacy of a long phone call—you remember that from high school, right?—can be potent. As you whisper in each other’s ears, your minds manufacture pictures to go with the words. The energy expands, and your bodies feel it too. By the time you meet, you’ve built up a charge that can be positively ballistic. Instead of the tentative steps that might mark a first encounter in the real world, your first face-to-face meeting is bathed in the glow of the shared dreams that led up to it.
You can call this projection, of course: projecting onto a few scraps of information the image of desire, the face of the beloved. There is bound to be projection in any relationship, whether it originates in the virtual world or in all three dimensions. But the particular circumstances that online dating often engenders—a long build-up before actually meeting—can amplify it remarkably.
The result can be a sort of Benjamin Buttonesque experience, in which the normal course of love runs backwards. You plunge ahead, full-on, only to discover later what you might otherwise have learned early in an old-style courtship where perception and judgment were not quite so lavishly lubricated by pre-enchantment. With a headstart fueled by hope and imagination, an insulating layer of sweet anticipation can obscure some basic, serious incompatibility. She ridicules the thing you cherish most; he never gets your jokes. He thinks you drink too much (and his ex was an alcoholic); she thinks you talk too much (and her ex was a narcissist). He needs to be on time; she’s late for everything, and thinks the problem is with whomever minds waiting. You both have strong feelings about your religion, but they are exactly the opposite, and neither of you can shrug it off.
No two individuals are in perfect accord, or course—or if they are, I wonder what they do to keep from dying of boredom. But what binds us when the schisms run deep? Two people who’ve put in the time and effort to earn bedrock trust may be able to mend even traumatic ruptures in their ability to connect and sustain genuine intimacy. But the enchantment effect leaps over the painstaking process of building trust, equating intense connection with unconditional faith, which feels like a miracle—until the illusion bursts.
I know, I know: you don’t have to tell me. If you walk the path of hope and desire, you have to be ready for disappointment. But still, it hurts. When the energy climbs so high so fast, it leaves an imprint, the lingering shadow of remembered pleasure and its loss. That bruise takes time to heal.
A friend told me that she’s wary of the big attraction. It turns her off, not on: because it isn’t grounded, she knows it can’t go well. But for me, it is the opposite. Indeed, study after study tells us that for the majority of women, the most arousing thing is to be desired. I’m drawn to that energy, and I am dubious that we can change that aspect of our nature. I’m just trying to stay awake: to be aware of the distortions to which online meetings are prone; to be a little more measured at first. I resolve to meet in the flesh as soon as possible, to notice projections and dial them down before full-on premature enchantment takes hold.
That all sounds very sensible, doesn’t it? Yet I’m skeptical. However it is initialized, love changes our brains. Falling in love releases a stimulating flood of phenylethylamine, oxytocin, and other brain chemicals that intensify excitement and—like any pleasurable experience—make us want more, promoting the formation of bonds. I have the idea that taking steps to reduce the enchantment effect also narrows susceptibility to true love. I can’t argue with the wisdom of looking before you leap, but in the end, if you want to love, you have to leap.
Most life-lessons lead to the same conclusion, don’t they? Take the bitter with the sweet. Dinah Washington owned the gorgeous song “This Bitter Earth.” It was remixed with British composer Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” for Martin Scorsese’s film Shutter Island. Here’s “This Bitter Earth” unadulterated, and the Richter piece unmixed, played by a string quartet. And here they are together, bittersweet.