Margaret Wagner has a lot going for her, but she wants more. Actually, she wants it all. And at the risk of sounding immodest, Margaret will tell you she deserves it all. An attractive, forty-one-year-old with pale-blue eyes and stylish, chestnut-brown hair that expertly frames her wide and ready smile, Margaret has a nice home in Fairfield, a great family and many fun-loving friends. She’s also well-traveled and is fluent in French and Spanish. And, recently, she started her own company, Bedroom Matters, which sells pricey linens, massage oils, potions and perfumes to women who, like herself, share a common goal — to banish bland from the boudoir.
She is a woman with ambition to burn. And about the only thing Margaret doesn’t have in her life right now is a guy. Of course, she knows exactly the kind of man she’s looking for. “Basically, I want to meet someone who’s freakin’ awesome,” she gushes, sounding unabashedly like a thirteen-year-old primping for her first school dance. “I am so looking to be swept off my feet.”
In a word, Margaret wants chemistry. Which is why she posted her photo and personal profile on Match.com, the most visited of online dating sites. With a reported subscriber base of 20 million users, it is just one of about 800 Internet websites offering singles the chance to meet and find love from the comfort and safety of their personal computers. Millions of available men and women from Connecticut to California pay monthly fees ranging from $20 to $50 to flirt up a storm in these 24/7 cyber pickup joints. Match.com, Yahoo Personals, E-Harmony and other dating sites raked in combined revenues of more than $500 million in 2006.
By some estimates, the dating business will eclipse the $700 million earnings mark within the next couple years.
But does it work? Can it work for you? Really? The good news is yes — as long as you aren’t expecting fireworks the first time out of the gate. Or even the second. Generally, finding someone on the Internet to fill your dance card for Saturday night is fairly easy, but making a lasting love connection takes a lot more time and effort.
Veterans of the digital dating game, like Margaret, warn that the road to relationship bliss is full of potholes. You have to know the rules — and yourself. Persistence, a good sense of humor and a realistic attitude are key. “I told my mother a while ago, ‘Look, the days of meeting Mr. Right over gin and tonics at the club are over,’ ” says Margaret, who recently ended a seven-year relationship with a man she met during her first stint on Match.com. “You may have to kiss a few frogs before your Prince Charming comes knocking, but, like they say, ‘You can’t win if you don’t play.’ And I’m playing to win.”
matchmaker, matchmaker …
Online dating has one tremendous advantage over the old-school methods of hooking up. But that advantage might also be its greatest disadvantage — sheer convenience. In days of yore, many a love-starved suburban single was forced to vie for affection in that most hostile of environments — a darkened nightclub, where bad pickup lines, loud reggae music and cheap wine flowed well into the night. It was a classic Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest.
Today’s virtual dating arena has eliminated much of the hard work, opening up the field to anyone with the energy to click a mouse and tap out an e-mail.
That is not necessarily a good thing. Guys who might otherwise have been too haggard after a hard day at work to go out clubbing are free to lounge at their home computers in their boxers, swill beer and make life hellish for women like “Kendra” (who asked that we not use her real name). She’s a banker in the area and has long, honey-blonde hair. Alas, her story is fairly typical. Two years after a divorce, she was feeling pretty good about the direction her life was taking. Then one night she schlepped home toting a pint of General Tsao’s chicken she had picked up from a Chinese take-out joint following yet another late night at the office. Then, it happened. As if jarred awake by a cold shower, she realized: “It’s Friday night. My God, I haven’t had a date in four whole months,” she exclaimed to no one but her cat, who had begun coiling herself around Kendra’s legs in a shameless play to coax a tasty morsel her way.
Taking the advice of a friend, Kendra placed her profile on an online dating service that allows such mini-bios to appear under an alias (for privacy). She described, using her own words, what she was looking for in a prospective date. She was asked questions about “turn-ons” and “turn-offs” and what kind of sports she liked and books she read.
Innocently, Kendra wrote that she hoped to meet a man who enjoyed golf, tennis and dancing, as well as one who shared her conservative political views. Just two days later, she had received no less than two dozen e-mails from interested men, some from as far away as San Diego and London.
“I was stunned. It was obvious that many of these guys hadn’t read my profile at all, because we were incompatible on so many levels,” she says. “They didn’t match the physical description of the man I was looking to meet, our personalities seemed too dissimilar or they were too [geographically] distant. I actually got an e-mail from a guy who likes NASCAR. Nothing personal, but I’m just not that kind of girl.”
In the “real world” Kendra simply would never have had to deal with many of these unsuitable suitors — she would probably never have met them. Thanks to the Internet, though, hoards of laptop Lotharios are camping out on her digital doorstep, and she’s not too happy about it.
“In the beginning, I wrote notes to the guys who e-mailed me to say thanks, but no thanks, but it just got to be too much, almost like having another job,” she laments. “I was raised to be polite, but now I just blow them off without a word. Thank God for the delete button.”
“Allison” (also not her real name), from Darien, is a forty-four-year-old divorced mother of three who has had similar problems fending off unwanted advances. Initially, she was attracted to Internet dating because she saw it as an opportunity to meet available men without having to go out on the town.
But recently she has started to have second thoughts about Internet dating. She was contacted by a man not much older than her teenage daughter. “Although I was flattered I caught the kid’s eye, I politely told him I wasn’t interested in dating someone young enough to be my son,” she recalls. “He kept writing me, saying he had a ‘thing’ for older women. Finally, I said, ‘Enough is enough — leave me alone.’ It was a little scary. He backed off when I threatened to file a complaint.”
what you see is what you get?
Internet dating is a window-shopper’s dream. But all the shopping in the world won’t land you the guy or gal of your dreams unless you know what you want — exactly what you want. Sandy Henry had that part all figured out when she waded into the Internet dating pool in 2003 at the suggestion of a friend. Today, she’s a happily married woman. She and her husband of nearly two years, Scott, give equal credit to technology and divine intervention.
“My Christian faith is very important to me and I wanted someone who felt the same way I did,” says Sandy, thirty-two, who lives in Fairfield and teaches kindergarten at Ox Ridge Elementary School in Darien, the same school she attended as a child. “I was truly blessed to find that person in Scott.”
The two dated for several months before Sandy realized she had met her match. Marrying someone she met on the Internet wasn’t something she planned on — she was out to have some fun after a recent breakup. Still, she wasn’t going to fight the feeling when it struck. “He was ready to move to the next level before I was,” she recalls. “He went on a vacation with some buddies and I realized how much I missed him. I called him on his cellphone and said, ‘When you get back, we need to talk.’ ” The “we need to talk” discussion people do like.
Emily Reich also found her ideal match through a specialty dating service: jdate.com, a site catering to Jewish singles. Having grown up in Westport, Emily moved to Los Gatos, California, some years ago to take a job with a software company. With her dating-life going nowhere, Emily, who describes herself as a little geeky, took the plunge into Internet dating at the suggestion of an older friend who met her Prince Charming online.
After a few months on jdate, Emily had gone to dinner with a few very nice guys, but none that set her heart beating in that special way until she began corresponding with Sachar Shem-Tov, an Israeli who moved to California to pursue a Ph.D. in plant physiology.
“I was struck immediately by how different we were,” says Emily, who sent her first tentative e-mail to him in 2003. “I found out that he was this gourmet cook, and here I was a girl who came home from work and munched popcorn for dinner while watching a movie.
“He was this real outdoors kind of guy, and I’m this librarian who hangs around books. I wasn’t quite sure how it would work out.”
Emily’s friends and family weren’t sure either. But when she sent her mother back in Westport an e-mail saying she had gone hiking with her boyfriend, it was clear something was in the works. A year or so later, Sachar proposed to Emily.
“He had prepared this romantic dinner but the ring wasn’t ready that night, so he had to wait another week to spring the surprise,” recalls Emily. “We were sitting down to eat at my place — of course, I was serving this store-bought roasted chicken — when I noticed something under my napkin: an engagement ring.”
The two were wed in Westport on March 19, 2006. Now, Sachar and Emily are expecting their first child.
“I couldn’t be happier for them,” says Ann Scheffer, Emily’s mom. “They’re a lovely couple, and I just know they’ll be great parents.”
Little wonder online dating can be daunting: users need to know what they are looking for, know themselves, be open to a bit of soul-searching, and be able to rustle through, within minutes of logging on, the dozens upon dozens of profiles arranged according to age and location. And while people don’t have to post a photo, most users do so in order get more attention — and, in theory, they eliminate the surprise factor during the all-important first date.
But, as is often true in cyberspace, theory and practice don’t always jibe. This is something “Rob” from Riverside learned from bitter experience. A forty-nine-year-old divorcé and advertising executive, Rob was new to the Internet dating scene a few years back when he spied a woman whose shoulder-length, auburn tresses and porcelain skin set his CPU thumping.
He sent her an “icebreaker,” a preformatted message that read, “Hey, you’re cute. Let’s chat.” Other services have similar features that allow less extroverted users to “wink” before sending a personal e-mail.
To his delight, she responded in kind, and the two agreed to meet for drinks later that week. Rob was running late on the appointed night and called her to say he would be there in no more than ten minutes. No problem, she said.
“When I arrived, I barely recognized her,” he says, wiser for the experience. “She was easily ten years older than in the picture, which looked like it was taken soon after she graduated college, and she was forty pounds heavier.
“The other problem was that she had already downed half a pitcher of Sangria while she was waiting for me. The night didn’t go well at all. I still can’t understand why she would lie like that.”
More than once, usually after some sort of unsatisfactory online experience, Rob has vowed not to return to the Internet dating scene. But he’s never away long. “I suppose there are worse addictions,” he says.
James Bernstein of Wilton has another take on the subject of deception. A recently divorced money manager with wavy red hair, Bernstein, fifty-one, has made fitness a priority in his life. He says he’s fed up with meeting women who claim in their online profiles to be in great shape, when in reality they are anything but. “I think the three most abused words in English are ‘athletic and toned,’ ” he says. “Many of the women I have met who say that are, in fact, either anorexic or hefty. They believe they’re telling the truth, but they’re deceiving themselves. It’s a huge problem.”
Bernstein blames the very nature of communications on the Internet for making the situation worse. Recent photographs and even the most carefully crafted of e-mails simply cannot communicate the fullness of the individual, he explains. That’s something that happens only in reality, during a face-to-face encounter. Until two people meet across a dinner table or over a cup of coffee, both parties do a lot of “filling in the blanks,” creating images of each other — often idealized images that bear little resemblance to reality.
“To a great extent, we see exactly what we want to see when we’re corresponding or talking to the other person on the phone,” says Bernstein. “We want so much to find the love of our lives that our imaginations get the better of us. If you finally meet that someone you have been dying to meet and what you were hoping for just isn’t there, it can be devastating.
“Now, after an e-mail or two, I usually suggest a casual meeting, rather than allow my expectations to get too high. That way neither of us is wasting the other’s time.”
slow and steady …
“Kristin” definitely isn’t wasting her time by trying online dating, though she has yet to meet the man of her dreams. She has, however, come to know several interesting guys, some of whom she now counts among her friends.
“Who doesn’t benefit from having a new friend?” asks Kristin, thirty-six, a lawyer who moved to Westport from Manhattan last August. “I’ve learned a lot about the area — about the nightlife and places of historical interest — from men I’ve met online. And I’ve had a great time doing it. I can’t say anything bad about the experience.”
Kristin is the prototype of the busy, never-marrried professional for whom the Internet has become the first choice for meeting a potential mate. “I’m a passionate lover of life, professionally accomplished and beautiful inside and out. I’m a big-city gal with small-town values,” reads her profile, which is accompanied by several photos, including one of her doing a handstand on a rocky promontory in Utah. Two years of online dating have made her savvy — so she believes in taking it slow, preferring to get to know a prospective date by talking on the phone and exchanging a fair number of e-mails before agreeing to an in-person meeting.
Only once did she violate that rule — and she vows never to do it again. She says one man who had shown an interest in her began bombarding her with e-mails, begging to meet her. He called so often on her cell-phone that she regretted giving him the number. Kristin was ready to tell him to “buzz off” when she finally yielded to his persistence.
“I was having drinks with a bunch of friends in a downtown sports bar during March Madness and I invited him to come on down — I knew I was safe,” she says. “Within only a few minutes time, he’s sitting next to me and we get to talking about work when he mentions that he’s an actor — and that he has starred in several soft-core porn movies. He said he thought I’d be turned on by this revelation, but, well, let’s just say that was the end of that.
“So, I’m still available — but you never know, my fortune could change with the click of a mouse.”