Modern love in the digital age

How technology is changing relationships

BECK ELEVEN
Last updated 12:52 11/01/2014

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From virtual smiles to break-ups by text, the casual hook-up to commitment, Beck Eleven asks if romance is what it used to be.

Courting is one of those cutesy, quaint words that no longer fits comfortably into our lexicon. It conjures images of couples holding hands on a love seat in an age of sex-free innocence. We still search for ‘‘The One’’ but these days there’s nothing gasp-worthy about keeping a friend (or two) with benefits, or falling in love with your significant other over the internet.

We marry later, if at all, and divorce at a more frequent rate. We don’t have to live together to be deemed ‘‘serious’’ and – get this – even gay people get a marriage certificate in New Zealand now.

Looks and personality remain high on the checklist for a lover but we judge potential paramours on the content of their text messages rather than conversation skills.

We don’t have to sit by the phone waiting for that precious call because we take our phones with us – although the mobile phone does have its perils. One Christchurch woman told Your Weekend she swapped phone numbers with a man via a personals ad on Gumtree.co.nz. Almost immediately the text messages turned lurid, asking if she would accompany him to a swingers club that would not accept lone male patrons.

The text message exchanges, she says, did not last long.

Aucklander Rachel Goodchild was living in North Canterbury when she started having online conversations with a work colleague based in Wales.

‘‘We had a real connection and although I knew we would never be in a relationship, it made me realise you could get to know someone well online,’’ she says. So she joined a dating site and being an ‘‘A-type personality’’ made finding love a work-like business.

‘‘I went on 12 dates in 14 days. Some were just so crazy and weird, I just thought ‘I need to write a book’.’’ Using her own experiences and those of fellow internet daters, she compiled Eightyeight dates: the perilous joys of internet dating.

‘‘From one guy, I was getting text messages that were really thoughtful but they took a long time to get back to me. I just thought he was busy but when we met he had a serious head injury. I think he should have been honest because it was very obvious when we met why he took so long to reply.’’

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Years of intermittent dating disasters did not put her off and today she is happily dating a man she met online.

‘‘The key was that I changed inside. I thought about my values and what I really wanted. I slowed everything down, spoke to one person at a time and didn’t meet anyone unless I really wanted to.

Yvee*, a Christchurch woman in her early 30s, says she was only looking for ‘‘a bit of fun’’ when she joined an online dating site.

‘‘I’d become sick of looking at the same local guys so I was looking at men in the North Island when I saw this one. He liked cooking and stuff and I thought he sounded alright.

‘‘We emailed and sent a lot of messages and eventually spoke on the phone.’’

He was coming to Christchurch for work so they decided to meet face-to-face.

‘‘Then stupid me said: ‘I have a spare room so you can stay here’. He arrived, we put his bag in the spare room and went out for drinks and then dinner.

‘‘After that we went for a walk and he held my hand and I had to use that line ‘I don’t like you like that’.

‘‘Then he told me the story of how his wife had left him and he started crying. He left and went out drinking somewhere. I got strange texts from him until 3am when I finally replied and said I’d left his bags on the front doorstep. I never heard from him again.’’

Today’s lovers get to know one another better by stalking a Facebook page and we accept that a smiley face in your inbox means the relationship is progressing well. But by the same token, when love falters, that same inbox might carry a break-up text. When it comes to love in the modern climate, it’s a new world but not exactly a brave one.

Angela* was newly arrived in Christchurch when she was set up on a blind date by a friend and the pair ‘‘friended’’ each other over Facebook before agreeing to a dinner date. After four happy months, the new couple were regularly spending four or five nights a week together.

‘‘One Monday, about 5pm, I texted him to enquire about our evening plans. Instead of the chirpy reply I was expecting, I received a message starting with him expressing uncertainty about his feelings towards me. The message went on to say I deserved better, we were missing a spark and other awkward cliches.’’

The text hit her ‘‘like a frisbee to the face’’ and triggered a state of shock that lasted for months.

‘‘My emotions would overwhelm me at any time. I drove my friends mad by constantly analysing the relationship and the fallout. But time passed and the hurt subsided. Eventually I considered myself very lucky for escaping a person who could treat others with such contempt.’’

In a column on ‘‘hooking up’’, Australian writer Nicole Haddow wrote about a booze-fuelled party after which a few of her single friends slept together.

‘‘This is love Gen Y-style: no flowers, no strings, a lot of repressed emotion.’’

Haddow quoted a study published last year by the American Psychological Association called Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review. It talked about casual, uncommitted relationships and said young people were struggling to communicate their true desires for fulfilling relationships.

In one survey of 507 undergraduate students, only 4.4 per cent of men and 8.2 per cent of women expected a traditional romantic relationship with a person they’d casually hooked up with, but 29 per cent of men and 42.9 per cent of women ideally wanted to be in one.

The study also listed emotions experienced by men and women who had casual sex – everything from shame and regret to happiness and pride.

Dr Ekant Veer is an associate professor of marketing at Canterbury University, specialising in social media. When it comes to contemporary dating, Veer says things kicked off in the 1990s as online dating became more popular, but it carried a stigma.

‘‘We used to roll our eyes and think those people couldn’t meet someone in real life, but that has really changed,’’ he says. ‘‘Now we judge those people as more willing to be open and to engage.’’

However, it’s not just the changing nature of technology that has dictated how we meet partners, it is also the changing nature of work and how busy our lives have become.

‘‘In the past there were more formalised places to meet partners – organised dances, regular parties, formal balls, bars that were known for meeting singles – physical spaces that were known as hook-up spaces. That doesn’t happen so much any more. These days that space is on the internet, so you can find it with little effort.’’

Once a relationship has been established, the next step is maintaining it, something technology has aided.

‘‘So if there is a lot of physical distance, whether you use Skype, Facebook, or Twitter or text, these things make you feel connected to the person you are away from.’’

But those same technologies that act as relationship glue can also be the agent for undoing. Couples who initiate through social media might enjoy witty banter online but struggle for fluent conversation face-to-face.

The third stage of living a relationship online is the break-up, Veer says. In a gentler time, we would do this in person. Now some people take the easy option and do it over text, or, as he has heard, simply by changing their relationship status on Facebook.

‘‘People feel protected behind a screen, they are immune to the other person’s feelings. The other strange thing that happens is that after the break-up, they refuse to de-friend or unfollow their ex, so they can keep an eye on them and who they’re dating next.

‘‘A break-up cliche used to be about dividing the record collection, now it’s splitting the friends on Facebook.’’

We also like to watch break-ups unfold via public social-media fights between disintegrating couples because we are ‘‘a twisted bunch’’, according to Veer.

Wellington couple Laura McQuillan and Jay Lee might have met the ‘‘old-fashioned way’’, but theirs is a fairly modern love story. Says McQuillan: ‘‘I saw him in a bar, thought he looked wicked and went over to talk to him.’’ They swapped numbers and went on a date.

At that point, the 26-year-old journalist had no idea of Lee’s surname so she was unable to search him on Google. The date went well, they agreed to see each other again and so they became Facebook friends.

‘‘I added him not long after our first date. I guess it’s just the way you find out more about someone’s life now instead of asking intrusive questions. You find out whether you’re compatible with their social, political, religious views, maybe how they interact with other people.’’

McQuillan has quite an online footprint. On Twitter she has more than 3000 followers and almost 40,000 tweets.

‘‘I think Jay thinks it’s kind of funny the way I’ve grown on an online profile but I do keep the really personal stuff out of Twitter. I talk about funny stuff that’s happened to me, but I steer clear of my problems or my life.’’

Her partner, Lee, is connected through social media and reckons he’d check two or three of his accounts – a choice of Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter – two or three times a day. The 24-year-old athlete had not crossed paths with McQuillan before they dated.

‘‘I think that’s one of the reasons we work so well. Our friendship circles didn’t overlap, we had no mutual friends, so we started completely fresh. There wasn’t anyone telling me something they thought I should know about her.’’

The couple, who have been together for about nine months, have no set rule around their social media posts but Lee says they are ‘‘like-minded’’ on this front.

‘‘I’m still a private person. We say in our Facebook profiles that we are ‘in a relationship’ but not who that person is.

I’m open about myself but not when it comes to my relationship, people don’t have to know.’’

*Names changed where asterisked.

 

BATTLE LINES

Sonya Rowell reports from the online dating trenches.

 

Woman joining internet dating site for first time (after several years of singledom, licking wounds and general self doubt):

‘‘Does my photo make me look too old? Too easy? Wish I had Photoshop to smooth these crow’s feet out. Do I sound desperate? Is it too late for one of those cheap boob jobs in Thailand? Maybe this is a bad idea. I’ll think about it while I eat some more of that Whittaker’s Ghana Peppermint.’’

 

Man joining internet dating site for first time (three days, 12 hours and 43 minutes after relationship ends):

‘‘Got to get back on this horse. I’ll just take a selfie on my phone, from this odd angle that makes me all chin, like Buzz Lightyear. But that’s hot, right? Better fill out this profile, I suppose. Make sure I don’t get any fat chicks. How do you spell . . . oh, never mind, take me as I am. Real men don’t use spellcheck.’’

 

I blame the shiraz. Recently, after almost two years of being single, I joined an internet dating site.

A few weeks earlier I’d caught my friend Claire on my laptop filling out a Findsomeone.co.nz profile form. She was unapologetic. ‘‘You need to get out and meet someone,’’ she said as she waxed lyrical about my sense of humour (which, I’ve since learned, is internet dating code for Great Personality, Shame About The Face).

I declined, on the grounds that if I wanted to meet an Irish/Scots/Welsh builder (the dominant species in the Great Christchurch Man Surplus), I could just step outside my central city workplace, using a Corona as bait.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, heavily influenced by a bottle of shiraz, that I actually clicked on the email that completed the registration process.

At 10am the next morning, my photo had been approved – apparently, people have been known to put up inappropriate photos so every shot has to be vetted for dangly bits.

At 10.05am nothing had happened so I decided to check out all the recently-arrived builders. I quickly eliminated almost all the profiles Findsomeone deemed to be a good match for me. ‘‘I like souverlarki’’ said one. ‘‘I no what I want,’’ said another.

I’m a sub-editor. We’re picky about spelling. Sue me.

By 11am I had virtual smiles from several blokes, most miles outside my stated age range. At either end. Despite having no cougar ambitions, it’s all the rage, at least according to the 27-year-old who supposedly thought my 41-year-old self was ‘‘gorgeous’’.

I was also surprised to find people I knew on the site.

‘‘Everybody’s online these days,’’ my workmate Deborah said.

Tell me about it. I got a smile from my landlord. Awkward.

By 1.25pm I had 10 messages, five smiles, several winks and one virtual red rose. I’m still baffled by that. What are you supposed to say to a stranger who sends you a virtual rose? Um. . . it’s lovely? It’s PIXELS.

I sought advice from my friend Shirley, a four-year veteran of internet dating.

‘‘The very first thing you should know is FSO [Findsomeone] is NOT any less sleazy than NZD [New Zealand Dating, another popular site]. People will tell you that the ‘genuine’ guys go on FSO to look for love but it’s a lie. Eighty-five per cent of those guys will have profiles on both, hoping to increase their odds. Ultimately the majority of guys on any dating site are looking to get laid. Frequently.

‘‘The profiles crack me up – I actually think they have a template. ‘Walks on the beach, gym five to six times a week, cuddling on the couch in front of a fire/DVD/with a glass of wine’ – blah blah blah.

What they really mean is: ‘I need sex’.

‘‘What you need to do is to make your profile about what YOU want,’’ Shirley said.

‘‘Whatever you do, do not be vague. They will pounce otherwise. Actually, they’ll pounce anyway – particularly if you allude to friendship (which is code for ‘I want sex’).’’

With those comforting words, I set about deleting most of the messages. Not to mention making urgent adjustments to my profile.

Claire said I was nitpicking. ‘‘It’s not like you’re going to meet a self-made millionaire who just wants to find someone to travel the world with,’’ she sniffed.

At 2pm, I got a message from a self-made millionaire who retired young and wanted someone to travel the world with. He knew the source of the quote on my profile (‘‘God I’m bored. I might as well be listening to Genesis.’’). He responded with a YouTube link of The Young Ones the day they got a VCR, seeing as I was in the media.

(OK, it was a stretch, but it broke the ice). He also described himself, rather endearingly, as ‘‘loaded’’.

In the end though, the overall online experience was just a bit too seedy. Any hopes I had of it not being a shag fest were dashed by this little exchange with another potential suitor:

Findsomeone dude: ‘‘Hey, how’s it going? Met anyone yet?’’

Me: ‘‘Good, thank you. No, not yet.’’

FSOD: ‘‘God, I can’t be bothered with this endless chatting. Let’s get together.’’

Me: DELETE.

There were genuine men. A truly nice solo father of three in my suburb seemed OK until he freaked me out by saying he was looking for The One. I’m not looking for a husband, just someone who will also fall off the couch laughing at 7 Daysand will eat all those Cherry Ripe abominations out of the Favourites box and leave my Turkish Delights the hell alone, that sort of thing. Oh, and who isn’t juggling me with Cheryl from NZDating and Lisa from Plentyoffish.com.

Sonya Rowell is a Fairfax subeditor who lasted five days on internet dating before deleting her profile in disgust. She has had coffee with Mr Endearingly Loaded. Having coffee is not code for anything other than a decent latte.

- The Press

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