The Web is full of tricksters. One 2008 study found that 81 percent of online daters admitted to lying about their weight, height, age or a combination of the three on their profiles. The Web allows users to present their best selves to the public, and sometimes those selves are exaggerated.
However, just because the object of one's online affections isn't real doesn't mean that one's feelings aren't.
Nev Schulman, the protagonist in the 2010 documentary "Catfish," knows better than anyone about the heartbreak caused by falling for someone who doesn't exist.The movie details how he fell for a Michigan woman named Megan Faccio, who turned out to be an intricate fabrication created by a lonely wife and mother. The film, and the related TV series, has raised awareness of such hoaxes and even given the public a term with which to categorize them: "catfishing."
"Once I kind of came to terms with the reality that this daily soap opera that I was tuning into, and the long distance love affair that I was having, got canceled and everything sort of shut down, at first I was incredibly lonely," Schulman said.
"It's a double insult," said Dr. Michael Adamse, author of "Affairs of the Net: The Cybershrinks' Guide to Online Relationships." "Because on one hand it's the loss of a love object. ... There's also the humiliation attached to it, too, feeling badly about yourself. Not only have I lost somebody that was never really in love with me, but I've also been duped."
Despite what happened to Schulman, and the unlucky souls on his show who fell in love with mirages, both he and his "Catfish" co-host, Max Joseph, say that it is possible to fall in love successfully online.
"Everyone, when they meet one of us, they want to tell us that they know people who have been in online relationships and half the time the stories are really positive," Joseph said. "They have really happy endings."
The trick, they said, is to be smart about your online love affair before getting in too deep.
To have and to hold
All the couples interviewed for this story have one integral thing in common: Each and every one of them eventually met in real life to solidify their relationship.
"If you're really starting to 'fall' for somebody, it's very important to have that IRL to see if the fantasy matches the reality," said Adamse. "Not until you're actually in a situation where you're face to face with that person, spending time with that person, will you be able to access really what that reality is."
When Jon the missionary got off that plane in Los Angeles, after flying halfway around the world, he was moments away with finding out if his fantasy matched the woman waiting for him, the one he described as "my heart in the form of a girl." The one he was so sure about that he had procured the (too-big) ring and planned to put it on her finger in the presence of family and friends.
"Everything struck me about her," he said years later, recalling that day when he stepped off the plane and into Katie's arms.
"In all reality, the thing that attracted me the most about Katie all along was her heart, which was and is incredibly beautiful. But when I saw her in person I was able to see her inner beauty radiate through her eyes and her smile. I was a goner pretty quick."