Online Love

Internet dating is worth a try but keep your feet on the ground
Is it possible to find love online? The short answer is yes; the longer answer is it's more difficult than you think.

Looking back over the history of dating, in the distant past, people only met in very formalised ways through family or friends, then things freed up and singles met at dances and parties; from there it progressed to pubs and clubs and now it's internet dating. Throughout all these decades, there have been matchmakers of one kind or another, from professional marriage arrangers to family and friends to introduction agencies. Personal ads in the paper were a popular way of meeting in the '80s and now we have websites that match prospective partners. It's easy to see why internet dating is favoured now. We live in an electronic age and we want everything very fast. So love, too, is treated like fast food, not only immediate but home delivered!

I'm always telling my single clients that if they want to find love, they should go all out, take every opportunity and try everything on offer, including internet dating. This is a viable way to meet prospective partners as long as feet are lodged firmly on the ground. But there are also many pitfalls. There is any number of dating services on the internet which offer opportunities to meet others. All good and well as long as you recognise the pitfalls. Long distance romance has its risks so look out for people gilding the lily - if it sounds too good to be true, maybe it is! A good rule of thumb is, by all means, take online 'dates' at face value but ask questions; don't let fantasy take over from common sense and never agree to meet someone without checking bona fides. That's why it's best to use an established dating site rather than just meeting in a chatroom. As with introduction agencies and answering the personals, be honest yourself and be realistic in your expectations.

Here are some of the pitfalls to look out for:

*you can't know someone without meeting personally
*you can't tell what someone's like from a photo
*people can misrepresent themselves
*it's easy to become addicted to the process
*there's a lot of scope for delusion
*people can post old photos or false info about themselves

As a social experiment, I joined a dating website using my middle name, paid my $40 for a trial period and began receiving photos of 'matches'. I thought looking at photos of available guys would be like skimming a shopping catalogue - what fun! But it was not like that at all. Perhaps because of my occupation, I get vibes from people I meet personally, see on TV and look at in photos. I can't help it. It's not a matter of deliberately analysing; it just comes to me.

So, looking at all these photos, I found myself discarding almost every one. The names they gave themselves were off putting too, like "hunkyguy" and "machoman". I looked at a few profiles but felt inclined to get in touch with only three men. One began writing to me regularly and I found myself enjoying his emails very much. He seemed like a nice, normal man. I didn't want to explain by email why I was using the service so I asked to meet for coffee which we did. I told him I was not looking for a relationship but we had a long and very pleasant meeting after which we continued to correspond. He has since stopped writing and I hope that means he's met someone lovely. I asked him to tell me about his online experience and he said he had met up with only a handful of ladies - with one, there was no spark, another was all over him at the first meeting and a third, he saw a few times on a casual basis.

The second guy actually frightened me a bit. Luckily, he was in another state as he got heavy very quickly. His emails were LONG and incredibly intense even after I told him I was only seeking friendship. Right from the start, he told me he was madly in love with me and missed me, couldn't wait to meet me... I decided he was either mentally unstable, a hopeless romantic or a drinker! A less experienced person could very easily be taken in and there's the rub. I remained firm and finally told him not to write to me anymore.

The third guy was the most 'dangerous' one because he sounded normal and was gorgeous looking! Like No 1, he was a pleasure to communicate with. So, if I was going to fall in love online, this guy was the most likely.

We're keeping in touch but I want to emphasise that I have not misled anyone in this process. I've been upfront and clear but felt I had to try it for myself if I'm to recommend it to clients.

Okay, you have emailed a few men and they seem nice, so when do you decide to take it further? I suggest a few phone chats/texts as you can tell a lot more in a voice exchange than by the written word. Texting, being more immediate, can also be quite revealing. Watch for points of honesty, openness and a sense of humour. If there's any defensiveness, neediness or game playing, find a nice way to bail.

The next stage is to meet in person. Choose a public place and suggest coffee rather than dinner in case you get stuck with someone you really don't like for two hours over a meal! Now, here's another tricky part of internet dating. What if you like the person and you don't hear from them after the date, or the reverse - you can't stand them and they keep pursuing you? This is what keeps a lot of people from trying online dating - fear of the consequences.

Honesty is the only answer. If you don't hear further from someone you like, don't take it personally; there might be many good reasons for it. Give them a call and get the feel of where you stand. If it's a no go, move on without rancour. If you get pestered by someone you're not interested in, tell them straight. It's better to hurt their feelings right away than lead them on.

Keeping your feet on the ground is essential if you're going to try to find love online. I'm not by nature sceptical; in fact, I'm quite trusting and naive despite my profession. But I also take a rather clinical approach to relationships. I think they should grow slowly and prospective partners should go in with eyes wide open and rose-coloured glasses off. So, that's my advice from my firsthand experience and my relationship counselling.

Never come from desperation, don't become addicted to online dating and don't restrict yourself to a type'. Your dream lover may come in a different guise but be the right one so keep your mind and heart open.

Armed with coolness, patience and realistic expectations, there's no reason why online love can't be both a possibility and even a potential joy.