More of us are looking for romance online but are we at risk of missing out on the real thing, asks Deirdre Reynolds.
HALF of all couples will have met their partner online by 2031, a new survey by eHarmony has found.
For couples planning a romantic trip to the cinema today, the film Her takes things a step further by predicting a future where singletons fall for their computer, instead.
In the Oscar-nominated romcom, which hits cinemas nationwide today, sparks fly between a soon-to-be divorced writer (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer’s new operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
With her humanlike personality, ‘Samantha’ doesn’t just help with his daily tasks, she fills the emotional vacuum in his life, too.
As they spend more and more time together, the human and computer soon fall in love and even have sex.
It isn’t as farfetched as you might think, says relationship expert, David Kavanagh, of Avalon Relationship Consultants: “Many people are already more involved with their gadgets than they are with their partner.
“I’ve seen couples on pre-marriage courses who’ve come back from lunch early, and rather than actually talk to each other, they go on their smartphones.
“Another couple told me they send Facebook messages to each other when they’re lying beside each other in bed.”
Currently planning her wedding to French journalist Romain Dauriac, Johansson is unlikely to be left staring at a computer screen this February 14.
But the 29-year-old told Vanity Fair magazine that technology has helped improve her relationships: “The only thing that has changed my life, or had a positive effect on my life, is Skype or Facetime,” she said.
“Any of those video chats that you can do with your family, or your partner, or your friend, are so life-changing when you are away from home for months and months shooting.”
Better access to the internet is driving the boom in online dating, according to the research, with web usage among 18- to 64-year-olds more than doubling, to 88%, in the past decade; while smartphones are thought to have made the dating game even easier.
Today’s singletons can find love (Plenty of Fish, Tinder), and flirt (Facebook), cheat (Ashley Madison, Gleeden) and break-up (BreakupText), all without leaving the house.
Even cult dating bible, The Rules, had to be rewritten for the Facebook generation, last year.
“As a nation, I think we’re definitely getting more into online dating,” says matchmaker, Avril Mulcahy. “But there’s still a bit of a stigma attached to it.
“It’s fine to say you got off your face and went home with someone you met in a bar, but it’s not OK to admit you met someone from a dating site for a coffee in the middle of the day.
“It’s crazy: we do our banking and shopping online, so why not dating, too? It’s just a different way of meeting someone.”
Glee star Naya Rivera has no problem admitting she hooked up with her fiancé, rapper Big Sean, online.
She told Access Hollywood: “I had followed him [on Twitter] and he sent me a little message like, ‘I’m a fan’.
“We went to dinner and the rest is history.”
“Facebook, Twitter and all these other sites are great,” says Jennifer Haskins, of Two’s Company, a nationwide introduction agency. “You can come home in the evening, switch on your computer, and suddenly you’re connected to hundreds of people.
“But they’re kind of nameless, faceless people you don’t know and will probably never meet.”
“There are a lot of people online who aren’t genuine,” says Mulcahy, who is also RT…’s Today show dating expert.
“One client of mine trusted someone she had met online with her credit card, to book a holiday for them both.
Needless to say, that was the last she saw of him or her credit card.
“As a matchmaker, I always promise to introduce clients to someone who is genuinely looking for a relationship.”
No mean feat, if you consider that Irish people are among the most unfaithful in Europe, according to infidelity website, Ashley Madison.
More than 80,000 married men and women, as well as singletons, have signed up to the service, since it launched here in 2009.
“Recent studies show that about 30% of the users of socalled single [dating] websites are not actually single,” Christoph Kraemer, European communications manager for Ashleymadison.com, tells Feelgood.
“Obviously, if you are looking for true love [online], and then find that your true love is already taken, it can lead to a whole bunch of problems, especially if that person has your email address or telephone number.
“With our website, there is no room for misunderstanding: it is a site specifically created for people who are looking for an affair, not Prince Charming or the woman of their dreams.
“What’s interesting is that, last year, we experienced an above-average growth in Ireland,” he says. “While our European average was 28%, in Ireland it was 38%.
“It makes Ireland second only to Spain as the European champions of infidelity.
“We always defend ourselves by saying that we didn’t invent infidelity,” says Kraemer. “It has existed ever since the concept of monogamous relationships has.
“The only thing we are doing is creating an environment that is safer for people who are looking for an affair.
“If anything, we find that people tend to be more honest about their age and appearance on our site, since they already have a partner and aren’t interested in playing games.”
In Japan there are plenty of opportunities to play games with a life-size, high-tech doll.
For 5m yen (around €36,400), you can buy a ‘robot girlfriend’ by the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory.
Speaking about the android, named ‘Chizuko’, at a press conference, roboticist, Hiroshi Ishiguro, predicted she would be bigger than the iPad: “We’re neurologically hardwired to react to these androids as though they’re human beings.
“Once you [see] Chizuko walking across a room in her little black dress, you won’t be able to tell the difference between Chizuko and a human female.”
“If you consider how much you spend on a girlfriend over time, it’s a real bargain,” says Ishiguro.
From Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft to the Android game, My Virtual Girlfriend, romancing a robot may not be such a big leap for many Irish men after all.
But for real women looking for love right now, there is no point looking to their laptop for chocolates or flowers this Valentine’s Day, says Mulcahy.
“There’s no point in online dating if you don’t go on actual dates.
“The whole point of online dating is to come offline.”
Dating websites have their uses but only as a means to a real-life connection, says Dublin-based sex therapist, Emily Power Smith.
“Social media and online dating sites are not bad or good in and of themselves, it’s how we use them that determines their value.
“Likewise, I don’t know any women who consider their vibrator, or any man who considers online porn, to be a better substitute for the arms of a lover, though they may give them better orgasms.
“People who are attracted to robots or virtual partners are often lacking in confidence,” she says. “So it is easier to immerse yourself in a fantasy romance with a companion who will never judge, challenge or reject you.”
Kavanagh urges gadget addicts to unplug this Valentine’s Day: “I don’t know if technology will ever replace real relationships, like in the movie, Her.
“My concern is that the more we use computers, the more difficult we find it to communicate with other people.
“For a generation of young people who live their lives online, they may become incapable of feeling an emotional connection with another human being.
“As humans, we yearn for companionship,” he says, “to feel connected to other people mentally, emotionally and physically.
“And, let’s face it, that’s something your computer can never offer.”
It was nerve-wracking to finally meet up in person
Annette Marshall, from Athlone, met boyfriend, Gary, from Longford, on social network, Tagged, two years ago. Both are aged 23.
“I was only on Tagged a few months, when Gary sent me a message saying: ‘I hope you don’t mind [my saying so], but you are really beautiful’. Cheesy, I know, but it worked. ”We started chatting and just clicked straight away. So I deleted my account and added him on Facebook. We also swapped numbers and chatted everyday by text, and a couple of times on the phone. Five months later, we decided to meet up in person,” says Annette, an insurance underwriter. ”It was quite nerve-wracking, as we had only ever seen photos of each other. To make matters worse, my car broke down and my dad had to come and rescue us.
“As Gary and I don’t live together, we still rely on technology to keep our relationship going: we Facebook each other a lot, as well as texts and telephone calls.
“People often ask me: ‘Were you not afraid that he could have been completely different [to his online profile]?’ My reply is always: ‘What if Gary was thinking exactly the same thing?’
“You hear all these stories about online dating. Once you have your wits about you, only meeting if and when it feels right and telling someone you are meeting the person, I think it is safe.
“Two years on, I’m certainly glad I took the risk.”
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