A recent New York Times piece lamenting the "end of courtship" mentioned something most of us in the 21st-century dating scene have known for a while: details couples once reserved for first-date conversations can now be unearthed far too easily with a few web searches. And why not? You may well have met the person online or out dancing and want to verify certain claims. Perhaps you need a good picture for girlfriends to see how hot that guy from the bar was. Or maybe you just want some help making conversation.
I once used to do my share of online sleuthing, to be sure, but in almost every case the research was my response to a gap of some kind. Either we lacked common friends who could serve as a character reference, or our connection was too haphazard or casual to grant me what I really wanted.
You see, for much of adulthood, I formed aspirational crushes. It wasn't ever deliberate, yet somehow I usually fell for men whose esteem or rejection came to influence my self-worth. In a phrase Tim Keller often uses (probably quoting Lewis or Tolkien), I longed for "the praise of the praiseworthy."
With this mindset, even little tastes of intimacy or access to a crush acquired a disproportionate sense of value, and every exchange mattered far more than it should have. Yet in the end, any intimacy I found in via Google search … or even electronic communication with the crush proved largely false.
It took me a long time to figure out why. Then one Sunday morning in a church class on dating, I heard this formula: Intimacy = talk + time + togetherness. As John Van Epp explains in his book How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk (on which the class was based), Internet-based relationships are often rich in talk, but can transpire very rapidly and may develop across great distance.
Sure, you may learn all sorts of deep and meaningful secrets about the beloved's youth, but as the movie and now TV show Catfish so aptly depict, mundane details like someone's voice, height, sex, laugh and chewing style might well require security clearance. (Or the person's very existence… ahem, Manti T'eo.)
The Internet privileges self-revelation with all its feints, omissions, and dodges, while face-to-face contact over time bequeaths a wealth of observed information. How does someone behave in groups or traffic, when bored or stressed or thwarted? Will he or she follow through on commitments or spit out rosy promises like an Instagram feed?
All that's part of someone's character, integrity, mettle. And in the long run, such qualities matter far more than what they've got listed on a social media profile, or even how well you banter. While common ground might help you plan dates, who you are trumps what you like in any real conflict, setback, or hard decision.
That's why I don't Google stalk suitors. (The irony, of course, is that most men could easily research me, provided they have a few facts in hand. I always try to discourage this.)
Most sources in The New York Times artile lamented the crudeness of modern courtship as transacted in the digital age — and understandably so. Yet, all these devices we finger like glowing rosaries haven't just altered many social norms, they've also privileged certain kinds of knowledge and certain ways of learning about the world. That probably helps distort our expectations of each other.
Life cannot be downloaded. It doesn't yield its mysteries just because you were first in line or used the right search term. I'm starting to learn that's part of the fun.