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Double Take: Online beau may not be as he appears

Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: I’ve been dating a guy for two years. Now I’ve met someone through an online game, and I think we’re in love. I want to go and meet him in person, but my friends say that I’m dumb to break up with someone I know for someone I don’t know.

Katie: The problem here isn’t that you’re considering breaking up with your boyfriend to start a relationship with someone you don’t know; it’s that you’re considering starting a relationship with someone you don’t know. That sounds like a subtle difference, but this situation wouldn’t be any less troubling if you were single.

If you’ve fallen out of love with your current boyfriend, don’t feel obligated to stay in the relationship just because of the history the two of you have built together. Since your friends already know about your doubts, it probably won’t be long before news of your online love interest reaches your boyfriend’s ears. It will be best if those words come from your lips, not the grapevine. I hope that as a couple you can determine the next step in your relationship, be it sticking together or parting ways.

However, even if you do decide to break it off, I caution you against setting up an in-person date with your gaming friend. When hanging out in the virtual world with people you meet online — even particularly charismatic people who make your heart spark like an overheating computer — avoid revealing information (your full name, for instance) that could identify you with a Google search.

Online anonymity can be both useful and dangerous. As we’ve seen recently with Manti Te’o and the girlfriend he thought was real, it’s frighteningly easy to create a convincing online persona using falsified personal information and a soothing dose of charm. The boy you’ve met in the virtual world might be exactly who he says he is — but then again, he might be 10, 20, 30 years older than his purported age, or he might be the right age but have the wrong intentions.

Unless you have a trusted mutual friend or some other reliable intermediary who can vouch for his real-world character, you cannot trust that you’ll be safe. Love may be blind, but sexual predators are not: Fall in love with your eyes wide open.

Dr. Wes: The virtual world really isn’t that virtual any more. It’s pretty much as real as the one we walk through each day.

Most of us have been fooled by a prospective dating partner at one time or another, whether we met them online or at a party. Whether that risk is actually greater online is questionable, but as Katie notes, it’s a lot easier to keep up a false identity on the Internet.

I’m with your friends on this one. Some of the best relationships I’ve ever seen came about via online dating, and some of the very worst, most absolutely, unbelievably scary ones came from online chat rooms.

What’s the difference? Dating sites are designed for introduction, not relationship building. While some, like eHarmony, help people through the first steps of getting to know one another, nobody on a dating site falls in love with an online profile. Why would they?

Chat rooms and gaming sites are a different matter. They create teams and friendships and yes, even love affairs, all without any clear intent. I doubt you got on your gaming site and thought, “Wow, I wonder who I could crush on here?” Yet that seems to happen all too often.

In addition to gaming, people coalesce around political action, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” alien abduction, the environment, conspiracy theories, Taylor Swift. You name it, and social media has a group for it.

All that connection with like-minded folks creates a sense of bonding, just like in the real world. When you’re online, however, you have very few context clues about the person’s real identity, motives and intentions, and all those variables can be easily masked. So taking the relationship out of cyberspace pretty much violates everything that’s great about it in the first place.

I differ from Katie a bit in that I think the real danger in this relationship is that it distracts you from the one you’re really in. Most of those awful online affairs I mentioned ended marriages or solid working relationships. While you’re young and have every right to explore new horizons, do so ethically and with some thought to the consequences.

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