Couples navigate online dating

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They were school chums in the fourth grade in Ruidoso, but Brendan O’Reilly and Amy Hawkins found each other again when O’Reilly saw Hawkins’ photo on a friend’s Facebook page. O’Reilly says he found that a nicer way to meet after some mishaps in the online dating world. The couple got married four years ago. (Courtesy of Brendan O’Reilly/Amy Hawkins)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More and more couples have an online story about how they met.

Still others have excruciating tales of dates with the wrong people.

Yet most are convinced that online dating is a better bet for meeting Mr. or Ms. Right than the bar scene ever was.

“How else do you meet someone?” says Albuquerque lawyer Brendan O’Reilly. “Have you been to a bar lately?”

O’Reilly, 39, met Amy Hawkins, his lovely bride of four years, for the first time in fourth grade in their hometown of Ruidoso.

But decades later, they reconnected after he glimpsed her picture on a friend’s Facebook page.

For him, that was welcome after meeting several women online through and eHarmony, some of whom he says were frightening.

On one first date, one woman ordered seven vodka tonics in two hours. Another woman spent a casual dinner hand-rolling cigarettes and explaining her extreme financial despair.

“The number and length of exchanges were so much work, it just wasn’t worth it after a while,” O’Reilly says. “You might spend two or three hours messaging just to meet for coffee.”

Strange terrain

Local schoolteacher Jenny Krause, 31, a single mom, says online dating is tough, but she just doesn’t have time for bars. “I never met a guy in a bar,” she says. “I’m too busy for it. They are usually intoxicated and have no reason to be real or genuine from the start.

The data on dating

If it seems like a lot of work looking online for true love, it probably is.

Hundreds of books offer wisdom about the online dating game. Books that analyze the algorithms of matches, like former Wall Street reporter Dan Slater’s “Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating” and former Newsweek reporter Amy Webb’s “Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match” offer insight.

But social scientists are doubtful. University of New Mexico professor and sociologist Reuben J. Thomas, who has a doctorate from Stanford University, says of his research about online dating that, “I suppose one could game a particular website’s algorithms to make one’s profile appear higher in others’ search lists. Whether or not the time spent on that is worth any advantage gained is questionable. But as for the effectiveness of those algorithms in general in producing better matches than unaided ad-browsing, I and other social scientists are skeptical.”

Other books explore the increasingly popular way to meet in literature, as in “The Hypothetical Girl,” an Oprah-celebrated collection of short stories that focuses on online dating. That book is written by former Albuquerque resident Elizabeth Cohen, who’s tried online dating herself and is now a university writing professor in New York.

“Online dating is both the best and worst thing to happen to relationship forging,” she says in an email interview. “Best because it provides all sorts of avenues and arteries for people to meet who might never have the opportunity to do so. Worst because it is a perfect petri dish for fraud and deception to bloom.

“We have excellent chances these days – better than ever – for meeting the man or woman of our dreams, but we have to learn a new language to do so. We have to decode the pictures and words that people post to advertise themselves. We also have to learn how best to advertise ourselves – who should we say we are? It gives us all kinds of opportunity to invent and reinvent ourselves. In the end, if we stick as close to the bone of truth as possible, and find someone else who does as well, something good might come about.”

“It’s all difficult. Online or in person. It’s hard to find a genuine guy. Some stick around and you should pay attention to those. Intuition is the key. If they’re too pushy, back away.”

She’s tried several sites but avoids those that seem like “hook-up” sites for people just looking for casual sex.

Still, online and in life, dating is strange, unfamiliar terrain. Krause and her friends have a private Facebook page to share their common observations about bad actors in the online dating world.

But as tricky as online dating seems to her, she still looks. “Maybe someone amazing is sitting at home writing lesson plans for the week and you would only find him on Tinder (a popular dating site).”

Looking for laughs

Christine Lung says that she found her boyfriend of two years on “He’s been a lot of fun. He makes me laugh.”

Lung, 48, a national lobbyist based in Albuquerque, also posted her profile on other dating sites. “I was looking for someone with similar education and professional level.”

Lung says she tried online dating at the insistence of her best friend, who helped her with her profile. “She was tired of me working all the time.”

Lung says she was able narrow her search by reflecting on how someone communicated in his messages. She would meet for a date after rounds of messaging, texts and phone conversations. “I had a self-imposed one-hour limit,” she explains.

She didn’t give out any personal information or where she worked. “I always met them in a public place. I always told my sister where I was going.”

Find the right site

University of New Mexico assistant professor and sociologist Reuben J. Thomas says out of every five couples, one couple will meet through an online dating site, according to a wide-ranging study he wrote with Michael Rosenfeld and published in 2012.

“Online dating has definitely changed dating in the U.S.,” he says. He expects even more couples have met online, since he collected data in 2009. “While there are advantages and disadvantages to dating online versus more traditional ways of meeting romantic partners, we didn’t find a difference in the satisfaction of couples who met online versus offline. They weren’t more or less likely to break up after a year.”

What the research did show was that couples who met online became partners more quickly than couples who met through friends or at work, he says. “Part of that is self-selection, but part of it is meeting online is kind of a vacuum. Meeting online can make a slow romantic progression super awkward.”

As a prudent strategy, Thomas recommends that more than gaming the dating online sites with mathematically derived popular keywords, carefully survey each site before investing too much energy.

“Some people compare different websites to different bars or clubs,” he says. “Some have greater socio-demographic diversity than other sites. Some are more explicit. There are sites for hooking-up and sites for those who are thinking about getting married.”

One finding of the research that he thinks may be fading is that couples who met on the Internet felt stigma attached to meeting online.

“There seemed to be a sense of illegitimacy to it,” he says. “As if meeting in a coffee shop, which is just as public and not exclusive, was somehow more legitimate than meeting online.”

The saving grace

Amy Lujan Garcia, a senior account manager for Presbyterian, says she can relate to that a little. She and her husband, Frank Garcia, dated for more than two years before getting married about five months ago. Now, they chuckle whenever someone asks where they met.

“We look at each other,” she says. “We’re a little embarrassed, but we met online. More and more people meet online.”

Amy, 50, who was widowed about 15 years ago and was raising three children, says she felt safer dating online than in other settings. “To me, sitting behind a screen was safer than meeting someone in a bar.”

She says she tried the more common sites, like and, before she tried, where she met Frank, 47, a plant manager for a cement business.

“You learn the system as you go,” she says. “It’s a process. I learned and I noted as I went through the process what was working and what wasn’t working.

She adds that the saving grace was learning her priorities, or her deal breakers, early on.

With three children at home, she let any potential dates know from the beginning that her family was her priority. She was also close with her extended family.

“If they referenced my kids as baggage, I was done,” she says. “If a guy wasn’t interested in going with me to a family function, I was done.”

Another red flag was someone who degraded their ex-spouse, she says. “If they have a good relationship with their kids’ mom, you know they are healthy.”

She says girlfriends who don’t stick with their priorities will continue to date men they know aren’t right for them. “If you are in a certain age group, some things are just not going to change.”

Making the first meeting brief, less than hour in a coffee shop, was another thing she learned. If she was interested, she could set up another meeting.

She also let a man know when she wasn’t interested in dating. “I was conscientious about that,” she says. “I was always nice and never hateful. People can go crazy and they do.”

Meeting her match

Meeting Frank almost didn’t happen because his interests were summed up in one line: “I appreciate a good joke.”

Also, he looked intimidating in his photo. “He was tall, dark and bald,” Garcia says.

But then they started to message and Frank’s communication was kind. He proved to be a gentleman, she says. “We’re both from small towns. He’s a big, kind man. He’s always included my kids in anything we do.”

Frank has a son, 25, the same age as her oldest son, she says. Together they took their families to Puerto Rico last year and then the couple honeymooned in Italy this year. “We both want to travel while we’re young and fit.”

For Frank, he says the online dating experience was a good one. His best advice is to be honest and to pick a site that reflects your values.

“I picked Christian Mingle because I was looking for someone with the same moral ideals,” he says. “We don’t have a lot in common, but it works for us because we started out with the most important things: A strong faith in God and the same type of family values. Our differences are what make it fun and interesting. So if your profiles aren’t an exact match, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, because it may pay off in the long run. It did for me.”

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KRAUSE: “Intuition is the key”

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Christine Lung narrowed her online dating search by looking at how well a potential date communicated through several rounds of texting, messaging and phone conversations. When she met someone the first time, “I had a self-imposed one-hour limit,” she says. (Courtesy of Christine Lung)

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Newlyweds Amy Lujan Garcia and Frank Garcia found love through, an online dating site. At first, they say, they were reluctant to reveal that, but now Amy says, “To me, sitting behind a screen was safer than meeting someone in a bar.” (Courtesy of The Garcias)

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(Photo Illustration By Marla Brose and Russ Ball/Albuquerque Journal)

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