The very first night I went out with my now-boyfriend, just under three years ago, we came up with a viable “how we met” story. If I’m being honest, it was mostly my idea, because I was still heavily buying into the “every good couple needs an equally good meet cute story” concept. What would my friends — or, God forbid, my grandmother — have to say when they found out that I ran away to Paris only to meet my boyfriend on an online dating site also frequented by middle-aged foot fetishists whose opening lines are “Let me lick u gorgeous ;)”? Over our bottle of rosé, and in-between flirtatious conversation that was more about finding an excuse to touch one another’s arms than anything else, we decided to say that we met at Starbucks (which was sort of halfway true, because we met in front of one coming out of the metro).
Somehow, nothing struck me as odd about using my first real interaction with him to come up with a lie to tell everyone we knew. In any other circumstance, it would have seemed like an indictment of my character and evidence of a serious narcissistic personality flaw. I was convinced that everyone would judge me if they knew we had met on OkCupid, mostly because I was convinced that they would care. The desire to make sure they never found out somehow outweighed my desire to come across as a cool, effortless person on our first date. The stigma of it all had eaten me whole.
But there was a stigma. Every day I can feel it melting away in our society, but I would argue that when we met — in the opening moments of 2011, before Tinder and the ubiquity of the online dating profile — there was still a little something to be embarrassed of. A woman who used one of these websites (and I’m sure it may have been the same for men, but I obviously have no point of reference) was guaranteed to field questions about “why we couldn’t meet anyone in real life.” It all implied that there was something slightly defective about us, that we had so exhausted our potential in the real world that we had no choice but to turn to a questionable website to harvest dates that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Of course, as freshly-22-year-old woman in one of the cultural centers of the world, I didn’t have trouble finding dates in “real life.” I could have, like most women on dating sites, gone to a bar and tried my luck with what I could find there. And I had, and sometimes it had even turned into a real relationship. I’d met boyfriends through friends, in school, and even on the dance floor of an 18-and-over club (shudder). But sometimes, regardless of how much opportunity I had in my immediate reach, I wanted to see what options existed for me that I wouldn’t happen to cross in my daily routine. The issue was not one of needing to find a date in desperation, it was one of wanting to find all of the people who might be perfect for me, to give myself the best chance of finding the real right person. And as I exchanged messages with my now-boyfriend, before we’d even met in person, I knew that my decision to look for someone like him by all means available to me was the best one I could have made.
This doesn’t mean that the “weird” side of online dating — and I’m being kind, I really mean “disgusting and part of why there is such a stigma” — didn’t get to me. I hated receiving degrading and sexual messages from dozens of men a day, being inundated with barely-literate online cat calls that somehow considered themselves compliments. There was a fair amount of frog-kissing before I found a Prince, and, yes, that did include going on a few terrible dates with men who had painted themselves as very different people online (or simply inspired no chemistry once we couldn’t plan out our messages in advance). I’m sure I disappointed some people, too. And all of these are real hazards of meeting people online, and understandably contribute to the fear that a lot of people have about trying it themselves.
After several solid months of dating — once we both knew that we were something serious, and lost the jittery butterflies of wanting to make our meeting seem “perfect” for posterity — we dropped the lie. We stopped telling people the Starbucks story, and though I imagine a few people were deeply confused as to whether or not they had imagined the previous explanation, it didn’t really matter. The point was that we had become confident enough in our love, and in the means by which we found it, that we didn’t want to waste a moment convincing our friends and family that our history was somehow more “legitimate.” Because meeting someone online, even if the beginnings can be awkward and the search process frustrating, is just as real as meeting them anywhere else. Finding love in life is such a beautiful and precious thing, and to dismiss its origins is to get caught up in semantics. The point is that we happened, that we found each other.
I will always encourage my friends to try online dating if they haven’t met anyone special. I don’t imagine that all of them will meet the loves of their lives there, or that I will be attending their OkCupid-sponsored weddings in a few years, one right after the other. But I do believe that we never know where the great things in our lives will come from, and we all deserve to give ourselves as wide a net as possible. I want all of them to be as happy as I am, and to feel no shame in how they found love. Because if I had known how wonderful my decision to message him would prove to be, I wouldn’t have wasted a single moment of our first date talking to him about something as silly as a coffee shop.