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Moving Online Romance Offline: How Soon Is Too Soon?

Chemistry and compatibility are better judged in person sooner rather than later

The goal of online dating is not to establish a cyber pen pal, but a real time romance.[1] Most people agree that the first offline meeting will determine whether the relationship would move forward.[2] Yet in terms of moving the relationship from the virtual to the physical, how soon is too soon?

Live Ambition: When to Move Offline

Having spent a career prosecuting sex offenders and rapists I am well aware of the dangers presented by cyber predators, and in full support of adequately screening potential romantic partners online. Yet we all have friends and family members who met wonderful partners and spouses online and are living happily ever after in satisfying, wholesome relationships.

Striking a balance is often a matter of timing. How long should you communicate with an online romantic prospect before meeting offline? Concerned friends and parents say as long as possible. But research indicates that meeting sooner rather than later is the best way to gauge relational suitability.

Offline Screening: Rush to Judgment or Reality Check

Many daters prefer to build a relationship of trust online before meeting in person. Others worry that prospective partners who are dragging their feet might be hiding something (like their true appearance, which might barely resemble their outdated profile photo)

In every case, it is always safest to build trust online and over the phone first. Yet there are only so many cues we can interpret through virtual and verbal communication. Research indicates that long periods of online communication before meeting offline might damage romantic potential by causing over interpretation of virtual social cues that adversely impact expectations at the first face-to-face meeting.[3] Integrating online information and in person experience is the best way to achieve a cohesive assessment of potential partner suitability.[4]

Despite the benefits of live interaction, daters are skeptical of the motives of someone who wants to move offline too quickly. Yet some manipulative criminals posing as romantic interests do not want to move the relationship offline . . . ever.

Circumstances Under Which You Should Proceed With Caution

Be aware of the two extremes: virtual partners who want to move offline immediately, or not at all. The Scammers Persuasive Technique Model describes the process through which criminals groom their victims before requesting money.[5] These fraudsters typically express their love for the victim early on in the relationship, and attempt to move the relationship offline.[6] Victims, although some believe they will earn money themselves, appear to be motivated by achieving the relationship with the criminal, rather than by financial gain.[7]

Other financial scammers do everything they can to avoid offline screening by keeping the relationship in the cloud. They claim to live abroad, thus creating more time to cultivate a closer relationship of trust online.[8] Making the relationship part of the victim´s daily routine through regular communication sessions created a strong attachment, and allows criminals to market themselves as ideal relational partners.[9]

Going Offline, Not Offroad. First Date Should be in Public, Not Private

Congratulations, your virtual relationship has graduated to arranging to meet face to face. The first offline meeting is a much-anticipated event that serves as a moment of truth for many online daters. Yet because there will always be a small percentage of dangerous people hiding in the otherwise wholesome mix of online candidates, the first date should be safely preplanned, and public.

The first date should be in a centrally located, popular area, not a deserted hole-in-the-wall off the beaten track. And it certainly should not be in private. I have prosecuted cases where couples moved directly from the chat room to the bedroom to the criminal courtroom after a sexual assault.

In addition, consider strategies for safety, which include:

  • Telling someone where and when you will be meeting your date.
  • Arranging to call someone when the date is over to let him or her know you are safe.
  • Meeting for coffee rather than alcohol. Remaining sharp and clear-headed will allow you to analyze your first impression of your date, as well as manage your own.
  • Consider safety in numbers. Perhaps your first date can coincide with a time someone you know will also be having coffee in the same place. After all, safety is important, and so is a second opinion.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert who spent years prosecuting sex offenders. She received the SART Response with a Heart Award from the Sexual Assault Response Team based on her significant contribution to the field of sexual assault prosecution. Dr. Patrick is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House 2008).

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

References

[1] Monica T. Whitty, ”Revealing the ´real´ me, searching for the áctual´ you: Presentations of self on an internet dating site,” Computers in Human Behavior Vol. 24 (2008): 1707-1723 (1715).

[2] Whitty, ”Revealing the ´real´me,” 1715.

[3] Eli J. Finkel, Paul W. Eastwick, Benjamin R. Karney, Harry T. Reis, and Susan Sprecher, “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol. 13, No. 1 (2012): 3–66.

[4] Finkel et al., “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science.”

[5] Monica T. Whitty, ”The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model: Development of a Stage Model to Explain the Online Dating Romance Scam,” Brit. J. Criminol. Vol. 53 (2013): 665-684.

[6] Whitty, ”The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model,” 666.

[7] Whitty, ”The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model,” 666.

[8] Whitty, ”The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model,” 678.

[9] Whitty, ”The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model,” 678.

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