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"Catfish" and the Perils of Online Dating

Online relationships may lead to love, but also great deception and heartbreak.

Every so often a reality television show comes along that genuinely captures my attention from start to finish. MTV’s newest show, Catfish, does just that. It is based off of a documentary film where the narrator of the current television show, Nev Schulman, went to meet his online love in person only to be shocked by the deception he found. The woman whose picture he’d been shown was that of an entirely different person. He was heartbroken to find he had really fallen for no more than a mirage. While it may initially sound trivial, if not superficial, the implications of such an occurrence are profound.

The mind has a powerful way of weaving intricate narratives about reality when in love. Study findings indicate when shown pictures of their beloved, individuals have better pain tolerance. Hence, one can start to understand the strong attachment that can form from thousands of miles away through the exchange of repeated sentiments and promises of lifelong love with no more than a photo in hand. Online dating has been around for quite awhile, and predates official dating websites such as eHarmony or Match. Chat rooms, Facebook messages, and even plain email have made such connections possible.

In the show Catfish, Nev and his team partner with individuals in such relationships where no actual face-to-face meetings have occurred due to the other person’s evasion of the meeting request. Most often on the show it is the men avoiding meeting the women. The team tracks down these mysterious individuals which often leads to fascinating revelations.

In one episode, a woman had been in an online relationship for 10 years without having ever met the gentleman with whom she had been messaging. She found he was ashamed to meet her due to struggling with morbid obesity. In another episode, a nursing student who believed herself to be dating an anesthesiology resident found she’d actually been speaking to a teenaged woman who was struggling with her bisexual identity. Sometimes these individuals have children, other times completely different identities.

Many of us have had analogous experiences firsthand. We’ve been aware of the ability for online profiles to allow for any number of identities to come forth, real or imagined. In a previous article found here, I discuss Facebook as a reality show in and of itself. Additionally, we may have messaged and even flirted online, possibly going further than initially intentioned. The near anonymity of online interactions makes many things impossible in the real world, possible in the virtual one.

Though many have in fact found love and happiness online, Catfish shows the other side of the equation that is often left out. A common trait in the women on the show is a certain naivety if not innocence regarding these relationships. After all, they have elected a far less threatening mode of communication—one in which their physical presence is not required, and where there is a far greater sense of control in the relationship. They need not engage in conversational exchanges that require a certain facility and reciprocal dance. They can wait, think, and respond at their own pace, time, and convenience. But at the end of the day, they too fall head over heels. It may not be true love they have fallen for, but instead the idea of love and a beloved. Fortunately, the show’s narrator appears to have some counseling skills of his own, as he comforts the heartbroken, encourages dialogue and mediates the often unhappy fallout of these meetings.

In the end many of us are looking for love, and believe we may find it in the most unlikely of situations. It’s the rare, quirky story some imagine telling the grandchildren. Yet in the pursuit, staying grounded in reality is paramount. Though certainly featuring some of the more extreme examples, shows such as Catfish remind us objects in the mirror aren’t always as they appear.

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More from Goali Saedi Bocci Ph.D.
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