A new survey shows that the French have also become experts in digital romance, with both its highs and its heartbreaks and whole new ways of hooking up.
PARIS - Can two people fall in love -- or at least begin to fan the flames de l'amour -- without ever having met? The French believe they can.
In France, nearly one in four people is already signed up on a dating site, and 40% say they'd be ready to sign up if they were to become single again. These are the results of an online poll conducted in January for the French women's magazine Femme actuelle by the Institut français d'opinion publique (IFOP).
Since the creation of Meetic in November 2001, French dating sites, social networks, and discussion forums have multiplied on the Internet, giving people new ways of forging bonds. A call for testimonials posted by Lemonde.fr showed that relationships started on the web are sometimes -- but not always -- carried over happily into real life.
Clothilde signed up on an Argentine dating site so she could link up with men in Argentina. "One day, I got a message from a user who hadn't posted a picture. Just a few lines, in French worthy of 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas, from an Argentine man who wrote that I was the loveliest flower in the Luxembourg gardens but that he, unfortunately, was more Cyrano de Bergerac."
The man's message made Clothilde curious, his words had hit a chord. "He sent me a photograph the next day. All I saw was a very handsome man. After that, the relationship developed naturally, one email a day, then some snail mail letters so I could read his handwriting. And then he told me he loved me!"
Clothilde's story continues like a fairy tale: she left France to go to Argentina, married her Internet lover, and the couple now has two children.
So has the Internet become just another new way of meeting people? Not exactly: digital love doesn't follow the same rules as meeting someone at a party, at work, or in any other real-life situation. It's more intense; words can have incendiary power. And then the transition to real life can be very disappointing.
"In email exchanges between two people who are interested in each other, there's a progression that fuels desire," explains Pascal Couderc, a psychoanalyst and author of the recent French-language book L'Amour au coin de l"écran (the title plays on the phrrase au coin du feu, or "by the fireside," inserting the word écran, or screen, it evokes love by the warmth of the screen.)
"The exchange gradually becomes charged with erotic energy," Couderc continues: "Words are like caresses – and the complicity and understanding between the two partners is perfect."
Without reality to gum things up, imaginations take flight. "All digital lovers who have been fooled by both the other's feelings and by their own fall into the same trap," the psychoanalyst explains. Love relations that begin with words are primarily fantasy and projection.
Daniel met his future wife on a social network. "What I wanted most was to meet her in the flesh, quickly. That way, my fantasies didn't have time to get out of hand," he says. "Before meeting my wife, I'd often been disappointed – it's pretty rare to meet women who correspond to their claims about themselves." Physically and otherwise, he says. "I think the deception is almost unconscious. It's easier to wear a mask. I myself have lied to seduce certain women," he admits.
Daniel started Internet dating after breaking up with somebody. He says that, after the break-up, he needed to feel that he was attractive. He fell in love once, digitally: with a professor of literature. "Our epistolary relationship was very theatrical. We expressed ourselves in long monologues. We could spend entire days chatting," he recalls.
A single word
The idealization that 19th century French writer Stendhal called "crystallization" is rendered more intense in Internet relationships. "From a single word written by the other, we can create a whole novel," says Couderc. "The object of desire can be invested with attributes that they lack entirely."
Françoise felt "very alone." Divorced for 20 years, with grown children who no longer lived at home, she fell in love with a much younger man on Facebook. At first, she refused his invitation to become friends, but – because he insisted – finally relented. "What won me over," she says, "aside from how nice he was, was his ‘honesty" – and all the things he told me that no man had ever told me before." This very intense virtual relationship lasted three months. "When we met for the first time, he was exactly the way I'd imagined," she remembers. Françoise went abroad to marry him. Fifteen days later, he dumped her: he'd found another – richer – woman.
Adeline, 31, met her partner on the French dating site Adopteunmec.com (Adoptaguy.com). After spending a night exchanging e-mails, they switched to Facebook and then met up in the flesh. "He didn't correspond at all to what I'd imagined, but we had a good time," she recalls.
The same thing happened to a 23-year-old student. She says that after two weeks of enthusiastic exchange via Internet, she was disappointed when she actually met her correspondent. Despite this, the couple decided to give it a go. Three years later, they're still together.
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