Online dating: the good, the bad and the ugly...

Many people think of these as the internet equivalent of pick-up joints. And though they're not populated by beer-swilling, paunched men and skimpily dressed women whose only aim is to take someone home that night, they are looked down upon by 'respectable' people. The same people who would not think twice of colonizing the aforementioned pick-up joint for a night.

I know at least two women who met their husbands online. In both cases their partners resided on another continent and they would never have met each other if it wasn't through an online forum. One is happily married and the other is happily married with two sons. And neither of these men are the kinds of geeks we usually think of as frequenting these cyberclubs.

Then, there is also the case of the stalker, the 40-year old virgin and the nice guy who just wanted to be friends, encountered by Ashleigh, a good friend of mine. Most women who want to meet men complain that all the guys want is sex. Well, that was the least of Ashleigh's problems.

The stalker situation started off normally enough, with a few online interchanges. After two weeks of email via the dating site, Ashleigh felt confident enough to meet the guy. Two weeks and three dates later, he invited her to his farm for a weekend. I thought that this was a bad idea. Three hours into their first evening together, my (usually) intelligent friend started seeing the signs. A small bit of instability here, the odd tendency to walk around armed with a pistol there – and her common sense kicked in. After he threw his first tantrum she left immediately. It has taken her about six months to get him to stop calling her, smsing and emailing weekly.

Now, the 40-year old virgin is not just a new movie on circuit. It has actually happened to Ashleigh. She had been dating a man she met online for about a month. He was a well educated, intelligent man two months away from his 40th birthday. She liked him, but not enough to marry him. He didn’t believe in sex before marriage. It seems he didn't believe in any kind of affection before marriage. Needless to say, Ashleigh summed this up as a bit of false advertising on his part, and they soon parted ways.

I know of at least one situation where all the 'date' wanted was to expand his social circle. Some people actually do go online dating just to meet new people, with no expectations of the fairy-tale happily-ever-after.

The problem with online dating is that it’s very hard to get a sense of who you are dealing with. This works in good and bad ways. You won’t pick up warning signs that may point to ‘different’ behaviour, but that instant chemistry that some people have on first meeting isn’t their either.

The good bits about finding a friend or potential date online is that you have time to suss out the person. You can take it as slowly or as fast as you choose – and you’re in total control – as long as you remain within the safe confines of cyberspace.

Most online dating sites protect the subscriber's identity and use private onsite mailboxes so that you only give out your details when you're comfortable doing so. Of course, there's a voyeuristic aspect to being able to be anybody you want to be. In as much as that is interesting and playful, it also means that you can never be sure who is on the other side of the mouse. So if you're surprised when your date turns up and he doesn't actually look like the picture of Tom Cruise on his profile, put it down to aggressive marketing on his behalf. (Yes, like you didn't actually Photoshop your picture!)

I've heard as many horror stories as happy endings about finding love and friendship online. It seems to be more a case of how careful one is, rather than the luck of the draw in this lotto of love.

Tell us some of the online dating horror stories you've heard (or experienced), by posting a message on our hot topic messageboard.

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