Joy Isaacs was bored and her married friend was curious, and that's why she signed up for eHarmony last January.
At age 24, she liked being single and dreamed of ministry in Haiti after finishing her job commitment in Leesburg, Va. A man would change all that. The whole online dating thing was absurd, anyway.
But with her friend, Katie Wilson, prodding her, she agreed. They spent the whole afternoon answering profile questions.
Isaacs is not alone, and the stereotype of online daters as desperate singles looking for love is rapidly fading. Millions of people around the world have joined online dating sites, secular and Christian alike. In a disconnected world, online dating lets singles seeking romantic relationships make connections with like-minded people outside their current circle of friends and acquaintances.
eHarmony alone has more than 20 million members paying $60 a month to find love. It claims responsibility for nearly 5 percent of all marriages in the U.S., about 542 marriages every day. A Match.com survey claims that one in every five singles uses online dating sites and that 17 percent of married American couples met online. And it's big business. According to media research company IBISWorld, online dating pulled in an estimated $1.9 billion in profits in 2010.
But online dating also presents a set of challenges and risks different from the days when people typically met future spouses in school, church, or the neighborhood. Technology can both isolate people from their communities and then fill the void it creates. As Neil Postman warned in Amusing Ourselves To Death, "the culture always pays a price for technology."
Isaacs and Wilson laughed as they scrolled through hundreds of eHarmony profiles recommended through the site's Compatibility Matching System. "We want to help you find the love of your life," eHarmony told her.
The free trial ended, but Isaacs' interest did not. "It's really hard to find a good Christian man," Isaacs said, and she saw no prospects at church or work. Plus, "I wasn't going to change churches over a man."
She prayed and signed up, paying $60 for a one-month subscription.
"I was determined to get my money's worth," Isaacs said. Every night after an exhausting day at work, she logged on to eHarmony to check for contacts and write guys back. Some men disqualified themselves, like the "ego-head" who sent a picture of himself shirtless.
She often stayed up late, sitting with her laptop on the bathroom floor to avoid waking her sister, and gave close friends her password so they could help filter profiles and recommend guys.
One night, Wilson sent Isaacs the profile of 26-year-old Andy Fritz from Gaithersburg, Md., who lived only 90 minutes away. "Joy, I like this guy-he sounds solid," she said.
Isaac took a look--Fritz's profile listed History of Librarianship in the 21st Century as current reading--and said no. She was already in contact with a dozen guys, including a seminary student from Michigan, a youth pastor in Delaware, and a few others in her area. "All you know about them is online and what they tell you," Isaacs said. "A lot of guys appeared to be serious Christians."
A few days later, however, Fritz sent her a "request for contact" with five multiple-choice questions to get to know her better.
Fritz's first e-mail was long, honest, and detailed. He seemed funny and shared her values. Over email they talked about theology and their college educations (she had majored in social work, he in psychology). "The more I talked with Andy the less interested I was in the others," Isaacs said.
Three weeks later, in early February, Isaacs and Fritz met up in the Lego store of a local shopping mall and went out for coffee. "People on paper might be nicer then in person," Isaacs said. "I thought it would be about 30 minutes-we stayed until the mall closed."
Fritz had been on eHarmony for six months as well as other dating sites in the past, and he was cautious. He wanted to enjoy a friendship and not get emotionally attached until they had gotten to know each other in person.
Things moved rapidly from that point, much like a traditional long-distance relationship. They spent time with each other's friends, family, and churches. They read books on relationships together. They shared a first kiss in April, got engaged a short time later, and married on Oct. 8, 2011.
"It was kind of fast but we knew each other very well, who we were, believed the same things, and were headed in the same life direction," she said.
Many online relationships, however, end badly. A 27-year-old teacher from northern Virginia dated a man online for three months. After she visited him in Florida for the first time, they got engaged. He had two kids from a previous marriage and anger issues. Her family and the man's own mother tried to talk her out of it, but a month later they were married.
She gave up everything and moved to Florida, only to find herself a few months later unexpectedly holding divorce papers and staring at a drained savings account. She returned to Virginia last month. WORLD agreed to withhold her name because she is still picking up the pieces of her life.
To avoid this kind of disaster and to meet other believers who share their theological convictions, some are turning to the dozens of Christian sites springing up, such as Christiansingle.com, Christianmingle.com, Christiancafe.com, Christianlifestyle.com, and Christiandatingforfree.com. But that's no guarantee, either.
"The Internet is kind of seductive," said Dean Scott, founder of SovereignGraceSingles.com, "and you can create whatever you want to see, but that doesn't mean it is reality."
Jonathan Narwold, another online dater, agreed.
"You get to know someone for months online, and you think you know them well," he said. "Then you meet them in person, and you learn that they're a different person than you thought them to be."
Some Christians report, in fact, that unbelievers sometimes present themselves as Christians simply to find somebody nice.
Scott advises users of his website to meet with other users in their region for fellowship and service projects. "It gives them opportunities to see people as they really are," Scott said. "In dating, it's easy to put your best foot forward, but in a group it is hard to be pretentious."
"I strongly encourage involvement of parents, clergy, or a godly friend," he added.
Joy Fritz encourages online daters to set up an honest and accurate profile. "Be yourself, don't waste time trying to be who you think other people would want you to be," she said. "It's so weird to think it happened to me."
This story first appeared on WORLD Virginia.