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Coupling

Whiplash

Things move too fast for me in the online dating world.

By Joseph Williams
October 11, 2009

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After a stormy divorce and involuntary period of celibacy, it felt a little overwhelming to reenter the brave new dating world -- especially considering that my first go-round as an eligible man led to the 13-year marriage that had just imploded.

One night, bored, broke, and Web-surfing to kill time, I stumbled on the world of online dating, a cheap, seemingly risk-free way as a 47-year-old to ease back into the game, to define my tastes, and to figure out what went wrong the first time. It didn’t take long to learn that cyber-relationships are hyper-accelerated and that some of the normal rules of dating don’t seem to apply.

I was apprehensive when I came up with a catchy screen name, uploaded a photo of myself, and paid the membership fee to one website. But Dr. Linda, a therapist and confidante, said it could be a safe way to experiment -- no meat-market bars, no risky hookups, built-in boundaries. “Just be careful,” she said. “There are a lot of hungry women out there.”

Beginner’s luck led me to Reese, a self-employed caterer. As former athletes with young children and slightly warped senses of humor, we clicked immediately. Daily e-mails quickly evolved into hours-long phone calls, trading life philosophies, relationship scars, even quotes from Caddyshack.

Then, suddenly, Reese broke up with me, citing distance -- she lives in New Hampshire, I’m in Washington -- and the short time I’d been divorced. “You need a meaningless relationship,” she told me. “You should go out and date a stripper named Trixie.”

A day later, I was happy to see Reese’s e-mail asking to reconsider: “Can I have a mulligan?” But the next day, deciding her first instinct was correct, she ended things for good, urging me to find Trixie. Our entire relationship lasted eight days.

Not long after, I met Tienya, a special-education teacher in New Mexico. After months trading e-mails, frisky text messages, and phone calls, we decided to meet, and I purchased a round-trip ticket to see her. But I got cold feet at the last minute: She seemed offended that I’d booked a hotel room rather than stay with her and questioned why I needed a rental car. “think about it,” I wrote in one text, “we dnt know much abt each other. I cld B a stalker, or a serial killer.”

Her chilly, suspicious response confirmed my decision to renege: “RU back with yr wife?”

Months later, I traded a week of sensible, let’s-go-slow e-mails with Sunny, a curvy blonde from the Washington suburbs, but our first meeting triggered an intense, magnet-to-steel attraction between us that led to sex after the first date. The connection fell apart almost as quickly, doomed by our collective emotional baggage -- she was unemployed, unhappy, and on long-term disability; I was still emotionally raw from my divorce -- and my reluctance to commit after less than a month.

I met about a dozen other women in the virtual dating world over the course of a year, but I found the online scene confusing: The attention I got was an ego boost, but things often moved too fast for me, and a lot of the rules I thought I knew -- take your time, don’t be aggressive, be certain before you even think about sleeping with someone -- didn’t seem to apply. Kimmy, a Canadian expatriate in the Caribbean, invited me to be her houseguest after a few flirty instant messages. Electra, an Amsterdam attorney, sent e-mails so forward they nearly made me blush. A 30-something private-school teacher in Florida sent me nude photos of herself.

In the end, I logged on less and less and eventually let my membership lapse, deciding to let fate -- and the real world -- take its course. And it did: One Sunday morning, while I was lingering in the lobby after church services, a cute young woman whom I’d seen before walked up and introduced herself. Belle and I spent the next hour chatting about music, politics, family, and religion as the parking lot emptied, despite 30-degree temperatures. After three months of friendship, then flirting, we shared our first kiss after dinner one night, then became more intimate a few weeks after that.

It was about time.

Joseph Williams is the deputy chief of the Globe’s Washington bureau. Send comments to coupling@globe.com. Story ideas: Send yours to coupling@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to ideas we will not pursue.