Love in the Internet Age

The Atlantic

I only met my wife eight times, in person, before we got married.

It all began on a late evening in Toronto when a woman from Los Angeles messaged me on OkCupid to say she liked my look, and that it was a shame about the distance. As I’d said to a friend earlier that day, “If she’s not already in my bed, it’s too far to go.”

Emotional distance has always gotten the better of me, so my friend, a couples’ therapist, suggested I try online dating. The safety of not having to meet a person in real life, she said, might lead me to speak more honestly about myself. Did I know, she asked, what I was looking for in a romantic relationship?

I’d come out of a break-up with a woman who had a young child. It had taken months just to bring myself to delete her girl’s birthday alert on my calendar. So, when I set to crafting my dating profile, I announced upfront that I wanted a family. Taking a cue from “Los Angeles,” I scanned profiles and landed on a woman in San Diego who looked a bit different in each photo. I could see myself with each version of this woman. She had two teenaged sons. I’d never so much as lived with a male of any age.

I opened a chat window—“Like your look. Shame about the distance”—and immediately logged off. Across the room, my phone buzzed. I took the phone to my bedroom and read the reply.

“Distance? What are you talking about? You’re just 2,000 miles and up the road!”

“San Diego” was online. I came to call her B, the first initial of her name, and within 24 hours we’d agreed to meet in Toronto three weeks later. We knew it would be difficult. After the end

of an 18-year relationship with the boys’ other mother, we’d be foolish to think I could simply join a family. B and I traveled back and forth eight times, and, two years later, we got married.

It was a start.

* * *

Two weeks after our wedding, I threw my ring—over what, I don’t remember, likely something to do with how careless we’d been, in the case of the children, inconsiderate. Months earlier, in Toronto, as we were about to part again, we’d gone in search for our rings. The shopkeeper pointed to a row of brightly enameled copper bands. The one that fit B was green—the color of my eyes—and the one that fit me was blue—the color of hers.

When I pitched my ring, it deflected against a mirror and shattered the enamel. Yet, over time, as people asked to see the ring, they assumed the design was intentional. I began to wonder if it doesn’t take a marriage to fix a marriage. Shouldn’t we make grand leaps of faith for the people we love? Any problems we had were not the direct product of two strangers acting solely on their impulses. By this point, we were doing the work of any blended family. It was always going to be hard. And in speaking more directly about what I'd wanted in a relationship from the onset—candor enabled by technological circumstance—my relationship had given me a safe rate of introduction to the family I needed. Progress, indeed.

B and I originally met online, and it was the online world that kept us connected. We used all the free text and call applications available, and to sustain intimacy, we Skyped. When the three-hour time difference got too much, we began to leave video greetings in a shared Dropbox folder. B encouraged a tradition of reporting what had been the best part of our day; I encouraged a tradition that leaves me hoping Dropbox employees don’t download user’s videos for personal profit.

The greetings eventually became more domestic; birthday wishes to mutual friends, washing the dogs, an occasional (and reluctant) greeting from one of the boys. Sometimes, I just fired up the webcam and ate cereal, about as domestic as it gets.

* * *

Upon first deciding to meet in person, B and I agreed we wouldn’t have sex for 24 hours. When we did, my grand reveal was a pair of anxiously sweaty armpits. Hers was a reminder of who was waiting at home for the woman I’d seduced via Wi-Fi—faint traces of two C-sections and the soft folds that, to my eye, resembled the outer shell of Batman’s suit. My nickname for B had been “Hot Mom.” Now she was a superhero. From a distance, sex was an exercise in humility, creative lighting, and an appetite for patience,  particularly when the wireless dropped signal and we were left with a frozen image and a proceeding soundtrack. Upon reunion, we often retreated into shyness, thwarting the time spent learning each other’s limitations and which we could be trusted to encroach upon.

The first time I met B’s children, we all played basketball in the driveway, where I attempted to block their mother’s rush to the net with the enthusiasm of a pet dry humping a pillow.

This isn’t a game; I understand. I’ve long ago fit “stepparent-in-training” into my Twitter bio at the expense of other self-identifiers. In the United States, with each successive marriage the risk of divorce is greater—even higher in remarriages with children, and higher still when one partner enters the marriage childless. Even the youngest had done an audit of how this could go down: People come and go, but will any of them stay? B’s mother, with advancing dementia, had lived with them for a time. A close family friend has also moved in briefly to get on his feet after a divorce. Now me.

I truly had joined a family in progress, our family. We do have our moments. Just the other day, one of the dogs, curled up under a blanket with the eldest son, emerged, slinked across the room, and up onto my lap. I took a whiff and winced.

Me: “Did you fart on the dog?”

Stepson (bemused): “Yes. I did fart on the dog.”

* * *

The night before our wedding, B and I stonewalled one another, nerves getting the better of us. Online, we’d communicated so well. We’d done the work. In person, we were still learning how to share, like, and follow the other. We dreaded our wedding would turn into a memory of loss not gain.

To our relief, we had nothing to fear. The wedding was small and peaceful. Nothing had been crowdsourced. No selfies sent to Instagram. Just a lovely champagne buzz and an actual neighbor popping his head over the fence to say congratulations. We’d removed all the typical stressors of a sudden wedding. We told friends and family to expect a formal ceremony down the line. We married in pajamas. Our close friends offered their backyard as the location and to act as witnesses. One, a videographer, recorded the nuptials. During our vows, I can be heard mumbling, “I’m clenching my butt cheeks,” and an expressed gratitude that we’d opted not to livestream the event.

Now that B and I live under the same roof, I can't say that technology simply bridged a gap between two countries, nor gave us the space to reveal our true selves. Under this roof, our circumstances don't bear any resemblance to what we might have imagined—sunny walks on the beach and the hope that one day I'd erect a studio in the back yard. In person, I'm only newly able to work in the U.S., starting from scratch, just as B begins to grieve the imminent departure of her teenaged sons, almost grown themselves. We're all of us meeting for the first time, in matrimony. And like the first year of any marriage, it's tough.

Then there are the details. Memories of meeting B for the first time, holding hands, her scent of macadamia, and a giddiness that I now get to experience that daily. The woman who stood before me on our wedding day was real. We were real, not a story we'd told ourselves, not just a mass of digital information hoarded over time. It was all real.

We ate BBQ. A tray of maple bacon donuts sat in as a wedding cake. And this Canadian expat walked down the aisle to the familiar strains of O Canada. One of B’s dearest friends officiated the ceremony—after going online to become an ordained minister. We were unplugged, offline, and as IRL as I’ve known life to be. We began our shared vows, “Thank you for finding me.”





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