Seventy years ago, the Yale sociologist John Ellsworth Jr. was researching marriage patterns in small towns and concluded: “People will go as far as they have to to find a mate, but no farther.” This still seems to be the case in 2018. Though the internet allows us to connect with people across the globe near instantly, dating apps like Tinder prioritize showing us nearby matches, the assumption being the best date is the one we can meet up with as quickly as possible with little inconvenience.
A year and a half ago, I was 23, single, and working as an engineer at the online-dating site OkCupid. The site held a similar philosophy when it came to distance, and we employees would sometimes joke we needed to add a special filter for New Yorkers that let them specify, Show me matches under 10 miles, but nobody from New Jersey. At the time, I loved the concept of online dating and went out with other Manhattanites almost every weekend. But I quickly came to hate first dates themselves. I found myself always distracted, thinking more to myself about how to make a graceful exit than about whatever my date was saying.
Then one day I had my wisdom teeth pulled and my cheeks became grapefruits. Figuring this was not a great first-date look, I made no weekend plans. Lonely and alone on a Saturday night, I started scrolling through OkCupid and, out of boredom and curiosity, expanded my search options to include users anywhere in the world. I was drawn in by the profiles of some of these new, distant matches and messaged a few asking if they’d like to chat on the phone. That weekend I talked to a neuropsychologist from Milwaukee; a software developer from Austin, Texas; an improv instructor from Seattle; and an economics masters student from London. At first, these calls were a little awkward—what were you supposed to say to a complete stranger you’d probably never meet? But then, what couldn’t you say to a stranger you’d probably never meet? Freed from the pressure of a pending outcome—no question of a second drink, moving to a second bar, or going back to anyone’s place—I became immersed in these conversations that lasted, sometimes, for hours. For the next few weeks, I called the Austin programmer often. I wondered what it would be like going on a first date with him, now that I sort of knew him. But I had no plans to visit Austin and we lost touch.
A couple of weeks later, for work, I started combing through a data set of OkCupid “success stories”—blurbs that couples wrote in to let us know they’d found a soul mate or spouse through the site. Reading through them, I noticed something odd: Many of OkCupid’s successful users first met when they were living across the country—or the world—from each other. I read stories of couples who chatted online for months before flying from California to Georgia, Michigan to Washington, Ohio to Peru, Cyprus to Lebanon to see each other for the first time. Inspired by this, OkCupid decided to poll users with the question, “What is the longest you’ve traveled to meet up with someone from a dating app?” About 6 percent of millennials, 9 percent of Gen Xers, and 12 percent of Baby Boomers said more than five hours. “For the right person, distance isn’t a problem,” one user commented. “I was young and stupid when I made the trip,” wrote another.
Maybe it was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon—that effect where, when you first learn about something, you see it everywhere—but suddenly I learned that lots of people I knew had this same story. One friend had just flown from New York to Israel to see a guy she’d first met on Tinder. My childhood neighbor from New Jersey, recently divorced, met her Syracuse boyfriend through the phone game Wordfeud. And one of my OkCupid co-workers—a quiet, 32-year-old software engineer named Jessie Walker—told me she’d met her boyfriend of 10 years through an internet forum for introverts while she was a student studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He was a software developer living in Australia. They messaged online for more than two years before he booked a flight to meet her in Maryland and eventually moved into an apartment with her in Brooklyn. That was the second long-distance relationship she’d had through the forum: Her first, with a guy from Florida, lasted two years.
Online-dating companies are privy to the fact that people use them for travel. Last year, Tinder launched a paid feature called Passport that lets people swipe on members anywhere in the world. And Scruff, a dating app for gay men, has a section called Scruff Venture that helps users coordinate travel plans and connect with host members in foreign countries. Scruff’s founder, Eric Silverberg, told me the company added the feature when they noticed lots of users were already posting travel itineraries in their profiles; now one in four members posts a new trip every year.
But travel flings aside, I suspect most people don’t join dating apps intending to fall in love across continents, especially because it’s so easy to filter matches by distance. But sometimes people meet through internet communities that aren’t intended to be for dating.
On Reddit, I discovered a community of about 50,000 in a group called /r/LongDistance. There I learned there’s a word for digital couples who’ve never met in person: They’re called nevermets. “Three years in and we’ve finally closed the distance!!” one woman posted. “[f/22][m/28],” she clarified, meaning she was a 22-year-old female and her partner a 28-year-old male. “Meeting him for the first time tomorrow.” A recent survey of the group found most members are young, between 18 and 23.
“I guess people on online-dating sites know what they’re looking for, but these younger people in nevermet relationships aren’t really looking for love online,” the /r/LongDistance moderator, a 20-year-old college student who goes by Bliss online, told me. (As a female gamer, she’s asked me not to use her name for fear of being harassed or doxed.) “Then one day they realize they love the person they’ve been talking to online. It’s a weird mindset to be in.” Bliss was a nevermet herself who, when I called her, had just met her German boyfriend of three years for the first time when he flew to her hometown in Florida. They’d first connected through the online game Minecraft, which is how Bliss thinks most nevermets on the subreddit meet: through video games, Instagram, or Reddit.
To me, someone who hates first dates, this sounds great. I like the idea of going on a date with someone after you get to know them. “With Tinder, you’re shopping,” says Vivian Zayas, the director of the personality, attachment, and control lab at Cornell University. “But playing these games and chatting, the mentality is more organic, like in a normal social network.” Plus, research suggests the sheer amount of time people spend together is one of the best predictors of attraction—we’re more likely to like people we find familiar.
Another benefit of long-distance online dating is that flirting starts in brain space, not physical space. “It’s nice because you’re able to build an emotional connection before confusing things, like sex,” Natalie Weinstein, a 31-year-old artist and event producer who calls herself Mikka Minx, told me over Skype. Four years ago, she got fed up with the men in San Francisco, where she lived. She found them too distracted, work-obsessed, and unwilling to commit. So she made OkCupid profiles that placed her in Portland, Austin, Boulder, and New York, and started dating mostly through video. An introspective introvert, she found she liked dating like this because it let her form an emotional connection with men before the complications of a physical meet-up. When I met her last April, she’d been video-dating a man from Portland, Ben Murphy, for three months. Though she’d never met him in person, she told me it was the deepest digital connection she’d ever had and that she often found herself rushing home from parties and events to Skype with him.
Though most research on long-distance relationships (“LDRs”) doesn’t include nevermets, these relationships are similar in that they mostly take place through phone or video conversations. Studies show people in LDRs don’t think their connection is lacking: A 2015 study found they didn’t report lower levels of relationship or sexual satisfaction than their co-located counterparts, and that, strangely, the farther long-distance couples lived from each other, the more intimacy, communication, and relationship satisfaction they reported.
“There’s a potential benefit of being apart—it forces you to learn how to have extended conversations with someone,” says Andy Merolla, a professor who studies interpersonal communication and long-distance relationships at UC Santa Barbara. “If we think about this as a skill, distance puts it to the test.” His research has found that LDRs last longer than geographically close relationships, but only for as long as the couples stay long-distance.
One explanation suggested by his work is that long-distance daters tend to idealize their relationships. “When you don’t see your partner in person, you don’t get as complex a view of what they’re like on a day-to-day basis. You don’t see how they are in the morning just after they wake or after a bad day of work,” he says. When people in LDRs were reunited, they reported missing their autonomy, feeling more jealousy, and noticing more of their partner’s negative traits. But Merolla doesn’t think this idealization is necessarily a bad thing, and suggests it might even yield benefits for the types of daters in nevermet relationships. “Maybe there are people who, if they meet someone face-to-face right away, have difficulty forming a relationship or wouldn’t hit it off right away. But having the distance could open up new relationship opportunities.”
I like this conversation-first style of dating and wish it were the whole story: You fall in love with someone across the world, plan a first date in Bali, and wind up with an adventurous, international relationship. But Mikka told me no: “Turns out you have no fucking idea what that magical thing called chemistry will feel like IRL.”
After three months of Skyping, Mikka flew to Portland to meet Ben Murphy. She saw him in person for the first time in the basement of a teahouse, where he was sitting in lotus position, waiting for her, meditating. “It was one of the trippiest experiences ever to see the human IRL in all their dimensions,” she said. “I’m sure he was feeling the same about me.” Because she’d done this before, her expectations were tempered—she knew their connection could fall flat offline. But Ben never had. They made awkward conversation. On the walk from the tea house to Ben’s place, the awkwardness compounded and Mikka became miserable. At his house, they tried to connect by sitting still and gazing into each other’s eyes, but no dice. Mikka left dejected, wondering why she’d ever flown to Portland in the first place.
Even though she’d known Ben for three months, their first date still felt like a first date, Mikka said. “I was tiptoeing into the situation, and I wasn’t open yet.” You get certain data points about a person over video chat, she told me, but your mind fills in the rest, and you have to anticipate that. “I had to break down that I’m not the person in your head.”
One common way nevermet relationships fall apart is that the couples, well, never meet. “One partner will say they’re on the way to meet them and just never show up and completely block them,” Bliss, the moderator of the /r/LongDistance subreddit, told me. She knows this because often the ghosted partner will write a breakup post on Reddit begging for a second chance. One OkCupid user, a 50-year-old office manager named Dhana, bought tickets to fly from Arizona to New York for Valentine’s Day. The man she was going to meet canceled last-minute but her tickets were nonrefundable, so she spent the day lonely and alone in New York, hoping he’d change his mind (he didn’t).
Yet of the nine nevermets I talked to who did eventually meet up, almost all describe to me a feeling of connecting the dots. “You start to have this idea of them that’s not completely true,” said one, a 19-year-old student from the Netherlands, who asked not to be named because he hasn’t told his family and friends how he met his girlfriend. “Like when you read a book and you have a picture of how the character is, but that’s your own idea. It might not necessarily reflect reality.”
While that may be true, it seems humans are good at predicting who they’ll like from a person’s photo. In 2016, Vivian Zayas’s research at Cornell found that the impressions we form of others’ personalities from photographs line up with the way we later judge them in person, at least initially. “These findings support the view that even after having ‘read a book,’ one still, to some extent, judges it by its ‘cover,’” the researchers concluded. But the photos in that study were simple headshots with participants’ hair pulled back, not Instagram-filter-curated like the ones we use as Tinder profile pictures.
It’s harder to hide what we look like over video chat, but not impossible. The student from the Netherlands described to me how, when he Skyped his nevermet girlfriend from Brazil, he’d aim his phone camera at the front of his face, which he thought was more attractive than the sides. Meanwhile, his girlfriend would stay seated. He said she told him later that she was afraid if she walked around and he saw her body, he’d think she was too chubby. “But emotional attachment is what kept us going,” he told me. “If she looked different in person, it wouldn’t matter.” And it didn’t. When they finally met at an airport in Brazil a week before we spoke, they kissed and felt instantly connected. But neither had anticipated the height difference: He was 6’2” and she was 5’4”. This is common among nevermets—height is especially hard to judge over video.
Yet however surprising or uncomfortable a nevermet first meeting might be, the cost of flaking is at least a plane ticket. So, in part, because she’d flown to Portland with the intention of spending nine days with Ben, Mikka agreed to a second date. It was “boring, incredibly awkward,” and not much better than the first. But on their third date—during which Ben blindfolded Mikka, massaged her feet, and hand-fed her chocolate and mango—they connected and have been dating ever since. Now Mikka flies to Portland to stay with him most weeks.
Yet just as traveling a long distance might incentivize couples to give each other a chance—like Mikka did with Ben—so too does it act as a hurdle in staying together. “The distance is a wall and it kind of forces you to make a decision,” my co-worker Jessie said. “You think: ‘Do I really want to buy that next plane ticket?’” The first time Matt Rucker, a 28-year-old software engineer, met an Australian man he’d been chatting with for half a year on Scruff, they spent two months on a cross-country U.S. road trip. By the end, Matt was enamored, “but I was broke, and we didn’t really have a path to reunite.” After that their romantic relationship gradually faded, but they still talk weekly as friends.
Like any relationship, these online-first connections have their upsides and downsides—it’s just that the pros and cons are a little different. The worst-case scenario—spending months courting someone only to discover in minutes you’re physically incompatible—isn’t great. But then, neither is finding an instant physical connection with someone on a first date only to discover weeks later that you have nothing to talk about. In a world where we don’t have to leave our couches to meet a partner—no matter how far apart our bodies may be—the question of how far we’ll go to find a mate becomes more muddled. But more and more people are willing to go as far as it takes.