Constable: Candy no longer dandy, and online daters better at love

  • It might be corny, but this Valentine's Day card featuring Disney's Doc McStuffins shouldn't hurt any feelings.

    It might be corny, but this Valentine's Day card featuring Disney's Doc McStuffins shouldn't hurt any feelings. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • A groundbreaking study led by University of Chicago professors John and Stephanie Cacioppo showed that more than a third of recent wedding couples started relationships online, and that those marriages appear happier than those started the old-fashioned way.

    A groundbreaking study led by University of Chicago professors John and Stephanie Cacioppo showed that more than a third of recent wedding couples started relationships online, and that those marriages appear happier than those started the old-fashioned way. Courtesy of John T. Cacioppo

 
 
Updated 2/11/2016 9:11 AM

Third-grade taught me that Valentine's Day isn't all fun and games and candy hearts. Growing up in a small town, we kids all shopped at the same store, where the only valentine card collection for a classroom featured a wild animal motif. If a girl dropped a "you're the king of the jungle" lion card in your sack, did that mean she liked-liked you? Did you give the sharp-witted girl a monkey card, or did you reserve that for the kid who got laughs by sticking things up his nose? Should a 9-year-old read anything into a zebra card?

Our teacher surreptitiously engaged in a little socialism by redistributing the wealth to make sure all 28 kids got roughly the same number of valentine cards. But that didn't stop one student from receiving cards featuring a hippo wearing a tutu.

 

"Oh, that's terrible," says Terri McHugh, the community relations director for Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54.

Yes, it was. And neither McHugh nor I can imagine that happening in a school classroom today. Whether you call it "political correctness" or merely "human decency," school employees and classroom parents do more today to make sure kids don't suffer those kind of indecencies. While McHugh says her district doesn't have any specific rules about Valentine's Day observances in the classroom, principals often say, "If you choose to send valentines, we ask that you send one for every student." Concerns about food allergies (and to some degree, child obesity) pretty much have put the kibosh on Valentine's Day becoming a classroom orgy of candies and sweets.

Another new world phenomenon that has improved modern love is online dating.

"We were shocked," says John T. Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. "Overall, online is better than offline."

In a study of 19,131 people who married between 2005 and 2012, Cacioppo and his fellow authors discovered that more than a third of those relationships started online, and those online couples had fewer breakups and reported happier marriages than those who met the "old-fashioned" way.

"Work, it turns out, isn't a good place to meet," says Cacioppo. And bars, clubs and blind dates don't lead to as many marriages, or as many happy marriages, as do relationships that start online. Meeting through social media or online dating sites seems certain to become more and more popular.

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Contrary to popular opinion, online meetings turn out to be more "authentic," Cacioppo says. A generation ago, research showed that people in dark rooms tended to be more forthcoming and honest when talking about themselves than those in rooms where the participants could see each other. That carries over into the online world.

In addition, the online world offers a much larger pool of people and a chance to move quickly. Unlike a relationship with a co-worker, it is easy to "extract yourself" from an online relationship, Cacioppo says.

The online world isn't perfect. "There's always going to be some bad apples who ruin it for others," says Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Chicago and Northern Illinois branch of the Better Business Bureau, which received 2,500 complaints against online dating services last year.

"Don't fall in love with the advertising," warns Bernas, who says customers must realize they are signing a business contract.

That first blush might be blissful, but at some point even online lovebirds need to evolve into an offline relationship, Cacioppo says. Using the online world as a "destination" can result in isolation, says Cacioppo, who also has done research into loneliness, which he says has crippling effects and even can lead to early death.

"Our relationships are enriched by face-to-face interactions," says Cacioppo, who has been married for five years. He met his wife, Stephanie, now a professor at the University of Chicago, when she was working in Geneva and they both attended a conference in China. While they needed online methods to help build their relationship, "it was the face-to-face interactions that led to marriage," Cacioppo says. "And I love her more today than when I met her or married her."

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