The Mirage and Marriage

Now that the laughter has subsided, don’t you feel at least a little sorry for Manti Te’o? The former college football star will never live this one down, no matter how many tackles he makes in the NFL. And he seemed genuinely smitten with his girlfriend, who turned out to be nothing more than the figment of a cruelly deranged (and apparently bored) young man. Te’o seemed genuinely grieved when he learned of her unexpected demise and genuinely confused when called one last time to say she’s had actually faked her death. Turned out she (he) actually faked the whole thing. And Te’o hardly had a clue.

The clue should have come when this supposed girlfriend wouldn’t let him see her face during online calls. How could he call this “woman” his girlfriend when he’d never even met her? That’s why when we stopped scorning Te’o, then stopped laughing at him, we still couldn’t quite feel sorry for him. How could he be so stupid? How could he in turn deceive his family, reporters, and the rest of us, even after he suspected the hoax? Obviously he didn’t think we’d understand and sympathize. He’s probably right. Even though we perpetuate our own hoax nearly every time we open our laptops or pull out our smartphones.

How closely does your Facebook profile resemble your actual life? If we only knew you from a Twitter feed, would you think we really understood your hopes and dreams, your joys and fears? Facebook may ask what you’re feeling, but the rest of us don’t really care. We can’t even keep up with the drama in our families, among our closest friends. How can we handle the momentary peaks and valleys of hundreds, even thousands of friends? So we outline an online persona in black and white and only color in the parts we feel safe to expose. You only know I’m sick if I can find a witty way to tell you. You only find out I’m in despair if I can link the encouraging Bible verse God tossed me as a life raft.

You can fool anyone online for a while. Are you really surprised Te’o fell for the ruse? It’s a small jump from crafting your online profile to inventing an entirely fake persona. Imagine the myth you could perpetuate when you’re not even bound by the confines of all three dimensions.

High Bar

No wonder online meeting so often crashes on the rocks of online dating, when the self-selected profile gives way to a three-dimensional person, sins and all. The rise of social media has eliminated at least some of the healthy skepticism surrounding online meeting. Now we’re all linked together and searchable by the “likes” we wear as virtual nametags. Like Downton Abbey? You must be at least somewhat sophisticated. Post pics of your latest backpacking adventure? You must enjoy a little mystery in life. From here anyone can probably guess some of the books you love and movies you never miss on cable. They know whether or not you’d be compatible as a “friend” or more.

At least a dose of skepticism in online dating has always been warranted, because no meeting can become a marriage until the third dimension thrashes around for a while. That is, assuming you’re actually seeking a spouse through online dating. According to Dan Slater, who recently wrote “A Million First Dates: How Online Dating Is Threatening Monogamy” for The Atlantic, the very process undermines this goal. On purely financial terms, online dating sites don’t want you to find a permanent match.

“The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship,” Slater writes. “But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high?”

Break up online, and you’re only a couple clicks away from what could be a better match. Why stick it out? Why fight through anything? The attitude formed by this context doesn’t necessarily change even in marriage. Maybe no one loves dating sites and social media more than divorce lawyers. One-third of divorce filings in 2011 mentioned Facebook. Another recent survey revealed that one-third of Facebook users feel less satisfied with their lives after browsing their friends’ profiles. Vacation photos created the greatest sense of envy. And reading about their friends’ happy relationships only highlighted their own unhappiness. So social media fosters our envy even as it opens our opportunities to mix and mingle.

Profound Mystery

Even so, the decisive change in our understanding of marriage actually predates online dating and social media. While these technologies may exacerbate the problem, they didn’t create it. We were already steeped in a view of marriage as less of a covenant for life and more of a union of affection. But here’s what changed: with increased options in an expanded online market, we can wait to find a spouses who doesn’t need much work, who won’t expect much change from us, either. A few years ago I talked to a pastor officiating a wedding who told me he counsels couples not to worry about that “one-flesh business” (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5-6, 1 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 5:31). You marry someone whose individuality you appreciate and respect, he reasoned. So don’t try to change your spouse.

No wonder marriage rates have plummeted. If you’re not expecting any change in marriage, you better not hitch your wagon to someone who needs help or, worse, thinks you need help. As Tim Keller writes in his book The Meaning of Marriage, “Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse.” High ideals—the kind cultivated by online meeting and social media—lead us to believe someone better must be out there. And no one wants to risk settling for anything less than the elusive and nebulous “soul mate.” It’s too late when many finally realize their extreme idealism of marriage has given way to deep pessimism. Keller writes:

To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is—there is almost no one like that to marry! The new conception of marriage-as-self-realization has put us in a position of wanting too much out of marriage and yet not nearly enough—at the same time.

Manti Te’o clearly felt like he found that elusive match. She was giving, always thinking of others; faithful, always eager to talk to this devout Mormon about Bible verses; and available, always up for a long chat. She didn’t have any flaws, any selfishness, any family issues. And Te’o painfully, publicly learned she was a mirage. Like our online profiles. Like our expectations for a pain-free marriage. Like anything except the profound mystery of God design (Eph. 5;32).