People often imagine expat life as easy and glamorous, a combination of Hemingway-esque bohemianism and Indiana Jones-style adventure, full of exotic food and drink, and attractive young locals eager to practice their English. Anyone who has started a new life abroad, however, knows that it can also have its downside: in fact, relocation ranks as the third most stressful life event after the death of a loved one and marriage or divorce. Numerous research studies show that the biggest stressor for expats is not culture shock, but the lack of a social circle.
Crossing the language barrier and establishing a new network of friends may take a long time, or turn out to be problematic in an unknown culture which has different rules for small talk and body language – you may despair of ever getting used to that nodding and shaking. In the cyber age, however, expats have found a fast and easy way to meet locals: online dating sites. As Bulgaria becomes more cosmopolitan, local dating sites are filling up with foreigners who start their profiles with “I am new to Bulgaria…”
So far, so good. The problem is that not having much to do after work, many expats spend more and more time on these sites, chatting to holograms instead of flesh and blood friends. Most people mistakenly think that the riskiest aspect of Internet dating is going out with an online acquaintance who turns out to be aggressive or dangerous. Most dating sites even publish instructions on how to secure your first offline date with an online friend: meet in a public place, inform someone of your whereabouts, and so on.
Of course, going out with a stranger is a bit risky, especially for an expat who doesn't have many people to rely on in case of emergency. But there are more insidious ways to get in trouble on dating sites – without leaving the safety of your computer. The number one hazard is Internet addiction, a problem so widespread that the American Psychiatric Association is considering listing it in the next edition of its diagnostic manual. Expats are especially vulnerable to online dating dependence, since they are often lonely and under stress.
Don't think this could ever happen to you? Think again. While you may not be as extreme as the Chinese man who died after spending three days non-stop online, this doesn't mean you're immune. For example, on Christmas Eve 2007, 327 expats in Sofia were logged on to local dating sites. Most foreigners in Bulgaria who go online to chat are registered on more than one site.
The typical expat profile in Bulgaria is a 30 to 40-year-old single or divorced male who moved to the country on business. Ninety percent claim to visit dating sites out of loneliness, seeking support to cope with the stress of adjustment. Seventy percent say they are looking for friends, but if they meet “that special someone,” they wouldn't hesitate to jump into a relationship. Sounds great, but what happens in reality?
Internet dating novices may not realise how alluring it can be. Browsing through thousands of profiles gives the impression of unlimited possibilities which in turn leads to a false yet exhilarating sense of control. Virtual communication has the power to make you feel closer to a total stranger than to your best friend – after just an hour of chat. Not to mention the opportunity to have 100 percent safe virtual sex. Yes, attraction and satisfaction are part of the deal, too. On the Internet you can be open about your true needs – sexual and emotional – like nowhere else. So why bother ever meeting in person?
Dating site addicts typically go online every evening and chat until late at night. They often withdraw from loved ones, and the quality of their work and their offline life may deteriorate as their Internet misuse progresses. Some practically live online, leaving their homes as rarely as possible because they can't tolerate the anxiety of being offline. And many never intend to move from the online to the offline world with their chat partners, because all their addiction craves is anonymous but deeply personal virtual communication.
What does Internet addiction look like? A 36-year-old man from Finland who has lived in Bulgaria for three years shares his story: “The whole thing began after I got a divorce and found myself without anyone to talk to here. My evenings were endless and, to kill time, I registered on two dating sites. It didn't take long before I started spending all my evenings and nights in front of the computer, chatting with strangers. The prospect of meeting one of them in the real world scared me, considering the recent break up with my wife.
But I kept on chatting and chatting, developing really deep relationships with a few of the women I met online. Whenever they tried to push me into an offline date, I withdrew. One day I found myself writing an e-mail to my boss in Finland, asking him for a longer holiday. What I didn't tell him was that I needed it because I was unable to focus on my work and I simply needed more free time to chat.”
Think these compulsive online Casanovas would be easy to spot?
Not necessarily. In general, dating site “misusers” are witty and experienced chatters who can keep a conversation going for hours. Expats can easily fall victim to their charms, as a 32-year-old Irishman explains: “I had just moved to Bulgaria. Prior to that I had left a demanding 24/7 job and I was trying to start my own business here.
What really frustrated me was that I had nobody to go out with or talk to. So I registered on a local dating site. After a few weeks of disappointing attempts to have a normal conversation – it seemed like nobody spoke English – I met this woman. She was intelligent and mysterious. She told me she had a very successful career but didn't show off. She spoke – or wrote – fluent English and refused to disclose her real name. At times she hinted she was in some sort of danger and she needed to hide from somebody or something. It was fascinating! I just couldn't stop thinking about her. I was online all the time, hoping she would appear.
Once she suggested that we meet. I was deliriously happy, but at the last moment she cancelled the date, never explaining why. That scenario repeated itself a few times, until she disappeared completely and removed her profile from the site. I never found out if she was a real person or a product of somebody's imagination, but I still think about her pretty often.”
So the biggest Internet dating danger is not that you may go out with the wrong person, but that you may never go out at all. Online addiction is especially risky for “fresh” expats without safety nets of close friends nearby to cushion the blow of depression, which inevitably strikes as a result of spending too much time on dating sites.
You have developed an online dating addiction if you
• Find yourself compulsively thinking about going online when you're offline
• Spend more and more time on the web at the expense of your job, family or other daily responsibilities
• Get depressed or moody when you can't get to your favourite online dating site
• Seem to spend more time on online dating sites, but get less satisfaction
• Lie to loved ones and co-workers about how much time you actually spend online
Your chat pal is probably a dating site misuser if
• They give you contradictory messages, for example saying, “I wish I was there with you now” but never propose an offline date or hedge when you suggest it
• You run their nicknames in a search engine and find out they are registered on more than two sites
• You find them online every evening, including Fridays and Saturdays
• You feel they avoid many subjects and are vague about details
• They lead you into sharing deeply personal information, but say little about themselves.