We can now say, without million-dollar research to support the assertion, that times have officially changed. The Web is today’s village matchmaker. It has supplanted your Aunt Helen in Topeka, well-meaning clergy and hundreds of years of tradition. True love, or at least dinner and a movie, can now be attained by searching, googling and scrolling.

“The traditional mating system where people met someone in their neighborhood or at college is pretty much dead,” says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of Why There Are No Good Men Left. “What we have is a huge population of working singles who have limited opportunities to go through some elaborate courtship.” The result of this societal change is some 40 million visits to online dating sites each month, according to Forrester Research.

Online dating, once synonymous with losers.com, is rapidly becoming a fixture of single life for adults of all ages, backgrounds and interests. You can now eliminate proverbial frogs with precision deletion or make contact by pushing the “send” button.

“Instant” LoveandSuzan and Juan Villarreal

Not that it was Suzan Villarreal’s intention to find love online. She happened upon her now husband, Juan F. Villarreal, Jr., while searching AOL’s member directory for prospective friends. A native of Odessa, she had just graduated from college with an architectural drafting and design degree. “As much as I loved my family, I didn’t want to go back home after college and be there forever after,” she says. “When I visited San Antonio in my teens, I vowed to live here someday. Once I was finished with college, it seemed like the right time to give it a try.”

After sending resumes to just two local builders, then 21-year-old Villarreal landed a job in San Antonio. “After about six months life got pretty dull and lonely, so I started looking online to find people with similar interests,” she recalls.

One of the profiles she scrolled across was Juan Villarreal’s. Was it his smile that made her pause – his self-described green eyes and six-foot stature? In fact it was not anything remotely romantic. “I got excited when I read that he worked for ADT,” she says. She thought this meant he worked for a computer-aided drafting software company that sold a program called Architectural Desktop, which she used at work. “I sent him an instant message right away – I thought I might end up with a software upgrade or at the very least make contact with someone knowledgeable about the software.”

“I had no idea what she was talking about,” says Juan about Suzan’s initial instant message. “I finally asked her to explain her ADT because ADT to me meant security systems.”

That’s how it started for this couple, who have been happily married for the past two years. A humorous misunderstanding led to almost daily e-mail traffic between the two. They met in person about three weeks later. Suzan had computer trouble, and Juan offered to come over and upgrade it for her.

“The day he was supposed to come over, I found out I had pinkeye,” remembers Suzan. “When I called to tell him he probably shouldn’t come over, he said he had pinkeye too!” Since the danger of contagion was moot, and he didn’t really care if she had on her glasses and no make-up, Juan said, “Let’s just do it.”

What started as a simple upgrade didn’t end until 3 a.m. “I really messed up her computer,” says Juan. “Since I had just met her, I figured I better stick around and fix it.”

Two months later, as they were driving to see his parents, Suzan remembers turning to him and saying, “You know, I’m going to marry you.”Juan did not deny it; he just smiled and kept driving.

After dating for one year and then a year-long engagement, the two were married in December 2001.

“Because our meeting was such a fluke, we became good friends first,” says Suzan. “I think that really made a difference.”

“It was kind of weird,” says Juan. “We really hit it off. I didn’t expect it. I just liked researching information online. At that time, I had dial-up Internet, and AOL was one of the only services. That’s why I had an online profile. Now I have a soul mate.”

Looking for Love Deborah and A.J. Chaney

In contrast to the Villarreals, Deborah and A.J. Chaney were both actively using Web sites to enhance their dating lives.

After a six-year relationship ended, Deborah found herself alone and unhappy. When the initial sting wore off, she decided to direct her emotional energy to improving herself and her life. She worked out, went back to school and started dating again.

“Bars were not my scene, and I quickly realized meeting men at the grocery store wasn’t realistic,” says Deborah. “I started looking on Yahoo because it was free and easy.”

She discovered A.J.’s ad in a listing on AOL. “He had a great picture, and I could tell he was focused and ambitious about his career,” she recalls. “Women definitely have the advantage online. Generally, I didn’t think much of the men who contacted me as a result of my own ad. I tended to have better luck looking through ads, evaluating them and contacting the guys who seemed to fit what I was looking for – that’s what happened with A.J.”

She was a little disappointed when her rally was met with a response from A.J. informing her that he was currently dating someone and had forgotten to take his ad down. “I told her she sounded fun though, and that we should continue to correspond as friends,” says A.J. The result was a no-pressure atmosphere that allowed the two to get to know each other.

They had been chatting online three to four times a week for a couple of months when A.J. broke off the other relationship. “There just wasn’t a spark,” he says.Although he knew Deborah would be leaving in a matter of weeks to start a fellowship at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., he really wanted to meet in person the woman he’d come to enjoy online. Deborah was reluctant to meet. She was in the middle of finals and didn’t see the point in starting something she couldn’t finish. When she finally acquiesced in an invitation to a 30-minute lunch at the busy and public Maggie’s Restaurant, she had anything but love on her mind. “I didn’t even dress up. I wore some not-so-flattering shorts and a T-shirt,” she says.

A quick lunch turned into three and one-half hours. The two spent a lot of time together the two weeks before she left. Both say they were trying hard not to get attached. “I knew she had a goal and needed to stay focused,” says A.J. They continued to talk after she left for Washington, and although A.J. was supportive and encouraging, Deborah found she wasn’t having the best time of her life. “When I started dating in D.C., I found that I was comparing the men I met with A.J. He had become my gold standard,” she says.

A few months into her fellowship, Deborah came back to San Antonio to visit. The two were inseparable. Then A.J. visited her in D.C. “That’s when we said the ‘L’ word,” she says. Crying at the airport, both of them knew some big decisions would need to be made at some point in the future. That was in August 2001.

After many phone conversations in which each of them tried hard not to make the other one feel pressured, Deborah finally concluded she wanted to see how things would turn out with A.J. She had just finished her fellowship. She waited to see what would happen with some resumes she’d sent out, set a deadline for responses, and then made her decision. The morning of September 11, 2001, she was waiting in line to close out her bank account when news broke of two planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City.

Both of them were frantic to contact each other, but the phone lines were clogged. When they finally connected, they plotted Deborah’s move back to San Antonio.

“That’s when we made a clear commitment to each other. Our hands-off mind-set had changed,” says Deborah. “I’ll tell you what, you learn a lot about a person when you’re locked in a car with him for two days!”

A.J. proposed nine months later. They decided they wanted to get married on their one-year anniversary of meeting one another. This left them just three months to plan the wedding, much of which they did online. “We even found our pastor on the Internet!” they said in unison.

The Chaneys celebrated their first year of marriage in September 2003.

Love across the Atlantic Beth and Gareth Peart

It’s a story out of which you might fashion some kind of long-winded joke. It would start something like, “So there’s this girl from San Antonio, Texas, and this guy from Chester, England, and they meet up in an online literary club in the early years of the Internet. One day, as they’re discussing a book, she asks him ‘What do they mean by ‘rock?’ and he says…”

That’s pretty much how it all began for the Texas teacher and soon-to-be computer whiz import. An Anglophile from way back, Beth was smitten by all things British. Maybe that’s why none of her friends or family were really surprised when she said she was going to marry one of Her Majesty’s subjects. The part that threw everyone for a loop was the fact the two had never met in person.

When they starting conversing in a Yahoo books & literature chat room in June 1997, Gareth was still working in his parents’ bookshop. After a stint in the Navy, Beth was getting her degree in education. Neither of them had used the Internet to find potential mates or dates. They were simply seeking interesting conversation based on good books.

After her admittedly lame attempt to draw him into direct conversation with her inquiry about “rock,” Beth and Gareth seemed to click almost instantly. They chatted online nonstop, a habit that soon turned into daily phone calls where Gareth had to stay up until 4 a.m. to talk with her at 10 p.m. San Antonio time.

“I knew I wanted to marry him after our first phone conversation,” recalls Beth,”but I didn’t say anything. I figured I’d let him figure it out.”

Both admit it sounds somewhat geeky now, but they proclaimed themselves an “online couple” in November of ’97. “We both understood we had something special between us and wanted to make it a commitment in our real and online lives,” she says.

While they were chatting online in February 1998, Gareth told Beth to get off the computer because he wanted to call her.and

“That’s when I knew something was up,” says Beth with a smile. “Because I had the cheaper long-distance plan, so for him to call me … well, that was something.”

The phone rang and Gareth proceeded to ask Beth to marry him. Beth said yes. “And then we got scared,” says Beth. “We figured we had to meet and soon.”

With his parents’ bookshop closing and Beth still in school, they decided the best thing was for Gareth to come to San Antonio. “We both understood that it might not work out. We just hoped for the best,” says Beth.

Gareth arrived in the United States on May 10, 1998, with just two pieces of luggage. The plan was to get married the first week of June. The couple had just three weeks to put their virtual relationship to a real-life test. “I consciously showed him all my warts just to make sure,” says Beth.

They spent every waking hour together with the trial almost ending in goodbye rather than hello. That was five years ago, and both are thankful their leap of faith ended in a happy marriage.

“I believe there really is someone out there for everyone,” says Beth. “But it doesn’t mean they’re on the same continent.”

Simple truths you can use-online or in life

In addition to meeting online, these stories demonstrate common threads. As you look for love now and in the future, consider how three couples were:

Open-minded – Because they didn’t have certain expectations, they didn’t set themselves up for disappointment.
Honest – By being themselves online and when they met face-to-face, they started with a foundation of truthfulness.
Friends first – If you really intend to spend years of your life with someone, being best friends helps you weather the highs and lows of “love.”
Before you click for love …

Not everyone online (or in life) represents himself/herself as he/she truly is.Here’s some advice to keep in mind:

Be patient. Just as in the real world, you may have to sift through the masses before you find your prince or princess.
Be safe. Set up an online alias. Don’t use your full name in your e-mail address, and be very careful about sharing your contact information. Many women feel safer not giving their phone numbers out; men seem more comfortable sharing theirs. Talk on the phone before you meet, and if you do meet in person, do so in a public place. Daytime coffee dates are good. Avoid alcohol, as it impairs judgment.
Trust your instincts. Assuming you’re fairly street smart, trusting your gut feeling about someone may help you avoid sticky situations.
Test them. Exchange many pictures – good and bad ones. Ask probing questions that will help you really get to know someone. Many relationship sites provide icebreaker questions you can cut and paste into your e-mails.
Be considerate. Time and money are inevitably spent on both sides of the dating equation. If you have kids, put that fact in your profile so you don’t waste the time of someone who’s not looking for a ready-made family. Pay for your own entertainment, food and beverages when meeting initially. From there you can negotiate what constitutes “a date.”
Choosing an online dating site

According to Forrester Research, one in 10 wired consumers uses e-personals – most of them men, 28 percent of them married (yikes!). Whatever their motives, singles and not-so-singles are paying record dollars to try online dating. Consumers spent $214 million on online personals in the first half of 2003, up 76 percent from $121 million the previous year, according to Comscore Media Metrix. Before putting any money down, consider signing up for free trial memberships at several sites to see which you like best.

Web sites to click and see for yourself, include:

American SinglesOn the scene since Internet dating began in 1995, this worldwide dating site has a membership base of 10 million. It’s free to create a profile and search for relationship partners. If you want to start contacting people, membership is $24.95 per month.

eHarmony.comandandWith more than two million users, eHarmony is the Internet’s fastest growing relationship service. It touts more than 2,000 marriages to its credit since 2001 – more marriages per match than any other online dating service. It’s also one of the most expensive, charging $49.95 for one month.

Match.comandandOne of the oldest and largest sites, it’s popular because it allows people to freely search the database without going through numerous steps and personality testing. Match.com claims more than 12 million users and charges $19.95 per month.

Author: Kelly A. Goff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams