When I moved into the dating pool, it was after a sudden ending of a relationship I had been deeply involved in. Sadly, it was also a start and stop relationship. We’d be intensely into each other, then have a falling out, then try it again. When it ended, however, there hadn’t been any falling out. One day it was fine and the next day I got a text asking if we could talk. She called me and said she couldn’t do this anymore, and just like that it was over. It turned out that what she couldn’t do anymore was me. A week later she had a date with another guy (we had stayed friends on Facebook until then and she broadcast it loud and proud). Meanwhile, I was mourning the end of something that had been special to me.
Months passed and I decided it was time to move on. Unlike her, I didn’t have someone to move on to. So, I created my first online dating profile. And then my second. And then my third. You can imagine the frustration I felt (as I’ve talked about previously) when 90% of the women I reached out to didn’t respond. It wasn’t as simple as going up to a woman at a bar and striking up a conversation – although to be fair I tried that as well and there was nothing simple about that either. In fact, I can still remember the first time I got a message from a woman on the dating site – my heart racing to see an actual response to my attempt at starting a conversation. Now the pressure was on to keep the conversation going in clever enough of a way to earn her interest and get a date.
I still felt that way when I got my second response from a person, from Daniela, especially because she looked way out of my league in her pictures. Right away, however, there was chemistry with her. She seemed really into me, and it wasn’t long before we moved the conversation to Google messaging and away from the clunky messaging services that are inherent to most online dating programs.
I was smitten with Daniela rather quickly. She was beautiful and exotic. She showered me with compliments, asked questions about me in a desire to get to know me, and answered mine in return. We shared our pasts, where both of us had been hurt before, and I was trying to learn not to make the same mistakes others had made with Daniela’s heart. It was amazing to have a beautiful woman showing such interest in me. I tried to avoid negativity, but was having a rough time at work and she let me vent to her, venting in return about her family, some of whom lived near her and some of whom were in her home country (she was from Venezuela). At the same time, she had a confidence towards a future rather quickly, much to my surprise. I was hoping to earn a date where I could sweep her off her feet, while she was talking about our dates as if they were a simple step to a real future. It was intoxicating… until I cleared my head and started noticing the things that were wrong.
For example, her messages came predominantly during the day, when I was only able to give her part of my attention due to work. I would send messages every chance I could get, and every time I checked my phone there was a response from her. When the evening came, however, Daniela was nowhere to be found. I jokingly called her Cinderella a few times, because she always seemed to disappear around the same time. It wasn’t midnight, but it might as well have been, because when that chime came, she was gone without even a glass slipper left behind. She’d be back the next day, explaining work had exhausted her and she had fallen asleep, or her controlling uncle had come over and she hadn’t been able to message while he was there.
Still, we planned our first date. She lived a few hours away, but I was willing to make the trek. We planned having dinner and then strolling along the lakeside for a romantic walk where we would have our first kiss. It was euphoric in its planning, although after a week of strategizing, I couldn’t lock her into a specific date, which I wrote off to being my fault since I didn’t have the most open schedule. She talked about cooking for me; she claimed to be an excellent cook and her favorite thing to make was a beef roast – nevermind that her profile said she was a vegetarian. I would get caught up in the planning, ask her when we could fulfill those plans, but not notice the clock had chimed. She was gone until the next day, and my question would go unanswered.
Finally, the day came. Daniela committed to meeting the following Saturday, but she wanted to come to me instead of me coming to her. That made me a little nervous, mostly because our plans were based on her city, not mine, but she didn’t want me to have to spend the money on gas. In fact, she didn’t want me to pay for the date at all. I had to insist that if I was asking her out, it fell on me to pay. I knew money wasn’t abundant for her, especially because her uncle controlled her finances. She was insistent, however, and I decided it would just have to be a matter settled at the actual date. Rather than starting an argument, I just let the conversation ride, knowing I would just beat her to picking up any check when it actually came time.
As we moved closer to the date set, Daniela’s financial concerns grew. Her uncle had locked her out of her accounts under the excuse that he paid all of her bills so she didn’t need to have access other than depositing her paycheck. She wanted to get away from him, which was part of why she wanted to come to my city for the date – if things went well between us, she could see herself picking up roots a lot easier than me doing the same. We talked about her opening accounts in secret, but she wasn’t certain she would be able to do that, as her uncle had trashed her credit as well. In my desire to be the white knight, swooping in to rescue the beautiful maiden in distress, I spent time looking up options for her, especially in the hours that she wasn’t available for conversation.
Finally the day came. Not the date, which probably doesn’t surprise the objective reader not caught up in infatuation and the sweeping power of emotions. No, the day came where Daniela’s uncle had pushed her too far and she needed a way out. She asked if she could put her paycheck in my account. Doing that would keep the money away from her uncle, while showing me she had her own income and could pay her own way – that she wasn’t just looking for a guy to support her. It sounds completely plausible, right? But I’m not a stupid man, even if my common sense had been pushed aside in the excitement of the chase. I told her I would look into it, then stopped the conversation. I knew something was wrong. The next day she sent me a message asking if I was upset with her since I had gone quiet. I told her there was definitely a problem, and when she asked what it was, the relationship ended with three simple words.
You’re not real.
You see, Daniela had never been real. She had a profile and she had a google account and she had pictures of herself and her family, but she wasn’t real. She possibly wasn’t even a “she.” She was a catfish. If you’re not familiar with the term, it comes from the 2010 documentary by Nev Shulman, Henry Joost, and Ariel Shulman, which features Nev meeting a woman online and then tracking her down only to discover she wasn’t at all what she made herself out to be, creating fake social network accounts and personas in an effort to create a facade that made herself more attractive. In his novel The Fault in Our Stars, John Green turned the term into a verb (catfishing), meaning to represent oneself online in a false or fictitious manner. While that behavior has been around much longer, there’s your history lesson on the terminology.
Daniela wasn’t real; she was just a catfish. Her sole purpose was to worm her way into my emotions far enough to get access to my bank account, which would then be drained or abused. In retrospect (and after a little research), all the typical catfish signs were there. If you don’t know them, let me give you a brief rundown:
- Moving the conversation away from the dating website as quickly as possible (so as to not have their profile flagged so they can continue to lure in new targets)
- Communicating in a broken method of English, because they probably are actually foreigners not based in our country
- Ramping up emotion and commitment at a dangerous speed in an effort to keep you latched on
- Disappearing suddenly as if on a schedule, because that’s what you’ve got – someone putting in their eight hours at work and then going home, only their work is duping you
- Giving too much information that contradicts their profile, such as being a vegetarian who loves steak
- Communicating about financial struggles or controlling family members who create a need for them to need your financial information
All of these are signs of the catfish, but the real danger of catfishing goes much deeper than the financial threat, especially if you’re smart enough to avoid ever giving them that information. No, I was never put in economic jeopardy by my catfish, but I was damaged by her just the same. You see, I got into online dating with the hopes that someone would find me interesting or attractive, and Daniela found those things in me. But it wasn’t real, because she wasn’t real. When I said those words to her, all of those things went away, leaving an empty void of self-doubt and insecurity. It had only been a little over a week, but the damage was done: I wasn’t attractive. I wasn’t interesting. I was just a mark – a target to be exploited. If I had given her my information, she would have disappeared just a quickly and that damage would still have been done.
You’ve heard about women going into online dating because they want to feel attractive again. I did it for much the same reason, but my experience left me cut deeply. I didn’t quit online dating after that, but it definitely made me raise my defenses. When a woman contacts me now, my first thought is one of doubt: is this a woman who is actually interested in me, or am I just another mark to be abused? It creates an odd conundrum. You want a woman to respond to your messages, but as soon as she does, you wonder if there’s something wrong with the situation. Instead of excitement and exhilaration, there is doubt and defense, and that has probably cost me a few real opportunities. But what is worse: giving things a chance and finding out you’re meant to be exploited or missing a chance at something real? The answer is… I don’t know.
Dawn recently wrote about her catfishing experience, not knowing it was my intention to write about it next. As you can see, she has a lot more of a sense of humor about it. I wish I could do the same, but I can’t seem to let the doubt and damage go. Even over a year later, the wound is there, and while I can talk about it, I can’t find the humor in it that she can. Perhaps that’s another difference between men and women in online dating. Maybe women have so frequently been the target of sexual predators or jackasses that they can more easily let it go, while men, real men who aren’t out for sexual conquest or abuse are left with scars they don’t know how to handle.
Should Online Dating Come With The Expectation Of Being Catfished?
What do you think? Is catfishing something we should be able to recognize and laugh at ourselves about? Or is it a serious threat to our ego as well as our finances? To the men out there like me, how have you dealt with it?