I recently went to the wedding of a friend who had met her spouse online. I expected the fact to be referred to, obliquely, in the best man's speech, where it would cause a twinge of embarrassment in the marquee, and never be mentioned again.
Which site had they used? And how much did it cost? Internet dating has come out of the closet.
A few years ago, if I told a friend I was meeting a man I'd met online, they adopted a frozen smile and told me to be careful, then rapidly changed the subject. Today, I'm likely to be blitzed with a battery of success stories. According to a survey by parship. Among the major players jostling to claim the UK market are a number from the US, which remains at the forefront of internet dating. But neither can make the claims of eHarmonywhich has arrived in the UK with a grand ambition: The company isn't interested in brief encounters; their system, based on psychometric testing, is supposed to pair you with your most compatible long-term partner.
If the concept sounds Orwellian, their results seem utopian. Although it has more than 20 million users worldwide, eHarmony likes to rate its success on the number that make it through to marriage, and in the US What have you learned from past relationships eharmony dating year they could claim weddings a day: Even more impressive is their divorce rate. The company soft-launched the UK site two years ago, but its American adverts — beautiful couples with gleaming teeth and floaty outfits running along beaches together — didn't chime with a savvy, sceptical British clientele.
Now eHarmony has regrouped and last month launched a vigorous marketing campaign, aiming at the plus demographic, particularly those who have traditionally not been drawn to dating sites before.
The plan, says Sean Cornwell, its vice president for international markets, is to change the face of UK dating for good. We don't hide what we're about, which is finding your soulmate. For those looking for love, the shelves are packed with product. Hundreds of brands cater to all different kinds of loveseekers, in ever more niche markets, whether it's London professionals lovestruck.
One is that it really does matter which site you choose. Forget the old saw about opposites attracting: Dates on Guardian Soulmates often involved the Southbank, or existential cinema, or both. But eHarmony's process is undeniably different. You fill in their patented online questionnaire essentially, a psychometric test and then a computer algorithm — eHarmony's secret compatability weapon — matches you with only those you're likely to share a long and satisfying relationship with.
It sounds so good that I have to try it. At the least, I'm told, I'll receive a free personality profile based on my answers. After a few pages of standard questions on education, income and physical appearance, comes the deep stuff. How well do I stick to a plan? Am I easily discouraged? How often do I do nice things for other people? There are questions in all, and it takes an extended lunch hour to complete.
Maybe others could do it quicker — by the end I was flagging and finding it hard to decide whether I was "very", "somewhat" or "not at all" romantic.
The computer runs its judgment over me. There's a moment of suspense before the screen delivers its verdict: I haven't felt so crushed since the humiliation of the end-of-school disco. After a week, I've still not had a single match, so I decide to look at the results of my psychometric report.
Under the "Agreeableness" heading, the report tells me: Those are their capitals, by the way, not mine. Delving a little deeper, I find myself described as "reserved, private, introverted", qualities I have never been accused of having by anyone who's met me. I think I've discovered why I don't have a date: Pasadena is a pleasantly quiet, residential suburb of Los Angeles and a surprising location for one of America's brightest dotcoms.
EHarmony was born here, the unexpected child of Dr Neil Clarke Warren's marriage-counselling practice. In his work, Warren saw too many fighting couples who, he realised, were fundamentally mismatched in the first place.
He decided to dedicate his own scientific research to finding out what kept couples together in the long-term; his findings provided the basis for eHarmony's original What have you learned from past relationships eharmony dating and a multi-million dollar company.
In the basement of the eHarmony offices, Dr Gian Gonzaga, the company's head of research and development, sits in the command centre of their "relationship laboratories". Surrounded by recording equipment and monitor screens, Gonzaga can listen in on the interactions that are taking place in the next-door rooms, where couples are talking about their lives: I haven't been married for 30 years, for instance — so I don't know what's going to be important 30 years from now.
Gonzaga has "What have you learned from past relationships eharmony dating" with the company since and is genuinely passionate when he talks about relationship science, but I remain sceptical that a computer algorithm can fathom the heart. He picks up a napkin and starts drawing a flowchart on the back of it, combining phrases like "dyadic adjustment scale" and "regression analysis", with helpful little diagrams of stick people.
It's like walking into a party and instead of having to talk to all people, here are the 10 you should start with, the ones you have the best chance to get along with in the long haul. He points out that they have taken 12 months studying British couples, in partnership with Oxford university, to refine the psychometric questionnaire for a UK audience.
It turns out you can't just use the same algorithm across continents: Mention eHarmony in LA and it seems that everyone can tell you of a friend or a relative who met a wife or husband through the site. Often you hear them add: Gonzaga sends them into one of the surveillance rooms. We watch on monitors as the pair are asked to talk about their week.
Gonzaga jots down notes. It's a really strong sign for the future health of a relationship. Surely she was just being polite and agreeing with him?
It's about whether the couples understand what's important to each other. By the time I leave, I'm so convinced of the power of eHarmony that I'm ready to start picking out my wedding dress.
When I return to the site, I've finally got a few matches. A new profile is emailed around 8am most mornings, a clever ruse, because there's no better way to start your day than to have the prospect of eternal love arrive in your inbox with a satisfying ping. But it's not all good news. Whereas most sites encourage flirting through instant chat and email, the eHarmony site comes across as a matronly chaperone, keeping a keen eye and a restraining arm on you and your prospective lover.
Once I've found a likely looking man, I have to send him an eHarmony-approved "icebreaker". I'm not sure I want the first thing I say to my future husband to be "Wink!
Why don't you finish your About Me questions? The "guided communication" system that follows is as time consuming as a tax form, and about as sexy. Before you talk to your date, eHarmony wants you to get to know them through a series of closed and open-ended questions, which get straight to the serious stuff: I settle on "Good Hygiene" and "Not Racist".
It's an infuriatingly slow burn that doesn't do much to distinguish between the Darrens, Johns and Peters and makes the banter rather earnest "If you had three wishes, what would they be? You can have the What have you learned from past relationships eharmony dating two in exchange for a kiss.