Love and Relationships

[Two Pronged] Is love on a dating app real?

Margarita Holmes, Jeremy Baer
[Two Pronged] Is love on a dating app real?
'A full relationship requires engagement of all five of our traditional senses'

Rappler’s Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.

Jeremy has a master’s degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives

Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.

Dear Dr. Holmes and Mr. Baer,

Is love over a dating app or over the internet real?  Is it the same as the love you can feel and literally touch?


Dear Sam,

Thank you for your message.

In a recent column we discussed the problems surrounding present-day dating. Your questions here are closely related but deal with a slightly different aspect of the issue.

For centuries relationships that weren’t face to face had to be conducted in writing. The telephone improved matters considerably in the 20th century but it was of course only very recently that video became widely available and affordable, if not free. However a full relationship requires engagement of all five of our traditional senses, and even with today’s technology a virtual relationship only engages sight and sound, leaving touch, taste, and smell surplus to requirements. 

To this extent therefore it is less “real” than a face to face relationship.

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Internet love, however, is just another iteration of a long distance relationship. Apart from the obvious advantages, it offers the opportunity to get to know someone within strictly defined parameters free from the stress of face to face meetings. This freedom comes at the price however of not only failing to engage all the senses but also of having little or no idea of the other person outside those strictly defined parameters i.e. the rest of their life with all its quirks and habits. 

Not only is there the possibility that the other person is catfishing; there is also the temptation to idealize some or all those aspects of the relationship where actual knowledge is absent. To this extent, therefore, the relationship and any accompanying love may be built to some degree on shaky foundations, or even no foundations at all.

Is this love real? Everyone has their own definition of love. One can love from afar and the object of such love can be totally oblivious of the existence, or at least the feelings, of the lover. Most other versions involve some degree of reciprocation, however, and internet love certainly is real in this sense. You can after all argue that anyone who feels love, via the internet or otherwise, is experiencing real love even if the other party does not respond to the same degree.

At the end of the day, internet love can be a wonderful introduction to face to face love, or the next best thing if one is separated for whatever reason from one’s loved one, but it cannot compete with “the love you can feel andliterally touch.”

All the best,
JAF Baer

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Dear  Sam:

Thank you very much for your letter.  In answer to your question, yes, love over the internet can be as real as love in “real time” (with flesh you can touch, smell, and feel). In fact, I would say that love over the internet can be even more real than love in real time!

However, your question is about a generalization and not a specific person, so I can only answer in generalizations, okay? Your hesitation about the possibility of true love existing via dating apps is well-founded for all the reasons Mr. Baer gave. I will expand on one of these reasons. 

I am speaking particularly about smell, which has a powerful effect on relationships – made even more powerful because we are not aware of it and thus cannot “guard against” its effect. This is more true for women than for men, but in the end, evolutionarily speaking, women make the final decision, so yes, smell is an incredibly powerful clue to taking a risk on a relationship.

The greatest significance of smell is detecting the differences in MHC — a gene family linked to the immune system and body scent. In the same way that mice and rats can tell how genetically related they are to others of their species, so can women! Women are better at smelling the body odor of someone closely related/family.

“Biologically it makes sense. We want to protect our own gene pool,” according to Dr. Johan Lundstom of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “It’s not so much picking the best partner, it’s deselecting bad partners.” Research shows that women in particular prefer potential partners who are somewhat genetically related, but not too related. Having children with someone with an MHC genotype that is too similar, studies show, can lead to spontaneous abortion or low birth weight. Conversely, pursuing someone with a close (or semi-close) genetic makeup means preserving adaptations to an environment — think regional people having immunity to local strains of pathogens.

Research is increasingly showing that olfaction, one of the oldest sensory systems but probably the least understood, has an important role in a large number of areas. According to one study, women are more concerned about the smell than about the look of a potential mate, while men are the opposite, to the point that another study found that (only) 13% of men and 52% of women have slept dressed in the clothing of another person, usually their partner, because of the smell.

Some researchers go so far as to say smell may be “the missing factor that explains who we end up with.” It may even explain why we feel “chemistry” — or “sparks” or “electricity” — with one person and not with another.

So…whether you meet originally in real time (difficult during the pandemic) OR first meet on the internet and take it further in real time if promising, sniff away, dearest Sam. You can bet your life she is, too (whether she may be aware of its subtle power or not). Good luck! 

MG Holmes


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