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  eHARMONY? MORE LIKE TONE DEAF.  
   
   
 

This was definitely not like having a sleepover with my best friend.

As I sat across the dinner table from Melissa, on a date set up via the website eHarmony, I thought about that testimonial from their ads and laughed to myself. We were having a fine conversation, one that

 
 

ranged from movies to television to music to current events (although she was a bit freaked out at my strong opinions on Iraq, not all of which were PC). But there was a certain quality about her that made me a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the fact that her biceps were bigger than mine, or that she had a brow that could have made Barry Bonds look in wonderment. When we got to the part of the standard first-date conversation where we discussed what we looked for in a mate, she made a statement that stopped me cold, just as I was wiping a piece of pan-seared tuna from my cheek:

"Well, I tend to look for guys who are bi," said Melissa (name changed). "I like the fact that they're a bit ambiguous. I also liked the fact that they're a bit more feminine than most guys."

Since I was nothing of the sort (at least the last I checked), this revelation took me by surprise. There was nothing in her profile

 
   
 

that suggested she was looking for effeminate bisexual men. In fact, there was nothing in her profile that stated that she was bisexual herself; she revealed this tidbit in an e-mail to me a few days before our date. Not that I have any problem with that (what man does?), but considering I had gone through a long, drawn-out online "courting" process with Melissa -- which included multiple-choice questions, "Must-haves" and "Can't stands", college-style essay questions about what we wanted out of life, and finally some e-mail-style "open communication" -- I was a bit upset that such a detail hadn't at least been alluded to sooner.

At least I got to go on a date. Many people who have used eHarmony, an online dating site which matches people using a psychological survey that measures, in their words, "29 dimensions of compatibility," haven't been so lucky. Some have been matched up with people that took the survey but never signed up and paid for the service. Others have been deemed to be compatible with people that weren't looking for a commitment or a person with whom they had little in common. Still others have been connected to people that they wouldn't even be attracted to in the dark.

Sounds just like any other dating site, you may be thinking to yourself. What's with all the bitching and moaning? Well, that's exactly the point. EHarmony is exactly like all the other dating sites out there, where all the pitfalls and dealbreakers come into play. But those ads… those freakin' ads! Commercial after commercial of deliriously blissful men and women embracing, kissing, and smiling longingly at each other. Testimonials up the wazoo that show how wonderful and strong the matches are between people who have signed up. It's all so lovey-dovey and sweet that my butt clenches involuntarily while listening to them.

As far as the eH folks are concerned, they're not just another dating site, they're the place a person goes to find a soulmate, someone with whom to spend the rest of their lives.

A large number of their users beg to differ. Mention eHarmony to a person who is a veteran of the online dating wars, and you'll get one of two reactions: "I found the love of my life there!" or, "What a fucking rip-off!" There are few opinions in-between.

In fact, a perusal of the site eDateReview.com, one of the few online dating review sites that contain user reviews, shows that online romancers have strong opinions about the service: the number of eH reviews surpasses even those of Match.com, which has three times as many members. While most sites garner a couple of dozen reviews, eH has over 170, many writers of which are angry at the site for raising their expectations.

Tanya Davis, a 42-year old violin instructor from Tennessee, agrees with those angry users: "They imply that there are hundreds of matches for you, and that if you sign up you will definitely find someone who is right for you, because of their elaborate system of matching," she ruefully writes in an e-mail. Unfortunately for her, though, "the people they have sent me have not been ANYTHING LIKE what I want. You are not able to specify body type or level of attractiveness or income. I'm not saying I'm looking for Mr. America, but I'd like to know there was some chemistry there … and also meet a guy who can at least pay his own bills."

***

I was an eHarmony member for a year, which is about the amount of time the site's founder, psychologist Neil Clark Warren, says a member should stick around in order to find that special person. I signed up after hearing a radio ad that mentioned how they match people up via compatibility rather than just using "a picture and a paragraph," the phrase Dr. Warren uses to dismiss the traditional dating sites. Even though I was given the choice to hold back a picture until various phases of their "courting process" were reached, I decided to be up-front and put up a few pictures (Looks-wise, I'm somewhere between Brad Pitt and Dom DeLuise. Wholly average). I filled in the personality quiz honestly, and put up as witty a profile as I could muster.

During my time on the site, I was matched up with over 125 women from all over the country, some of whom I closed out, but many of whom closed me out, using lame canned excuses such as "I don't think the chemistry's there", "There's too much going on in my life right now", and "Other".

Out of the 125 matches, I went to open communication with a dozen of them. I went on real, actual dates with three women. That's right, folks, I said three. Besides the bisexual weightlifter, I also went out on one date with a lovely and funny assistant director for a popular cable network. She kept putting me off for weeks before admitting that she didn't want to go out again. The third eHarmony match I dated was a chipper grade-school teacher from the New Jersey farmlands. She loved Japan and vintage clothes. She also loved to prattle on about her stoner ex-boyfriend and her cats, and also wondered why I was so "distant" after our second date (my dad was going through bypass surgery at the time, so I may have been a bit gruff with her. But it was a bit of a jarring question to hear so early on).

In all three cases, there wasn't that bond that the eHarmony ads portray should happen after going through their process. In fact, the women were very similar to those I met using the other dating sites I've used in the past, albeit they were a little easier to talk to. All of those communication stages basically amounted to an initial cup of coffee, which is somewhat less of a conncection than what those eH ads portray.

Marylyn Warren, eHarmony's senior vice president, understands that they've set the bar high for its users. "They have every reason to have [higher expectations]," says the wife of founder Neil Clark Warren. "When you sit through a 436-item questionnaire and you fill out all the other stuff and you realize every night your profile would be run against 10,000 profiles that have come on that day…" she says wistfully. "You think that, y'know, tonight there [might] be the most wonderful person with whom you're matched. It happens every day."

Luckily, I was fortunate enough to be able to enter a profile. Because eHarmony wants to ensure their customers get matched, they reject a small number of people who fill out the questionnaire, for reasons ranging from a poor relationship history (for instance, a large number of divorces), to what rejected users on eDateReview described as "low energy".

Marylyn Warren states that this method, while embarrassing to the user, in the long run will help both the user and the site: "One of the things that is really important for us is to be a site of integrity," she said. "We know that there are certain profiles that will come up of people that we absolutely cannot match. We do not want to take their money, because there's no way we can help them. There's no way we can find enough matches that would be really pleasing for them."

She did deny, however, that people are rejected for their religious beliefs, an anecdotal complaint that is usually cited by users because eHarmony markets to Christian radio stations and publications. "Our big thing is that we want to do something about the divorce rate in this country. Divorce is an issue that cuts across every religion and nationality, and we want to be there for all these people."

Indeed, none of the people I spoke to sensed that the site was overly Christian in its marketing or that their matches leaned towards the religious. In fact, Tanya Davis, who is a devout Methodist, said that she got a lot of non-Christian matches, "even one whose profile said, 'I am getting way too many matches that are all about spirituality. There is more to life.' Geez!"

According to Marylyn Warren, problems like Davis' occur when people don't fill out the "About Me" section of the profile correctly. Usually a call to customer support will allow a person to change a profile that is giving unsatisfactory matches.

The most complaints about the site, however, revolve around two major issues: paying members being matched up with non-paying members who can't respond, and the seemingly arbitrary way the matches are doled out. The former complaint is especially bewildering to users who both like and dislike the service; because users who have taken the survey but have not paid are allowed to put up a profile, paying members who try to initiate communication with these profiles do not know about the member's status. When the communication is ignored, it leads the initiator to believe that they are being given a virtual "get out of my face, you loser," leading to more anger towards the site.

Curt Siffert, a 33-year-old software consultant, didn't initially pay for the service, so he saw the mismatches from the other side: "I was on the site for a few weeks and I never saw anything to distinguish paying members from non-paying members," e-mailed the Oregon resident. "Since I was getting contact attempts, then it proves that a lot of people are getting matched with non-paying members without realizing it." This problem is mentioned quite a bit during a major discussion on eHarmony at Siffert's blog, which most of the respondents came upon after Googling the phrase "eHarmony sucks".

Marylyn Warren didn't think that payer/non-payer matches happen, but said she'd look into it when she heard the anecdotal evidence during our phone interview.

To many users, it also seems that the matches are presented in spurts, enough to keep them coming back if their attention starts to wander. Gerry Pressar, 44, who started a dating blog based on some of his faulty eH matches, feels that this is done on purpose. "I suspect that EH users are "fed" matches much in a similar way that a slot machine pays off. In psychology this falls under the heading of reinforcing or shaping behavior," writes the project manager from San Diego. "(I)t makes sense that a business designed by a psychologist would use the methods of psychology in order to maximize business." Users who decide to stop paying the monthly fee are presented with numerous matches (even after weeks of inactivity), along with offers of discounted fees, all in a seeming effort to get them to stay.

I saw the same thing. After I stopped paying for my membership, a flurry of matches came in, all of whom probably thought I was blowing them off even though I couldn't respond.

Marylyn Warren considers this simply a mistaken perception. According to her, the system attempts to match profiles on a regular basis, and the timing of the matches has nothing to do with attempts to retain users who are looking to bail. "We're very conservative about the matching," she states emphatically, "and we will not give you a match that isn't right for you. So our only hope is to get the word out and bring more and more people on."

Even if, as the eHarmony ads claim, they've created more engagements and marriages than any other e-dating site out there, the odds are still long. Marylyn Warren noted that over 4,000 long-term couples have been made out of their over 4.5 million members. Assuming that the membership is split evenly between genders (even though it isn't; more women than men are on the service), that adds up a one-in-a-thousand chance to meet "the one." When asked about these odds, Mrs. Warren sidestepped the question, just saying that "we've heard from some pretty happy people" who have started serious relationships.

So, just like any other dating site, eHarmony is a big crapshoot. It's Nerve with a bigger advertising budget and all the control over who gets matched to whom. Unfortunately, they don't want to portray it that way. Instead of telling you it's a nice place to find someone to go out with on a Friday night, eHarmony goes for broke and tells you it's a place to find the dream companion that has been your life's search. Judging by the vitriol that comes across from users, they fail at that more often than not.

 

Joel Keller is a freelance writer. He wishes he used online dating services purely for research, but he doesn't. His next project is to learn lying skills from Pete Townshend.