November 4, 2021

There is a whole chapter in Intentional Courtship (which will be released tomorrow, November 5th!) entitled "Online Dating: the Wild West of Mid-Single Life."

In January of the year 1540, a little bit before the invention of the internet, England's King Henry VIII married his fourth wife, the German princess Anne of Cleves from Dusseldorf. It was a marriage for political advantage, but also because the king thought she was cute, based on her portrait by Hans Holbein. The two nations signed a marriage treaty before King Henry and Anne even met.

King Henry later reported that the moment he laid eyes on Anne, he was disappointed that she was not nearly as cute as her portrait. In fact, he said he found her ugly. It was the worst kept secret in England that the king was unable to do his duty on his wedding night. Six months later, Henry had the marriage annulled. He also had his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, tried for treason and executed for getting him into that marriage.

It seems to me that Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves was, perhaps, the first example in history of online dating gone awry. Of course, the marriage was for political reasons too. How often have we seen someone say in an online dating group or page that they want someone who can support them or someone financially stable. The desire for financial stability is, of course, not the same as marrying a princess in order to form a political alliance with her country. But many people, even within our faith, marry to be taken care of or for other financial advantages. In a way, that is a case of marrying to remedy some insufficiency in oneself. I once dated a woman who told me she got fired from every job she ever had and was incapable of supporting herself, so she needed a husband to do it. How attractive is that?

None of us will ever know exactly what Anne of Cleves really looked like. There were no photographs in the 16th century. You can find an array of portraits of her online if you care to Google them. It is not unlikely that Holbein was thinking of making his client happy with the portrait more than an accurate rendering. And, perhaps, Holbein merely thought Anne really was cute and tried to capture her essence that way.

In any event, Holbein's portrait of Anne turned into the classic case of someone putting an out-of-date and airbrushed picture on a dating site to attract potential partners. Anne of Cleves got to be Queen of England for six months. Unlike Henry's former wife, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves lived out the remainder of her life in England and enjoyed the company of her stepchildren long after the king had died. (Some historians have speculated that she also enjoyed the company of the king from time to time.)

What can we learn from the unfortunate tale of Anne of Cleves? First, when you are online dating, use an accurate and recent picture. Use a good picture of yourself, but make it a recent one and a reasonably accurate representation of what you really look like.

I know, I know, looks are not the most important thing. I can just tell you, from experience, that if you have weeks and months of connected online chatting or even phone calls with a prospective partner, you may be very excited to meet in person. When you meet, if you don't like what you see, chances are near certain that things are not going to progress further. That applies to both men and women.

I don't mean to say that attraction cannot grow over time. But there needs to be some basic level of attraction to begin with. It is no good figuring out how to take a photo that will make you look like a supermodel or movie star, and then having your partner feel disappointed when he or she meets the real you in person for the first time. That may also result in a loss of trust that will probably not be regained.

On a similar subject, don't overstate your financial or career success to impress a potential dating partner. That can also lead to a fatal loss of trust later on when he or she finds out the truth.

When I first met Cathy, I was in a pretty difficult situation financially. I had been laid off from my corporate job seven months earlier, had recently finalized my second divorce, and was couch surfing with my parents at age 48. I had not yet cleaned up all of the financial mess resulting from my first divorce. I was also working hard to build a law practice--something I had done before and was pretty confident I could do again. I laid out all of these circumstances to Cathy on our first date. (That's a lot to lay on someone right?)

Cathy might have been more gung-ho about dating me in the beginning if I had shaded the truth and pretended things were going better for me than they really were. (Other people had actually done that with her.) But how was I going to deal with it when she found out the truth? I might have kidded myself and decided I could make all my bold statements come true before she found out anything. But kidding yourself is never a good idea. Ultimately, with God's help, I did build a successful practice and then landed a dream job. Cathy watched all of that progress unfold because I was honest with her from the beginning.

If you had a financially messy divorce, don't pretend that your situation is better than it is to attract a new spouse. Many good people will still give you a chance, knowing that you are doing your best to rebuild. Showing a good faith effort to overcome your problems is an indication of character and strength. A wise partner will see that. So, tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

On the flip side, do not be unduly impressed with a potential partner's attractive financial situation. He might be the King of England. But if he has a history of multiple divorces, cheating on his former wives, and having some of them beheaded, he may not be a great catch notwithstanding his massive inherited wealth.

Instead, look for a person of good character. Look for a real king or queen, who will lead your family in a manner that is conducive to their happiness. Take the time to know your partner's character. That takes longer than knowing their bank balance or salary. But, character is more indicative of long-term success  and happiness than current fortuitous circumstances. Marry a person--not a situation. When you are online dating, do what you can to look for the indicators of good character rather than flaunted success.

Here's the truth friends. Honesty in online dating may lead to fewer opportunities in the short term. But those it attracts are the better opportunities. If you admit to potential partners that you are couch-surfing with your parents while you attempt to rebuild your financial life, that's going to cost you some opportunities. But the best ones will see the steps you are taking to improve yourself and your situation and give you a chance. Truly believing in someone includes sincerely believing in what they are building and becoming.

A final lesson from the tale of Anne of Cleves is to go on an in-person date soon after you meet online. Don't waste weeks and months online chatting and hiding behind your computer screen. Real, in person, interaction will tell you a lot more than endless chatting online. An online profile and a little chatting will tell you what you need to know to venture out on a real date. Don't spend weeks and months "negotiating a marriage treaty" with a person that is only an image in your mind. King Henry corresponded with Anne of Cleves and her advisors by mail for months while a marriage treaty was negotiated. The marriage lasted only six months. Get to know each other in person. Don't waste the time endlessly chatting online behind the safe barrier of your computer screen.

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