Manti Te'o and his fake girlfriend is perhaps the week's biggest sports story. Notre Dame's star linebacker and contender for the Heisman Trophy became well-known when it was revealed that he lost his grandmother and girlfriend to cancer in the span of six hours in September. This week, however, Deadspin broke the news that Te'o's girlfriend Lennay Kakua, whom he had described as the love of his life, never existed. While it remains to be seen whether Te'o is the victim or complicit in an elaborate hoax, the story has caused many to wonder just how he could have spent a year of his life in love with someone he never met in person. However, in this increasingly connected age, experts say that not only does that happen more and more often, but the love behind it is generally real.
The feelings that make up love are the result of a mixture of biological and neurological processes. Most importantly, though, love makes those in it feel good, firing off dopamine, which is associated with rewards. When the brain likes something, it is hard to see warning signs. Indeed, the digital realm can make feeling in love even more likely. Humans are generally pretty good at making sure that someone is being sincere, but only if we can make eye contact. Online, it is easy to read someone as being genuine when they are not. With such limited information, people are able to fill in the blanks with their digital paramour, allowing them to idealize their love interest, LiveScience points out.
Though Te'o says that he should have been more cautious, many people have happy relationships with people they met online. "A growing body of research from the 1980s shows that people who first meet online (or in the dark) feel happier and more satisfied with their partner than people who first meet face-to-face," explained University of Chicago associate professor Stephanie Cacioppo. That is because, without physical attraction as a distraction, individuals are able to assess their partner's inner qualities and values earlier than relationships conducted entirely in person.
Still, it is not typical for online couples to spend a year without meeting in person, as Te'o claims. Ultimately, the longer the relationships are conducted online, the easier it is for them to become idealized and not meet up with the fantasy - even in cases where both parties are real.