"All I knew was that he was tall and had brown hair and blue eyes, so every guy I saw who kind of fit that description, I would look at him and I would say, 'If that were Aaron, would I still like him?'" said Amanda, who now lives with Aaron in Decatur, Ga. "The answer was always yes."
Love can be blind -- literally
Amanda's attraction to a man she had never seen before is not uncommon: studies have been done on this phenomenon for decades. One of the most famous is 1973's ominous-sounding "Deviance In The Dark," in which interactions between students were observed in both pitch-dark and well-lit rooms.
Those who met in the dark room, on the whole, were much more open and intimate with their fellow participants than those who met face-to-face under the fluorescents. In short: When you get rid of all the stress attached to face-to-face meetings, people feel more free to be themselves and get to know each other.
That approach worked for Keith A. Masterson, 41, and Gabriel-Thomas Masterson, 37. After meeting via a Facebook group comment chain, the couple spent hours daily chatting on Facebook and the phone before meeting two months later. The couple are now married and living in Colonial Heights, Va.
"In our situation, (meeting online) gave me the opportunity to ask questions that I probably would not have asked face to face at that time," Masterson said.
Gabriel-Thomas agreed: "One of the reasons we moved so quickly was because we spent so much time on the phone talking."
Some research also suggests that chatting online first can have a beneficial effect on face-to-face relationships. In the "Relationship Formation on The Internet" study, the authors tested whether a group of students liked each other more after an online or in-person meeting. They found the online group was much more chummy, in part because of the quality of the digital interaction itself. In short: The Web allowed participants to pare away interpersonal distractions and focus on communicating openly and honestly.
Granted, there are some pitfalls with too much online interaction before meeting in person.
Dr. Artemio Ramirez, Jr., associate professor of communication at the University of South Florida, has done his own research on the effects of online communications on offline relationships.
"If you meet someone face to face shortly after you meet them online, it's not necessarily going to lead to someone having a positive relationship, but waiting longer increases the possibility that things are not going to work out," he said. "We tend to develop in our heads these impressions of what we think that person is like, even though the realities of communication do not reflect that."
Still, Ramirez says the effect of idealization can be mitigated by expanding a relationship beyond the bounds of the written word.
"When people rely on more text-based forms of communication, that's where you really see people idealizing. When people in relationships can talk on the phone or via Skype, it's more of a reality check," he said. "Each new form of communication incrementally gives us more information about that person."
'Catfishing' goes mainstream
Of course, not all online love affairs pay off as well as those detailed above. Manti Te'o fell for a woman he was told died of cancer, a woman he had to say "goodbye" to twice after he found out she never existed.
The Web is full of tricksters. One 2008 study found that 81 percent of online daters admitted to lying about their weight, height, age or a combination of the three on their profiles. The Web allows users to present their best selves to the public, and sometimes those selves are exaggerated.
However, just because the object of one's online affections isn't real doesn't mean that one's feelings aren't.
Nev Schulman, the protagonist in the 2010 documentary "Catfish," knows better than anyone about the heartbreak caused by falling for someone who doesn't exist.The movie details how he fell for a Michigan woman named Megan Faccio, who turned out to be an intricate fabrication created by a lonely wife and mother. The film, and the related TV series, has raised awareness of such hoaxes and even given the public a term with which to categorize them: "catfishing."
"Once I kind of came to terms with the reality that this daily soap opera that I was tuning into, and the long distance love affair that I was having, got canceled and everything sort of shut down, at first I was incredibly lonely," Schulman said.
"It's a double insult," said Dr. Michael Adamse, author of "Affairs of the Net: The Cybershrinks' Guide to Online Relationships." "Because on one hand it's the loss of a love object. ... There's also the humiliation attached to it, too, feeling badly about yourself. Not only have I lost somebody that was never really in love with me, but I've also been duped."
Despite what happened to Schulman, and the unlucky souls on his show who fell in love with mirages, both he and his "Catfish" co-host, Max Joseph, say that it is possible to fall in love successfully online.
"Everyone, when they meet one of us, they want to tell us that they know people who have been in online relationships and half the time the stories are really positive," Joseph said. "They have really happy endings."
The trick, they said, is to be smart about your online love affair before getting in too deep.
To have and to hold
All the couples interviewed for this story have one integral thing in common: Each and every one of them eventually met in real life to solidify their relationship.