I was alerted early this week to a story dropped by Deadspin.com, one of my favorite sports writing compendiums. The story involved a Mormon football player from a tiny, midwestern school called Notre Dame. I won’t go into much detail because every news outlet in the world has already jumped on the story. However, the basic premise is this: An apparently religious, superstar college football player was duped into an online-only relationship with a woman who ended up “dying,” contracting a terminal illness and then not existing. We still don’t know what to believe from either party because the story is so ludicrous. Was Manti Te’o involved in the conspiracy? Why would somebody do this? Why does anybody do anything? Here are five foolproof ways to determine if you have an imaginary girlfriend.
You’ve never met her
I realize that the technological zeitgeist we live in opens entirely different avenues for forming relationships—and that sometimes these relationships lead to marriage (thanks, eHarmony!)—but at some point, you actually have to meet the person you’re supposedly in love with. Manti Te’o, an apparently very sweet, stupid individual, took the religious concept of “blind faith” and totally applied it to something he shouldn’t have. The term "catfishing" (creating a false identity to scam anxious romantics on social-networking sites) was new to me before this story, but I’ve been doing something called "baiting" online for years. I would pretend to be a lonely 14-year-old girl looking for a “friend.” The weirdos would come out, and I’d usually break character before things got too weird. Everybody did this. Perhaps it was because of his busy lifestyle and his religious upbringing, but Manti Te’o fell hook, line and sinker for the oldest Internet scam in the history of the Internet, if his story is to be believed. Regardless, you must meet the person you are in love with, even if you formed your relationship online. It seems silly to have to say that, but there you go.
Your gut feels funny
There are always signs that pop to the surface when someone is attempting to pull the wool over your eyes. These people aren’t very good at acting, or they would be professional actors instead of Internet con artists. What they are good at doing is finding our “flutter points,” those little areas of our psyche they can jab over and over again. They are so good at these constant, small hits to our ego that we cannot register how much damage they are causing before it’s too late. This is why you cannot rely on your heart or genitals to guide your decision-making. You’ve heard of the term “gut instinct”? Well, this is when you need to use it. I’ve been in several relationships (online and off) where my heart and genitals were saying, “Go for it, man!” while my stomach was saying, “No, no, no ... NO!” Always listen to your gut.
That one weird thing ...
Let’s pretend that you don’t have an imaginary girlfriend for a moment, that she’s as real to you as your own hand in front of your face. You wake up together and have breakfast like a normal couple. Then, you both go to work, and throughout the day, you text each other sweet messages. She comes home, and you make love before dinner before settling in to watch "Downton Abbey" or "Dr. Who" on television. She stands up and sprouts angel wings, and her body separates into a rainbow of glitter butterflies that fly around and land all over your apartment. What?! Exactly! People don’t melt into glitter butterflies. This does not happen to REAL people. She is imaginary. You need to WAKE UP!
This is probably the best advice you could take if you feel like your girlfriend might not be real. Go talk to someone who is legally trained to deal with situations like yours. Though I don’t think Manti Te’o is completely innocent in this situation (who knows what the hell is going on?), it IS true that he was experiencing a tremendous amount of both pressure and grief with his football career and dying grandmother. The death of a loved one can trigger visual hallucinations that can alter your perception of reality. Acute stress can have a tremendous negative impact on your psychological well-being. Regarding Manti Te’o, not only was his grandmother actually dead, he also believed (if we are to believe him) that his girlfriend had also died. Whether she was imaginary or not, he still felt a sense of grief from the perceived loss. I remember several weeks of torture when I was about 8 years old after I lost my favorite stuffed animal in a parking lot. “Sammy the dog” was a very real part of my life, and the grief I felt was overwhelming. If you feel that something is just “off” in your mind, there is no harm in seeking help from a professional.
Just ask her ...
When I was kid, I was scared that those little gray aliens were going to come into my bedroom late at night and get me. I remember being at my grandmother’s house and sleeping in a bed that was right next to an upstairs window. I just knew that at any moment a blinding beam of light would smash through the window and lift me up to the spaceship forever. Finally, after several sleepless nights, I told my grandmother about my issue. She didn’t laugh at me or make fun of what I was saying. She grabbed me by the shoulders and moved in real close to my face and said, “If you see one of them things, you just ask it to go away, and it will.” I never saw an alien, but my grandmother taught me what to do if I saw one. That was a long, roundabout way of saying that if you want to know if she’s a real person, all you have to do is ask her. A lot of relationship issues could be fixed if we would just ask the questions we needed to ask. Good luck, Manti Te’o. If this is the worst thing that happens to you, you’ll be OK.