Distant couple ties knot on SecondLife.com

LOS ANGELES Rhonda Lillie and Paul Hawkins only get as close as a computer screen between them.

"I looked across the room and I just saw him," said Rhonda. Their friendship started in the virtual space of SecondLife.com.

"In one day of talking to him, I had more conversation than three years with my boyfriend," said Rhonda.

/*Second Life*/ is a 3-D computer world where nearly a million people log in regularly and create digital representations of themselves, or who they want to be.

Rhonda is a divorced, 40-year-old mother of three. She created her avatar five years ago. In this virtual world, Rhonda is a tall, thin, unconventional girl named "Heart."

"I saw her at a dance and her avatar looked really pretty," said Paul Hawkins.

Paul, a never-been-married middle-aged father, created his avatar as a way to escape, unable to date or leave home, caring 24-7 for his severely autistic son.

"He didn't look like everybody else. He looked like a piece of art. I think that's what I liked. I looked at him and I thought, 'Wow!'" said Rhonda.

For months, their friendship grew in the virtual world of Second Life, their bond strengthening in real life.

"I think for the first two years, we were really stuck together by the computer," said Paul.

But can you really know a person through a computer screen?

"We complement each other. He's really motivating to me," said Rhonda. "I can tell him anything. He knows things about me that no one else has ever asked or known."

But how do you know what you're told is true?

"When you're doing a virtual meeting, you can make up a virtual personality too," said Carol Lauer, professor of anthropology, Rollins College. "You can be whoever you want to be. The reality may be somewhat different."

While some experts believe this relationship won't last, others say the person you create online may be close to the person you really want to be.

"Because they're freed from the constraints of reality, they have these opportunities to explore ideal selves or possible selves, that may be quite realistic within themselves, or maybe feel like it's actually their true selves," said Adriana Manago, psychology doctoral candidate, University of California-Los Angeles.

Five years and hundreds of virtual dates later, Rhonda and Paul were married in Second Life. They joined 43,000 other couples who pledged their vows in this made-up world. But reality is not that simple.

"I can't just go there and marry him," said Rhonda.

Distance separates them. Paul lives in Wales. Rhonda lives 6,000 miles away in California. They've met only three times in five years. Their first meeting was in London, where they were featured on the BBC.

"We just held each other," said Rhonda. "He was crying on my shoulder. I was just telling him I love him."

Their plan is for Rhonda to finish college, get a job to make enough money to bring Paul and his autistic son to the U.S., where they can be legally married. But Rhonda fears time and distance will take its toll.

"If it takes more than two years and I still can't get a good job, then I do worry because I don't know how much longer he can wait," said Rhonda. "I just love him so much."

The feeling is mutual.

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