“We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her,” Te’o said in a statement Wednesday.

That part of his story, at least, is not all that unusual. For people who have not participated in dating websites, or who met their partner in a traditional setting like a party, the notion of online love may be hard to grasp. But many relationships these days develop through the Internet: a 2010 Match.com survey says that 17 percent of couples married in the last three years met online.

“People probably think this never happens,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a TODAY contributor and psychiatrist who specializes in relationships and sex. “The huge change in our social activity based solely on the Internet has made this a phenomenon that does happen.” …

Still, she said, it is possible for someone to feel in love without ever being in the same room as their beloved, much the way people develop strong crushes on celebrities.