Contributed by Amanda Anastasio, MSW, LCSW
I’m noticing a growing trend in reports of a certain type of relationship. Students report being in a relationship with someone they’ve never met in person, made possible through the amazing advances in Internet technology. How might this work, you ask?
These couples watch YouTube together, play computer games, talk through Skype, listen to music together, send photos, talk through gchat or a similar chat site, and the list can go on. There’s so much you can do with someone online! The bond that forms can feel very real, even if you never go out to dinner together, hold hands in the movie theater, or share a real kiss.
While keeping an open mind about all kinds of relationships, it’s also imperative to recognize the differences between a quality, respectful, mutual relationship and one that is not, no matter what the medium is. And for the record, dating through an online site, such as match.com or okcupid.com, and then eventually meeting up, is completely different from “dating” exclusively through the Internet, which is what I’m addressing here.
The problem that I hear as a counselor is that one person starts to fade away, which is quite easy to do in cyberspace, leaving the other person confused and frustrated. It seems like the two people had much different perceptions about what was happening in this daily or nightly communication. They never spoke about their perceptions because the contact is brief and often filled with fun, new, and exciting romantic exchanges.
For example, while one person believes it’s a relationship, the other one is thinking it’s an entertaining distraction while on the computer or a new type of thing they’ve never tried. One person may think there’s no future because of the distance or the nature of how it started, and the other person may be basking in the online relationship destiny that came true.
Limited face time makes it hard to reach the higher levels of intimacy that other couples enjoy and that’s necessary for long-term health in a relationship. It can be fun to chat with someone, to share music, ideas, and be creative, but sharing your heart and soul with a person you’ve never met is risky business.
When the person fades away, there’s no explanation, no closure, and it can be hurtful and confusing. You may think you knew all there is to know about that person you spoke to for weeks or months every night, but without the real-life contact, what you know barely scratches the surface of the other person’s life.
I’m not implying that people are lying to each other online ‒ actually, research shows that people are more likely to lie over the phone than in email or text messages. But it’s not about who is lying, it’s simply this: there cannot be intimate knowledge and mutual love in a relationship in which the two people have never met. What it sounds like to me is that a strictly online relationship can turn to confusion, hurt, and even stalking.
The bottom line
Don’t put your life or feelings on the line or even on hold for someone in cyberspace. Think of an “I love you” that only occurred through cyberspace or social media as having ¼ of the value of an in-person “I love you.” My rule of thumb is to take love on the Internet like I take my daily coffee: very light. With sugar on Fridays only! OK, enough about me …
A little lightening up can help you keep your valuable heart safe and ready for that real, respectful, mutual love that may be coming your way!
In the meantime, keep your sights on being the kind of person you would want to date – interesting, funny, enthusiastic about life ‒ whatever floats your boat. Keep online relationships light, and save the heavy stuff for someone whose hand you can hold.
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