Online Relationships: Real or Fantasy?
When I “e-meet” someone, that is connect online, I often have strong and immediate feelings that I like them or that I don’t, even though I have never seen them or talked to them in person. It is not a stretch to see that this feeling of connection can be experienced by many people as an intimate and even sexual attraction. (I have dealt with the topic of connecting sexually through cybersex vs. real sex in another post.)
The reality basis of online connecting and “she sounded cute on the phone”
Part of the sense of immediately knowing someone from very little actual information has to do with the fact that we as humans may be using our gift for “rapid cognition” as it is described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Gladwell also uses the term “thin slicing” to describe the phenomenon by which we can sometimes evaluate situations and make decisions almost instantaneously, with a seemingly miniscule amount of information and without actual logical reasoning.
This is a scientific description of what I think of in some situations as “intuition”. I am reminded of my surprise when first hearing men say things like “she sounded cute on the phone.” “She sounded cute?” How does somebody sound cute looking?
Regardless of what we call it, it does seem that we can get a powerful and sometimes fairly accurate idea of what someone is like with limited actual input and without the aid of analytic thought. And this is especially true as people scan for sexual cues. But surely there is much more that we don’t know that may be crucially important in determining whether they could be a close friend or lover.
However, in connecting online we have come into contact with someone with whom closeness and even intimacy could be a real possibility as opposed to the millions of people we wouldn’t even want to know. We have used our intuition and our computer tools to give us better odds than we would ever have otherwise. And of course this is the numbers game that online dating and friendship sites depend on.
The fact that we can connect in real ways online has become a pervasive and important part of life.
The fantasy element in online relating and the bridal veil
As a sex addiction therapist I deal with many people who have fantasy relationships online including sexual chat, hook-ups, cybersex experiences, and finding prostitutes.
Obviously for sex addicts online experiences are part of a pattern of intimacy avoidance and usually involve splitting off part of the addict’s life that deals with sex, often at the expense of real intimacy with a partner.
But the fantasy element of online relating can enhance the illusion of intimacy for addict and non addict alike.
I think of the experience of online intimacy as having a “value added” element. What we add is our imagination of reality in order to complete the online picture which is always incomplete. These value added elements appeal to our all-too-human needs. Here are a few.
- Intimacy without accountability. In online relating we don’t owe each other anything and we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. We can just enjoy each other and then walk away from the computer.
- Perpetual romance. In an online romance we can idealize the other person and since the fantasy is never contaminated by reality we never have to let go of our ideal. This allows us to avoid real intimacy and puts in its place a “story” we can concoct about the essence of the relationship—one that fits out best fantasies.
- Idealizing our self image. In online relating we can curate and embellish our own image. People can and often do deceive others and indulge in a fantasy of being better looking, more successful, smarter, younger or whatever helps alleviate their insecurities.
- The excitement of the unknown. The element of mystery, surprise and sometimes danger involved in the online encounter is powerful fuel which can propel us further into the “relationship” and the excitement can be an end in itself.
Why do some brides still wear veils covering their faces until after they are officially married? This archaic gesture conveys not only the idea that the bride is pure and untouched, but also serves to prolong until the last possible moment, the fantasy of what physical and sexual intimacy will be like. In this way veils are a precursor of the mystery and fantasy involved in online encounters.
As with so many things the online relationship can be great or it can become a problem, a substitute for off line relating and even an obsession. We are still learning how to navigate this new world.
Hatch, L. (2013). Online Relationships: Real or Fantasy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 6, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex-addiction/2013/09/online-relationships-real-or-fantasy/