I’m grateful for the posts here on issues surrounding privacy, what’s “real,” and the values involved in assessing these and other questions in digital space. These are real and important issues, calling for answers which we're inventing now and will be for some time to come.
But as a career psychotherapist, my primary concerns about the digital world surround human relationships—and the digital world obviously has huge implications in these areas too. Early in my career, single and unattached clients often asked me, “Isn’t there something besides bars and churches?” Now, undeniably, there is. My topic for this post: the advantages and dangers in meeting people in the cyberworld. Two very different examples . . .
--One of my clients told me about “falling in love” with a woman on the Internet, and agreeing to meet her in a nearby city at five p.m. on a Friday for a weekend of passion. He told me later, “By seven p.m. I was praying for a good excuse for leaving.” His experience was not unique.
--Some years ago a divorced friend of mine told me that she was falling in love online with a guy who was a thousand miles away, of a different religion, and not yet divorced. Neither had ever even been to the other’s state, and the ethnic differences were immense. I did my best to caution her, knowing all the while that advice to a person who is “in love” is usually a waste of breath. To my considerable surprise he moved to her state and courted her in a rather traditional fashion, and a year later they asked me to officiate at their wedding. Their marriage isn’t perfect (as if there were such a thing!), but it’s far better than many. I needed the corrective to remind me not to generalize about such events.
There was a time when hearing that someone had met and married (or moved in with) someone they met online was shocking news. Now it’s almost completely unremarkable—in part because, as we do with all new social inventions, we have developed methods of dealing with such connections that provide additional common sense and safety. But this morning’s “Ask Amy” column makes clear that that task is by no means finished.
Pertinent issues to consider:
--Online connections can increase exponentially the number of potential partners we might meet and get to know—especially for people in small town or rural areas, and for busy people even in urban areas. Even with the disadvantages of the lack of direct contact at the beginning, this has obviously enabled some marvelous connections that would otherwise never have happened—especially when (as cited above) we continue to develop new standard methods of increasing safety and appropriate methods of getting acquainted. “We don’t really get to know them,” some complain. How many marriages in my parents’ generation were between people who ruefully confessed later that they “really didn’t know each other”? And that still doesn’t address the issue of the “matching services.”
--Sociologists have long known that physical attractiveness can and do help to launch new relationships. But people who are gifted in areas of kindness, intuitiveness, integrity, and other values—can often be people who are not stunning to look at . . . and therefore may be overlooked by those for whom they would be excellent partners.
I was “talking” to a very bright and interesting young man whom I met online one night, and after I identified myself he said, “If we had met on the street, you would have paid no attention to me.” I asked why. He said he had pink spiked hair. And I realized that sadly enough, he was probably right. Online relationships have enabled me to connect with a number of people whom I very much enjoy, but whom I would probably have never “met” had our first judgments been on the basis of physical appearance. The “amputation” of physical appearance at the beginning can enable some marvelous connections to happen.
--A cyber-connection need not be a substitute for meeting IRL. I have met in person a number of people with whom I had first connected on the Web. In every case we had corresponded for a significant length of time, and the person I met IRL was precisely the person I had met online—no surprises, just enhanced appreciation. I have other cyberfriends whom I have not yet been able to meet IRL, but their friendship means a great deal to me. I’ve thought of the ancient mechanism of “pen pals,” from half a century or more ago, where people formed valued connections with people far away, often in other countries or languages—except now it’s far more immediate and playful. And cheaper!
--Online relationships often provide a method of “normalizing” interests which might otherwise be considered “weird” or unacceptable. If you’re a long-haul truck-driver who loves crocheting, a lawyer who loves racing dirt-bikes, or a homemaker who loves competitive boxing—you may not know many people in your area with whom you can really connect. But online, you may be sure, there are many people to whom your varied interests make sense. Is there a darker side to this? To be sure—as is true of everything. But it doesn’t need to be dark. It can be wonderful.
My point: we need, and are developing, new forms of caution and new sets of manners for use in managing relationships with people we meet online. But intimacy, mutual support, community, shared recreation—all of these human values and others may be served as much as diminished by online relationships. It’s just that it’s very difficult to invent, develop, and refine appropriate methods of managing those relationships as fast as the online environment provides new forms of connection. Defining “Facebook friend” is an unfinished task!
Cyber-connections aren’t going away. We need robust conversations about safe and rewarding ways of managing them.
Tomorrow: What does “intimacy” mean now?