Romantic Online Relationships: The Laptop Never Says No

By Angela Lewis (PhD)
Abstract: This article reports on interviews with people
who utilise the Internet to search for a partner and then
use online resources to get to know a potential partner
before meeting them. Most of the men I interviewed
identified online communication as providing an
acceptable way for them to express their feelings,
emotions or deeply personal thoughts.
The question I was originally seeking to explore was,
‘what draws people to the Internet when looking for a relationship’? A relationship
in this instance is defined as a romantic relationship, as opposed to a buddy or
penpal. I began this research when I observed that I was continuing to see the
same people on dating and chatting sites over a period of years. Surely they
must end up meeting people in real life as a result of this practice and if so, why
were they continually online? During this research, I spoke with 11 people in
total, 5 women and 6 men. The respondents were in the age group 38 – 55 and
they had all either been married or in serious long term relationships previously.
The respondents in this research offered positive support for online partner
searching, with responses such as:
When you meet a person online you can at least glean some information
about her before you talk to her and decide whether this is someone you
want to actually get to know some more.
I like that you don’t have the distraction of the physical, but at the same
time I have to know what they look like, I couldn’t chat to an ugly man!
Online I can be myself. Women actually accept it if you have doubts and
fears and I enjoy the freedom of being able to express myself to a
potential partner honestly.
I don’t like surprises, so it is a good way to see if they are your sort of
person, rather than going out and wasting time meeting them.
Men tell you more online than they would ever tell you face to face, I don’t
know why that is, but it is an absolute bonus for us women.
Online you have the time to sort and screen for the requirements that you
have for a partner without pressure.
© Angela Lewis
– 2 –
Both men and women described the Internet as a convenient and safe
environment that allowed for contact with a large range individuals and all
respondents believed that it increased their chances of finding a suitable partner.
On the other hand, all of the singles in this research shared one uniform complaint
about how people visually presented themselves on the Internet. The women
complained that the men were always older than their advertised age, generally
shorter, and on many occasions virtually unrecognisable once a meeting took
place. Two of the women I interviewed had recently stopped searching for
partners online, as they found this practice so disconcerting. One of the women
periodically stops her online searching when this deceit becomes too annoying,
but then generally returns to this practice once a few months have passed.
Three of the men take their online quest for a partner quite seriously, spending
large amounts of time online every day of the week in chat rooms and dating
sites. They continue this behavior despite their comments about the discrepancy
between the ways the women look in real life and how they present online,
describing many women as being older and heavier than the pictures they post on
the Internet. However they continue with their searching, as Brandon remarked:
Even when I am in a real-time relationship I tend to jump onto the chat
sites and look around, occasionally chatting to women. It just seems to be
a habit I can’t get out of.
David also commented that the online world allows men an acceptable venue to
have simultaneous multiple relationships. Aside from the opportunity to date many
women at once, David believes this suits some men because they are able get to
know the women reasonably well during the course of the online relationship and
then….”choose the one or two to meet and then narrow the field again if things
get serious”.
I have chosen Gary’s case-study to discuss in more detail. Gary is someone that I
would describe as a heavy user of the Internet for partner searching, as he
spends large amounts of every day in this pursuit. He stated that he couldn’t see
himself sitting in a bar and doing that whole tiresome [sic] “hi, how are you, buy
you a drink thing”’ with a stranger and further remarked, “I don’t think I could meet
a girl any way but online now”. Gary can have two dates most weekends with
different women and maintains he is genuine in trying to find a true love
relationship. The longest relationship he has had in the past 3 years that began
online is 6 months. He finds that the longer the relationship stays online, the less
successful it is for him when it finally becomes face to face. Despite being aware
of this, he continues to let the relationships stay online for up to a couple of
months at a time, though he will ensure he has a telephone conversation with the
person within the first few weeks. He keeps things online partly because he
enjoys the disclosure and sharing that happens in what he terms ‘the intimate
space’ of the online environment.
© Angela Lewis
– 3 –
Gary acknowledged that he has fallen in love with women without meeting them,
and during the process of our sessions we have explored how he may be
experiencing a state of limerence rather than love or attraction. Tennov’s (1979)
coinage of the term limerence refers to a state in which, at least in the beginning,
the love object’s attractive features are emphasised and unattractive
characteristics are given little or no attention. It is my observation that the person
who is in limerence is in some ways ‘in love with feeling in love’, (though Dr.
Tennov has concerns that this description trivialises the feeling) and while Tennov
wrote of limerence long before virtual relationships, I believe limerence has found
its ‘raison etre’ on the Internet (Lewis 2004). Dr Tennov, in commenting on my
current research also agreed that limerence does not appear to require face to
face contact, remarking “…my belief is that limerence can break out among
onliners. Maybe even more readily” (Tennov 2006). I believe an online
relationship can unwittingly foster these types of behaviours, as both people are in
the position to present the sides of themselves that are complimentary and mask
any unattractive traits. This can then also lead to the development of unreal
expectations from either party. Gary identified a problem earlier of the higher
incidence of his relationships not lasting in real life when they had been going on
for a long period online and this is possibly because (as he acknowledges), they
never match up to the final expectations that he has built up for the woman. It
must be said that Gary also has an exceedingly attractive photo of himself on his
Internet profile and acknowledges that he may be sabotaging his own efforts by
also misrepresenting himself a little. While he is now in his late 40’s and leading a
quiet, suburban life he still thinks in terms of being accustomed to “getting any
woman I want, when I want, from the time when I used to be in a band”. This is of
course easier to do in an online environment.
Snarch (1997) in fact maintains that the anonymity of the Internet specifically
leads people into emotional or sexual behaviours that they would not indulge in if
it were an ordinary face to face relationship. This is partly because the online
environment may encourage an emotional affair or relationship to occur because
the people involved spend a lot of time online together, exchange stories, secrets
and deep thoughts and often begin to project their needs and desires onto the
other person. The men in particular described themselves as able to relax and
enjoy the presence of the other person, while sharing intimate thoughts and
conversations. The men in this albeit small population sample were also stronger
proponents of keeping a relationship online for as long as possible, and like Gary
it is probable they do this in part because they enjoy the opportunity to open up
and share thoughts and feelings that are difficult to express in a real life situation.
Suler (2002) describes this as a ‘disinihibition effect’, which is caused by or
heightened by the following features of online communication:
Anonymity – no one knows who you are on the Internet if you choose to be
anonymous, and so you are free to say whatever you want without anyone
knowing it’s you who said it, including acknowledging highly personal feelings or
emotions.
© Angela Lewis
– 4 –
Physical invisibility – you don’t have to worry about how you physically look or
sound to other people when you say something. You don’t have to worry about
how others look or sound when you say something to them. “Seeing a frown, a
shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so
subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can slam the breaks on what people
are willing to express.” (Suler, 2002)
The absence of responsibility – with a lack of visual or auditory cues, a person
may feel as though the interaction is occurring in his head. This may give some
people the false sense that they can ‘say’ things online that they may feel shy or
inhibited to say in a face to face situation. This can be coupled with a sense of
‘immediate gratification’, whereby a person can say anything they think or feel at
any time, including in the middle of the night when a person may be the most tired
or emotional.
Equalitarian status – in the case of online flirtation and emotional sharing,
barriers of race, age, social status and gender are now removed.
While both the men and the women interviewed said they were happy to
exchange some emails and get to know one another before embarking on a
meeting, I observed that the women were far more focused on taking the next
step of a phone call and a meeting, usually within the first few weeks. This is also
the way that women have been found to shop online; they rarely browse for
goods, instead locating what they want and ordering it (Pew Report, Fox et al
2005). Commenting on her need to move to phone calls or meetings fairly
quickly, Gwen remarked, “the medium is great, as long as one doesn’t take
shelter behind the screen for too long!” Alarm bells go off for Gwen if things
remain online for too long without progressing to in person, as she starts to
wonder if the other person has something to hide.
Rita also preferred to meet sooner rather than later, as she finds the longer she
leaves the relationship online, the greater her anxiety becomes that she will not
live up to the other person’s expectations:
While I don’t lie about myself, like everybody else I exaggerate my good
points, so I might describe myself as having slighter bigger boobs, blonder
hair, greener eyes or as being more athletic than I really am – I mean I do
go to the gym, but I don’t run 6km everyday. The other person might then
expect more of me when he meets me, so I think it is better to meet the
man sooner rather than later, so he doesn’t have (thanks to me!) an unreal
expectation of what and who I am.
None of the women supported the idea of keeping a relationship online long-term,
aside from Jacinta who is involved in a virtual relationship with a prison inmate.
Most of the women believed that when a person is genuinely looking to form a
relationship with an online contact they will try to move things along in order to
speak with and meet the online person, with an avoidance of meeting face to
© Angela Lewis
– 5 –
face generally viewed with suspicion.
The men on the other hand, described themselves as frequently content to let the
relationship stay online for periods of weeks, or even months and mostly
described themselves as enjoying the opportunity to express their emotions freely
in a text based environment. Many of them said that they regularly shared details
about themselves and their emotions that were highly personal in nature, but
doubted they would do so verbally in a face to face situation. Based on my small
sample group, I hypothesise that for some men, prolonging a relationship online is
a way to experience emotional expressiveness, share emotional intimacy and
allow the physical to take second place without feeling ‘unmanly’. Men are not
generally given as much latitude as women to express feelings, with a prevailing
western cultural stereotype supporting that ‘she’ is emotional, while ‘he’ is not.
This is despite the fact that some current findings would suggest there are more
similarities than disparity in men and women’s emotional experience (Averill 1982;
Fisher 2000). When verbalisation of feelings or discussions of emotion are still
considered largely to be a feminine trait, it is possible that the anonymous
environment that the mostly text based world of the Internet affords is actually
giving men an uncensored ‘place’ to freely express their sentiments in a non
stereotypical way.
Gary for example will write pages and pages of text to online girlfriends,
describing and dissecting his intimate feelings in ways that he never would in a
face to face relationship, especially in its infancy. Sam admits to writing love
poems and describing online how he feels hurt and wounded when things go
badly at work, but readily admits he could not do that unless he was in the ‘safe
zone’ of his computer screen. Brandon isn’t ashamed to discuss sexual problems
and how they make him feel, but only when he is typing about it to a woman.
Whether men outside of my small population sample in fact experience a new
found freedom to be emotionally expressive in a virtual environment is an area
which could benefit from more research.
Despite supporting the idea of spending a lot of time online to get to know the
women he is considering for a relationship, David’s motivations in being online
were slightly different. He believes the opportunity to regulate the pace is
particularly important to men like him who are in their late 30’s to 40’s, because as
he explained, “the women in this age group tend to be focused on looking for a
permanent relationship or marriage or children; hence men want to slow them
down and staying online means this can be achieved”.
While concerns remain that online communication will encourage people to spend
more time alone interacting with strangers and developing ‘drive-by’ relationships
at the expense of forming quality real life relationships (Putnam 2000,p.179),
research has shown that people can form strong social bonds virtually (romantic
or platonically) that can carry over to the face to face world (Parks & Roberts
1998). Perhaps the time has come to consider an argument that the development
and or continuation of relationships online – emotional or otherwise – are simply
© Angela Lewis
– 6 –
aspects of a changing society. And as I found with the men I interviewed,
conducting a relationship online can provide some people with a positive outlet for
the expression of their emotions that they may not otherwise have had.
Most people also do not confine themselves simply to one medium, generally
moving between communication spheres such as the telephone, web camera,
face to face or online with text. Perhaps as generations change, ‘online’ may
eventually be accepted as just one more choice in how people communicate and
foster their relationships. After all, people considered the telephone an exotic and
suspect piece of technology a short 60 years ago and now it is deeply embedded
in our social fabric as a way of maintaining, fostering and continuing relationships
(Rackow 1992).
Summary of Online Behaviours (all names pseudonyms)
Gary & Brandon – continually online for 3 and 4 years respectively. Generally
neither takes breaks while dating in real-life.
Sam – continually online for past 2 years, taking brief breaks while actually dating.
David – online in fits and starts over past 5 years.
Jenny & Maria – online for 6 months and 1 year respectively. Both have since
given up as discrepancies between the online and offline people they were
meeting became too great.
Jacinta – online dating for approximately 5 years, usually stopping when in a real
life relationship. Has been continuously online with one person for 18 months.
Gwen – no longer online dating due to one of the relationships ending very badly,
but has had 4 what she terms serious relationships beginning online, over the
past couple of years.
Rita – online dating for last 12 months, but not continuously. Takes breaks when
she has what she terms ‘disappointing experiences’.
A special thanks to Dr Dorothy Tennov for providing comments and personal
feedback on this article.

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