The False Intimacy of Online Relationships
I was involved in an online relationship for 3 months. I swear I never knew anyone as well as I knew this guy. We would spend hours and hours chatting every night. I told him things I’ve never told anyone. I believed we were best friends and I thought we built this incredible foundation for a relationship. To keep a long story short, we finally got together in real life. We spent 2 weeks together and it ended horribly. I don’t know what happened. How could we have been so honest and close online and then be total strangers in real life?
I’ve gotten several emails regarding this topic: the incredible intimacy you can feel with someone online that doesn’t translate into real life. I chose your letter because stripped of the details it speaks for everyone, addressing the core of what happened instead of burying it in blame and minutia.
The first thing to swallow here is that the persona someone shows you online is deliberate. They choose what to share, and when. I’m not saying it was a front or a game, I’m saying it was his choice what to share.
I think the confusion for this comes with the idea of what’s real versus what’s intimate. Giving you both the full benefit of the doubt that there weren’t lies and fake profiles involved, I’m trying to explain that there are the truths we want to share, and the truths we don’t. And then there’s the truths that we don’t even know ourselves.
Let me give you some examples. He decides to tell you something intimate about his childhood. Something he did that he regrets, or a time he was bullied, or a horrible fight with his mother that he never really worked through. And he tells you, he’s never had anyone he could share that with. He’s never trusted someone enough to talk about this.
His sharing and his framing of that sharing create a false sense of intimacy. You feel trusted and close to him, you feel like this brings you to a place more important than most meaningless exchanges in real life.
But the thing is, he chose this. He wanted to share this story. You may have been a wonderful listener, but at least part of the reason why he could trust you with it was the anonymity. It’s actually the opposite of the closeness you perceive.
Meanwhile, for every thing he chooses to share, there are 100 that he doesn’t. He didn’t tell you he’s rude to waitresses, or the kind of twisted porn that gets him going, or that he doesn’t brush his teeth every day.
The things that are unflattering that he shares, are still choices. And at that, they are still things you’re hearing and weighing against the significance and depth of what you’ve decided are much more important things. For example, you’re enthralled with this story about this horrible falling out he had with his mother, and the fact that he’s trusted you with it while he hasn’t even told his best friend about it. So, when he tells you some quip of how he didn’t leave a tip for a waitress because she was rude, and why should he ever tip at all, you don’t dwell on it. You don’t put your magnifying glass on it. You dismiss it as a joke, or some silly incident. Instead you choose to pay attention to what you want to magnify.
Sharing private wonderful secrets is certainly relationship building. But without reality, there isn’t much to measure it by. For example, it’s one thing to hear him make a few disparaging comments about waitresses. It’s entirely another to sit in a diner with him and experience it, feeling embarrassed when the insulted waitresses looks at you. Feeling disgusted when you look at him and see this side of him.
Or, after hearing about this horrible fight he had with this mother many years ago, feeling his pain and inner turmoil over it, you finally meet her. You’re appalled that he hugs her hello, smiling. You can’t bring yourself to be overly warm with her, you can only hear in your head the horrible things she said to him during that fight. It’s all surreal, seeing him with her, seeing him fine.
That’s because in reality, many years have passed. Feelings have healed. Even thought he still has hurt and needed a little therapy about it, the truth is it has passed. That’s how reality works. He has had years and years to get used to those feelings and put that fight into perspective. You on the other hand are just feeling it and absorbing it for the first time.
My friend Marie pointed something out to me. She said that when you don’t have friends and places and any things in common with someone, you have no way to measure who they really are. Just the common experience of being in a diner together is a means by which we can measure a person.
It’s like seeing a picture of a monkey online and thinking it’s incredibly cute. You read all about the monkey, you watch videos. You feel you’ve done your research and you know a lot about this kind of monkey.
But there’s no common ground. There’s nothing in the online
readings or video clips that says anything about how this particular monkey
would be in your particular house and life.There's no way to know how he will like your spaghetti, or if he'll react to your shampoo. You can't know if the monkey will hate your living room and fling poop all over it, or if he'll chew your best shoes. You can't know the reality of having this monkey in your life from an online experience of him.
Another thing to realize is that when you’re online, you’re choosing your moments. When you feel particularly unsocial or angry, you just don’t go online. When you go online you put your best foot forward. If your have a webcam, you make sure your hair is fixed and your fly is zipped before you walk past, or sit down to chat. It’s you at your best without the distractions of other people or work or anything else that could make you irritable or uncomfortable. You aren’t chatting with this online love when you are being yelled at by your boss for being 10 minutes late, or when you’re dry cleaner is telling you he has no record of your drop-off. You aren’t looking into the webcam smiling at him while your sister is sitting behind you telling you she’s dating your ex, the one that stole money from you and tried to hit you. When your online guy is sharing his secrets with you, it’s not while you are being cut off in traffic or bumped with a shopping cart by some rude kid. He has your full undivided attention.
I think meeting people online is great. I personally know quite a few couples that met online and are still happily together in real life after many years.
I also know many people that met someone in real life, and completely blew it.
You don’t have to meet online to go down in flames. And your online relationship isn’t necessarily doomed. It’s easy online to have a false sense of someone, even someone that’s being open and honest with you.
Bewildered, I hope this has answered your question and has explained what happened. The next time you meet someone online, don’t fool yourself into thinking there’s intimacy there when there can only be so much closeness online. The best advice I can give you regarding online relationships, is to meet in real life as soon as you can. That will help you to avoid creating a world of perceptions that don’t involve reality.