Online Relationships Can Be More Real Than Real Ones

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Feb. 1 2013 7:30 AM

I Love You. Now Text Me.

How online relationships are more real than real ones.

Online dating.
Received wisdom tells us online communications are unreal, fake, and distant

Photo by Berc/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Lately there has been a great deal of public handwringing about whether the temptations of Internet communication have corrupted our ability to forge normal or healthy or real relationships (whatever those might mean). The New York Times ran a series of glib pieces asking if the prevalence of online connections heralds the end of courtship, or if Facebook ruined love. The Atlantic recently put forth its own shallow exploration of the demise of sustained relationships, and of course news of Manti Te’o’s bizarre hologram of a girlfriend has also stirred up some existential musing on the nature of virtual connections.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

The question of whether the ease of Internet flirtation, and the ease of escalating Internet flirtation, has affected marriage is also of great interest. Each incident of Internet straying brings its own gleeful anatomizing. Take the many pundits philosophically parsing the question of whether Anthony Weiner cheated on his wife. Chasing down a perfect, universal definition of cheating that works for the modern world is less interesting than understanding what these particular forms of cheating say about us. Received wisdom tells us online communications are unreal, fake, and distant, but they can, in fact, be the opposite; they can represent very intense fantasies, distilled versions of romantic yearning, including its darker, more narcissistic sides, honest articulations, for better or for worse, of the inner life.

Take for instance this example drawn from life. A married man sees a friend for dinner when visiting a city. Afterward, via email, he confesses his feelings for her. (We talk about liquid courage, but what about screen courage? For many people the screen dissolves inhibitions. They are protected by the workable illusion that it is just them and their screen, and that everything under the sun turns on and off with a click.) Anyway, this man very quickly launches into explicit fantasies via email. His friend tries to tell him nicely that she is not interested in an affair. He sends her 10-15 emails a day. Is this real? Or does the theoretical nature, the pure crack-cocaine fantasy of the thing disqualify it from the reciprocal physical entity we would think of as an authentic romantic connection? Is he cheating on his wife? Or just toying with fantasy as one does in dreams?  

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One obvious aspect of email relationships is that they traffic even more in projection than regular relationships. Even if you are texting or writing to someone you know well, the nature of medium lends itself to a certain amount of personal embellishment, to the one sided pleasure in expression for its own sake, to the reduction of the recipient to an idea.

In another example drawn from life, a married banker, sort of a modern Updike- character type, restless, with tiny children, at home in the suburbs, sends a Facebook friend request to a writer whose work he likes. She accepts, and he sends her a message saying, “thanks for accepting. It made me nervous to send that request.” She writes back, “Why nervous?” And he writes, “The usual psychosexual married man reasons.” Pretty quickly after that he launches into a graphic fantasy about her. Not the real her, as he had never met her in life, though they have friends in common, and could very easily have met at a party, but his idea of her. This is even less threatening to the family in that house in the suburbs than the previous example. The writer is a total stranger. They will never meet. But it is not quite the same as a dream, which we would all agree is innocent, because there is, however abstractly, another person there.

In some sense, you can see how the various forms of Internet rapport allow you to transcend, to go halfway, to dabble, to hedge, to not really cheat. There may be something cowardly in this form of cheating, some slight lack of investment, some protective holding back. (It is, of course, too simple to say that an email or Internet relationship is not physical, because there are very graphic levels to which these relationships can go.) But these are undoubtedly safe adulterers, cagey adulterers; they are not running, in other words, the way Updike’s Rabbit ran.

There is an idea floating around that words or photographs don’t “count” in a way that touching counts, or sitting around together having a cup of coffee counts, but this seems naive, or overly simple. When in its strangely sappy piece on the end of courtship, the New York Times bemoans that online chatter has replaced romantic dinners, one wonders if the author of that piece ever received a transcendent email, one in which the writer of the email brings himself closer to the recipient than a thousand people on a thousand dates, folding menus and listening politely to the specials. There is an intimacy to written or even texted words that can in fact be the sheer boiled down essence of “courtship” not its demise. We may want to rethink reserving the word “real” for offline, or in person; written words can be more real than hours in the same house with someone.

With our avid, guilty relation to our new technologies, we tend to think this question of how words, or distance affect romantic relationships is new, but of course it’s not. In previous times, when travel was more difficult, and regular letter writing easier, there were many, many couples that lived large or emotionally significant portions of their lives by letter. Take for instance the writer Katherine Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry. They were often apart, and wrote fantastic letters to each other, or even telegrams, which could be seen as the 1920 equivalent of texts. They saw their relationship as very modern, remote as it was, reliant as it was on the written word. Mansfield described it once as “a nothingness shot through with gleams of what might be.” She could very well have been talking about us.

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