Style Sex & Relationships

Thursday 21 August 2014

Are you stuck in a surrogate online relationship?

Interacting on the internet has helped many find love, but are you missing out on real-life relationship opportunities by getting too attached online?

Tanya Sweeney

Published 13/06/2014 | 02:30

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Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in the romantic drama Her, directed by Spike Jonze
Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in the romantic drama Her, directed by Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze's dystopian love story Her might have been set in the not-too-distant future, but it gave plenty of people cause for thought in 2014. Scarlett Johansson's husky vocals would likely turn the head (or rather, heart) of any red-blooded male. Still, there was something unnerving in how Joaquin Phoenix's lovelorn character fell hook, line and sinker for an inanimate, faceless operating system.

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Back in the real world however, many of us aren't that different.

By dint of a whole host of social networking websites, the wheels of social interaction have been endlessly greased by pokes, likes and emojis. It has resulted in an interesting situation where friendships are forged on Facebook; kinships stoked with sassy tweets. But here's the thing: with the internet muscling its way inexorably into our everyday interactions, we're struggling to adapt to this new world order. Firing off a Tweet or Facebook message on a smartphone may feel natural, but no one's given us any rules. We Gen Xers are the ones setting the precedent. Add the prospect of finding romance into the mix, and it's a confusing time all round.

Between 2005 and 2015, 30 per cent of all marriages in the US started with online interaction. Of these, only half were born on dating sites: the rest met via special interest forums and social networking. A new study from Queen's University in New York has unearthed research that should come as no surprise to anyone who has struck up a kinship with someone they've met online. Its findings reveal that conversations with partners that start (and often stay) online are more open and honest than offline ones. This stands to reason: when words are the only thing you've got, it's all too easy for things to delve quickly into revealing territory.

"There is definitely a difference in how we behave online and in real life," acknowledges cyberpsychologist Nicola Fox-Hamilton. "There's something called the 'online disinhibition effect' – in much the way alcohol reduces our inhibitions, so too does being online."

It can become a double-whammy of self-deception: we can curate our online selves with cleverly chosen profile pics, Wall Street Journal links and pithy Tweets. And, once we have the most alluring version of ourselves up and running, we are more confident about flirting and putting ourselves out there online. Because the conversations aren't happening in real time, we have time to edit and strategise our conversations in a way we just can't face to face.

"When you're not reliant on body language, you just write more," says Fox-Hamilton. "You think the person you're talking with is so fantastic that you can't help but open up to them. There's a lot of space around text communication for the other person to fill in the blanks."

New York-based Lisa Winning, co-author of He Texted: The Ultimate Guide To Decoding Guys, notes that female readers contact her daily about these online surrogate relationships.

"I think if you're worried about feeling vulnerable about being in a real relationship, it's easier to chat with someone online and get that instant gratification and attention," she explains. "We've had a girl write in to say that she met a guy online who likes all of her pictures on Instagram, and how she felt that, because of that, there was something real going on there. But if you're piecing together someone online, no way does that constitute a real relationship. You have a pen pal, not a partner."

Feargal Harrington of Intro Matchmakers notes that these surrogate online relationships often end as soon as one party tries to instigate a meeting. "A lot of the time women will ask to meet up, and it transpires often that the men just wanted the kicks, the thrill of knowing he was being a bit bold. There's a justification that some men make about cheating: they tell themselves they're fully committed to their wives, but they're only chatting online. It helps them sleep at night."

Revealing your innermost thoughts into the black mirror of your smartphone is one thing: quite another is getting this relationship up on wheels in the real world. Often, these pseudo-relationships fizzle out over time.

And what happens if you do decide to take an online relationship into real life and meet, but it's still platonic? Perhaps that person is scratching an itch emotionally, without the need for the complications of an actual sexual or romantic relationship.

However, devoting yourself to this kind of non-specific relationship can mean you're not mentally "out there" when it comes to meeting someone you could be entirely compatible with.

"I became great friends with a guy I met on Twitter called Dave," says Joanna, 29.

"We'd talk and text all the time, and he gave me the banter and support I needed. I didn't fancy him, but I was getting attached – we'd go out for drinks in a group the odd time, hang out at brunch. Then when I met my fiancé in real life, I found I was less interested in Dave and wanted to talk to him less. Now we don't really speak at all, but it's still like he's an ex of sorts – someone I revealed my deepest, darkest secrets to."

Ultimately, a pseudo-relationship conducted online offers a win-win scenario. There's the ego boost, the feeling of companionship and togetherness, and the joy of flirting ... with none of the blowback of a proper relationship, with all its maddening responsibilities and arguments. However, it could stop you from meeting someone in the real world.

"In today's modern society, we expect a lot out of real-life relationships, so online relationships are a safe alternative," opines relationship therapist Lisa O'Hara. "You don't really risk rejection or not being satisfied."

But surely a romance that never moves away from the smartphone misses out on the greatest satisfaction of all: the physical side of a relationship?

"In a funny way, when we get a text message or email notification, that doesn't have too much to do with the head or heart – it's your body that responds to that thrill," says O'Hara.

So are we careering en masse into Spike Jonze's rose-tinted but essentially bloodless world? In Japan – a country long acknowledged as a technological forerunner – the media has pinpointed 'sekkusu shinai shokogun', or 'celibacy syndrome'.

A 2011 survey conducted there found that 61 per cent of unmarried men and 49 per cent of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, while another study reveals that a third of Japanese people under 30 had never dated at all. A 2013 survey by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45 per cent of women aged 16-24 "were not interested in, or despised, sexual contact".

A number of societal and economic variables are doubtless at play, but the proliferation of virtual-reality girlfriends and a growing preoccupation with all things digital has also been cited by experts. Japanese-American author Roland Kelts told The Guardian newspaper last year: "Japan has developed incredibly sophisticated virtual worlds and online communication systems. Its smart phone apps are the world's most imaginative."

Whether this is providing a glimpse of our own futures remains to be seen. In Ireland, where it has roundly been acknowledged that every day life is tough, breakneck and unrelenting, the balm of an intimate textual encounter can't be discounted.

"For the love of God, put down the phone if you are out with actual people," advises Winning.

"I think we all need to remember that something as simple as a guy liking your Instagram picture does not mean he's in any way emotionally available.

"Look for guys instead that want to spend real life time with you. The amount of effort that's needed to do that is so much sexier."

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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