A close single friend confided to me a while ago that she had fancied a co-worker in her office and thought he might fancy her too. So when she passed his desk she would stop for a moment or two and chat in the hope that something might develop. But her interest soon faded when she noticed something strange: He never really looked at her.
“He would react to what I was saying and make comments of his own,” she said, “but the weird thing was, he hardly ever raised his eyes from his computer keyboard while he was talking, and even went on typing.
“Maybe he was attracted to me, but I had the impression that he was using his computer like a security blanket, or as a shield against the threat of too-intimate contact. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a turn-on.”
It struck me at the time that chatting casually to someone in the office, face to face, hardly constitutes a threat – or very much intimacy – and that this man must have had personal issues.
But his odd behavior acquired some context after I read “Romance at arm’s length” by Daniel Jones, longtime editor of The New York Times’s Modern Love column. What prompted his recent op-ed was the new movie entitled Her, in which a man falls in love with “a sultry-voiced computer operating system whose presence in the film is so lifelike you have to keep reminding yourself she doesn’t actually exist.”
TO MAKE the storyline more believable, the movie is set sometime in the future, but, as Jones points out, thousands of people are having relationships like that right now. And online-only relationships are becoming ever more popular.
“True, they involve a real human being at the other end of the line... but otherwise it’s the same deal,” Jones says. “The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren” as people search for new ways to find love that don’t involve having to feel insecure and vulnerable, “because who wants to feel insecure and vulnerable? That’s the worst part of the whole love game, putting oneself out there to be judged and rejected.”
What the Internet relationship offers is a chance to hide, to present an edited, idealized version of yourself – and receive the same in return. It holds out the freedom – unhampered by the “messiness” and unpredictability of physical engagement – to “share your every thought, idea and emotional burp,” and also, crucially, “to close your laptop and turn off your phone whenever you want and continue about your life as you wish, unencumbered.”
THE ONLINE relationship may be our epoch’s speeded-up version of the pen-friendship of a previous era, where you corresponded with someone who lived far away, whom you might never meet, and with whom you therefore felt it was safe to share your deepest feelings.
Except that back then you often had to wait a considerable time for a letter to arrive, and then an equal amount of time for your reply to travel in the opposite direction. The measured pace of those exchanges, allowing for evaluation and reflection, had little in common with the sheer intensity and involvement of “love’s newest incarnation,” in which, as Jones writes, people “might spend their evenings... messaging deep into the night with someone they met online who lives five states away... drift off to sleep with their laptops open, only to wake up hours later, dazed and bleary-eyed” and resume the cyberrelationship.
BACK IN the ‘90s, a friend I valued shocked me with the revelation that for months, while her husband was asleep, she had been spending her nights instant messaging with a man she had met online, whom she was determined never to see – they had spoken by phone on maybe just two occasions, and wouldn’t do so any more.
This man, she said, had become the most important person in her life, someone with whom she could share her most intimate thoughts and feelings. She had no intention of leaving her marriage, but this relationship supplied the level of emotional involvement, and perhaps excitement, she felt she was missing.
Beyond wondering how anyone could function for long in a situation that allowed for so little sleep, my response was a mixed one: sadness and a feeling of wrongness, of dismay that she was, as it were, siphoning off her emotional energy and essential core and channeling it into a relationship that must have felt ongoing and vibrant and real, but viewed objectively, seemed two-dimensional and was, quite literally, disembodied.
My conclusion was that it was not for me to judge, and perhaps this external cyber-relationship enabled her to continue in her marriage with equanimity; but it was troubling, nevertheless.
AN ARTICLE I read about online dating said that the relationships which stood the best chance of developing into something genuine were those where the people involved “got off the Internet” as soon as possible and interacted in the real world (after checking each other out and making sure there was no hoax or exploitation going on).
This, I’m convinced, is the only way; and I’m equally sure that it is only those scary things the “onliners” seek to avoid – the insecurity, the vulnerability and the “putting yourself out there” – that can build the trust vital to any true, growing relationship. Risk and unpredictability are an inextricable part of the journey of mutual discovery; there are no short cuts. And you have to take your whole self along on the trip, and not just those parts you comfortably choose to expose.
PSYCHOLOGISTS STUDYING online relationships stress the substantial role of perception in our evaluation of other people – in other words, the processing of information we receive through our five senses, and perhaps a sixth one as well: intuition.
They point out that unlike in the “offline” world, where we use all our senses to gather information, online we rely mainly on sight – the typed word; and even this sight is limited because we are denied the cues we normally pick up through non-verbal communication and body language, proven to play a highly significant part in communication and the development of human relationships.
One study put the combination of these as high as 93 percent of interpersonal relations. Thus online, we miss out on huge chunks of information about other people we would normally have.
THERE IS another aspect of relationships that the Times’s Jones touches on: balance. When a couple involved in an online-only relationship finally decide to meet, “after all that cyberintimacy, being together physically simply doesn’t feel right. The body doesn’t match the sensibility.” The intimacy that seemed so genuine online seems to “suddenly drain away.”
How can this be? One explanation provided by Jones is that “they didn’t actually get to know each other that well, only what was served up: a two-dimensional collection of images, text and, for some, audio” without the “messy parts of ourselves” that belong to who we really are, and removed from the surroundings of the real world.
A relationship needs to advance, as it were, on all fronts, and as much as possible in balance: verbal and non-verbal, with the whole self in play. This doesn’t mean letting it all hang out and overwhelming someone with everything you have on the first date; but moving forward gradually and letting intimacy and trust build on a solid foundation of genuine knowledge of the other.
And, picking up on the opening of this column, let us include eye-contact, which can convey so much about whom we’re dealing with.
I DIDN’T know whether to laugh or cry when I heard about the Korean man who married his pillow in 2010.
That’s right; Lee Jin-gyu, 28, dressed up his dakimakura – a kind of large, huggable pillow from Japan imprinted with a popular female anime character – in a wedding gown and went through a ceremony presided over by a priest. In an earlier appearance on a talk show, he said he just wanted “acceptance” of the “loving relationship” with his girlfriend, whom he took out on dates.
He seemed content; and I’d guess this couple doesn’t suffer from any shortage of pillow talk.