An extraordinary number of people spend an extraordinary amount of time online connecting with other people. They reveal their deepest darkest secrets to folks who may be strangers and they often find these relationships so compelling they seem more emotionally real and alive than the marriages they are actually in.
Indeed, online relationships can be unusually seductive. They are readily accessible, they move very quickly, and under the cloak of anonymity, they make it easy for people to reveal a great deal about themselves.
Putting themselves into words, getting replies while they're still in the emotional state of the original message, relying heavily on imagination to fill in the blanks about the recipient, people communicating online are drawn into such rapid self-disclosure that attachments form quite literally with the speed of light.
How this happens, and the subtle but important ways it influences "real" life, is the subject of a fascinating book, Love Online: Emotions on the Internet, by Aaron Ben-Ze'ev. A philosopher who is now president of Haifa University in Israel, Ze'ev does not think intimate Internet relationships, and even cyber sex, are all bad. But he does think they could have an impact on the way we conduct offline life and even change our view of infidelity.
Ze'ev calls cyberspace a kind of "mentally nude commune," where people often strip off their masks. What nudity leaves undone, imagination finishes. "Imagination, which paints cyberspace in more intense and seductive colors, also helps people satisfy some of their most profound desires." It frees people from the limits imposed by their bodies and their surroundings.
What's so ironic about using the internet is that it's a solitary activity that leads to social contact-while it isolates users from their own families, the people in the very next room. One reason it does this is that Internet use is almost addictive; the rewards of contact are so immediate and so pleasurable. And while cyber relationships can be more sincere and open than offline relationships, they also leave a great deal of room for deception, although online relationships are marked more by dreams than deception.
There is, of course, a price to pay for this activity-"the risk of being captured by your own desire," is the way Ze'ev puts it. Despite the opportunity for intense disappointment, which lies just a click away, online affairs are flourishing. They are not merely a whole new type of relationship with their own unique characteristics; Ze'ev calls them "the first real alternative" to face-to-face relationships.
Online affairs are, above all, safe. There's no danger of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. "Having an online affair is like going to a party whenever you want to, without having to leave your home," says Ze'ev.
The strange mixture of physical distance and emotional closeness of online affairs is what makes them so intense. And it's such a novel development, such a new kind of interpersonal experience, Ze'ev contends, that our own emotional systems are not prepared to deal with such contradictory elements in a relationship. Yet the contradictions and uncertainties of online romantic relationships allow emotions to play a much greater role than in other relationships.
Ze'ev doesn't think online relationships will ever replace offline ones, but he does think the advent of internet relationships will ultimately force us to relax our view of romantic exclusivity and romantic betrayal. We will gain more of a sense of "romantic flexibility." Imagination, he says, "lets us wander through the jungle of our own wishes and desires."
Still, he says, there are times when chatting is cheating. And there's a very simple way to know when you've crossed the line-there's deception.
If you engage in an Internet relationship that you keep secret from your real-life mate, you're engaging in deception. "Chatting is not cheating when the significant other knows about it," says Ze'ev. The trouble with deception is that it kills intimacy and ruptures trust in the primary relationship.