In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Cyberspace Era: The Best and Worst of Times for Lovers

A tempting alternative diminishes the happiness derived from our lot.

"I've been waiting for a girl like you to come into my life
I've been waiting for a girl like you, your loving will survive
I've been waiting for someone new to make me feel alive" (Foreigner)

The cyberspace era could be considered as the best and worst of times for lovers. This is indeed both a happy and a difficult time for lovers-happy in that available, willing potential lovers are all around; difficult in that maintaining a loving committed relationship is harder than before as alternative romantic options are easier to explore and to realize. The need to make romantic compromises is therefore greater, but making them is more difficult.

Difficulties in long-term romantic relationships
Two major types of difficulties for long-term romantic relationships can be discerned in the cyberspace era: (a) The great role that changes play in generating emotions, and (b) the greater availability of leaving a current relationship and starting a new one.


The first difficulty, which stems from the nature of the emotional system, refers to the fact that intense emotions are typically transient and unstable states, whereas in long-term committed relationships stability is of greater importance. Emotions are usually experienced when we perceive a significant change in our situation-or in that of those related to us. Whereas change intensifies emotions, commitment entails stability. Although long-term relationships involve some changes even as they remain intact, the most significant change -- that is, changing the partner -- is absent. The delight experienced initially at a new romantic opportunity is often difficult to sustain in long-term relationships, as reality and routine take over.
The second major difficulty for long-term romantic relationships refers to certain developments in the cyberspace era that have increased the availability of romantic partners. Two major developments are most relevant here: (a) the lifting of most of the constraints that once prevented long-term committed relationships from dissolving, and (b) the apparent presence of many attractive alternatives. Both developments began before the cyberspace era (particularly the first one), but are accelerating in this era.

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The cyberspace era and the decades before it have witnessed an increasing discrepancy between the desire for an enduring romantic relationship and the probability of its fulfillment. Breakups, rather than marriages, are the norm in dating relationships and even in marriages: The likelihood that a first marriage will end in divorce is around 50%; this estimate increases by approximately 10% for the second marriage. Some of the factors that can explain this tendency include changes in economic conditions (e.g., increased affluence), in societal circumstances (e.g., increased number of working women, personal freedom, social and geographical mobility, reduction in the external obstacles to divorce or separation), and in values (e.g., greater sexual freedom, increased privacy and autonomy, erosion of religious beliefs, greater acceptance of violating normative boundaries -- such as sustaining the ideal of a committed relationship, but maintaining it only for a limited period of time, as is the case in serial monogamy). These factors are believed to have a significant impact upon the psychological satisfaction people derive from current romantic relationships.


Nowadays, staying within a committed relationship has become a more difficult option-one that requires the partners to constantly reexamine the value of their relationship in light of, among other issues, the presence of love. Lovers might face not only constant doubts about which road to take, but also constant regret about the many roads not taken. The abundance of alternatives and the perpetual possibility of achieving something "better" can undermine commitment and happiness.


The gap between the present and the potentially possible might never be bridged, even if it seems easy to do so. In this manner, the realm of infinite possibilities becomes a tyrannical force, keeping one from enjoying the present and generating the feeling of making compromises. When many alternatives are available, settling for one's lot is extremely difficult.

The role of cyberspace in the new circumstances
The development of cyberspace, and in particular online romantic relationships, has considerably enhanced the weight of the above difficulties. Change, instability, and transition characterize cyberspace. The great availability of online romantic partners enables frequent novel changes, and this makes cyberspace more dynamic, unstable, and exciting.

 
Cyberspace is an alternative, available environment that provides us with easy access to many available and desired options. One does not have to do much or invest significant resources in order to step into this imaginative paradise. Millions of people are eagerly waiting for you on the Net every moment of the day. They are available and it is easy to find them.


The many attractive online alternatives available in cyberspace can make a current committed offline relationship less valued. An example of such an effect was observed in a study in which two groups of men were asked to look at photographs either of highly attractive women or of women of average attractiveness. Men who had been shown the pictures of the highly attractive women were thereafter found to judge their own partners as less attractive than did the men who had been given the pictures of average looking women. Beyond that, those who had viewed the pictures of more attractive women subsequently rated themselves as less committed, less satisfied, less serious, and less close to their partners (see here). In cyberspace there are many attractive potential partners who might undermine people's attraction toward their offline partners.


Online romantic seduction is just a click away, making seduction far more available than it is offline. This is mainly due to the following factors: (a) It is easier to meet new people in cyberspace, as you merely need a few clicks to find so many willing people; (b) you can choose people who are willing to establish a romantic relationship with you; (c) there is faster and more profound self-disclosure in online communication than in face-to-face meetings; hence, it is easier to identify available and willing people.


Cyberspace provides an alternative world to the actual one. People do not live exclusively in one world; rather, they move from one world to the other. Cyberspace enables participants to explore exciting romantic alternatives without necessarily violating significant personal commitments. Indeed, many online affairs are conducted while at least one of the participants is having an offline relationship with another person. Married people comprise a surprisingly high percentage of visitors to the most popular dating websites. Cyberspace provides an outlet for developing alternative emotional ties, without completely ruining the primary offline relationship. When people confuse cyberspace with the actual world, the issue of commitment becomes problematic and emotional and moral difficulties emerge.


The great seductiveness of cyberspace and the ease of becoming involved in online affairs also entail risks: People are easily carried away and the risk of addiction is high. Like other types of addiction, cyberspace does not merely satisfy needs, but creates new needs that often cannot be met. Online affairs are like a new toy with which the human race has not yet learned how to play. If people confuse the toy with reality, they can ruin their life.


This greater availability of choices in cyberspace exacerbates the inability to be satisfied with one's romantic lot. People no longer want to settle for anything less than Prince Charming. If such a prince is just one message away, it can seem emotionally intolerable to leave him there and make do with someone viewed as second-best.

What is next?
Endlessly searching for a better alternative brings frustration and misery rather than happiness. Settling for one's lot, which is an important way to achieve profound happiness, is even more imperative in the cyberspace era. However, if you compromise and accept something much less than your dream demands, it can ruin your happiness as well. The cyberspace era requires people to make more compromises, since we are aware of more promising alternatives (as compared to our own current situation), but it is more difficult to make those compromises, since the alternatives are easier to achieve.

Future lovers may have to make more compromises and their frustration in not achieving the imaginary perfect partner might increase. But those lovers have also a greater chance of being satisfied with their romantic relationship, in such a way that they will not feel that they are making significant compromises.
The cyberspace era does pose specific difficulties in finding a romantic framework that will suit all lovers. Nevertheless, love itself is flourishing in this era, which can be considered as a golden age for love-even its renaissance. It is more possible now than ever before to find the one you have been waiting for all your life.


Love is on the minds of so many people and its presence is considered as an important need. Love can no longer be dismissed as a silly fantasy; it is perceived as realistic and feasible for more people. However, lovers in the cyberspace age will have a hard time coping with the need to avoid other alternatives and seeing their current relationship as an inferior or temporary compromise.


The view proposed here is optimistic in the sense that our happiness is more within our grasp-either by being satisfied with our own lot, or by achieving the possible and then being satisfied with that lot. But it is a cautious optimism, as the chains of the possible are so hard to release, and the roads not taken often augment our regret. The future romantic arena can be seen then to be bright; however, the paths to romance are full of stumbling blocks. But then, is it necessary to restate that life is complex and no one ever promised us a rose garden?


The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, there may be people who are better than you, but there is none whom I love so much and whom I always will."

Adapted from In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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