In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

How Well Should You Know Your Online Lover?

Knowing you less is not always so bad.

 "Your mind is what interests me the most." Bumper sticker.

"One can find a woman who never had one love affair, but it is rare indeed to find anyone who had only one." La Rochefoucauld

 People who have online lovers naturally want to know more about them.  So should these lovers replace their online communication with regular offline communication?  The answer is usually no.  The paradox of the internet is that you have less information about each other and this ambiguity often makes love more intense.

Face-to-face communication relies on many sources of information: facial expressions, voice, posture, hands, gaze, focus, and so on. Such sources provide crucial signals for communicating our emotions and understanding the other person's attitudes.  Online communication relies on fewer sources and is often based merely on written messages. The lack of visual content seems to be a particularly significant deficiency, especially because our eyes are of central importance in revealing our emotional attitudes. Sometimes, one look in the eyes conveys more profound information than many words. We say, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

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Nonverbal communication often involves information that the subject is not fully aware of and does not always want to convey to other people. The lack of nonverbal information in text-based online communication led some researchers to claim that such communication is leaner and hence online relationships are less involving, less rich, and less personal than offline relationships. It is true that not all types of information available in face-to-face communication are also available in online communication; in this sense, the latter is leaner. However, this does not mean that online relationships are necessarily less involving, less rich, or less personal than offline relationships.

Ironically, the opposite is often the case because fewer vehicles of communication can provide richer information than a greater number of vehicles. Quality and richness of personal relationship are not merely derived from the quantity of communicative vehicles, and most people experience this even in platonic relationships, such as the intensity of Twitter relationships in which the followers have never actually met.

 More information may lead to a less profound personal relationship when the additional information has negative effects such as: (a) giving undue weight to physical appearance, (b) curbing one's imagination, and (c) hurting one's privacy. Specifically:

(a) Giving undue weight to physical appearance. The additional visual information provided in offline relationship is mainly related to physical attractiveness and may distort the general evaluation of the other person (especially in cases of extreme beauty or ugliness). And if external appearance is less important for the long enduring romantic relationship than, for instance, caring and wisdom, then the lesser weight of attractiveness in online relationship makes those relationships more profound for the long run.

(b) Curbing imagination. The shortage of information in online relationships enables a greater use of our imagination, and hence the ability to present each other in a more positive manner. Although imagination may distort reality, it may be a kind of positive illusion helping us in overcoming everyday difficulties.

 (c) Hurting privacy. Additional information may imply lesser privacy and hence less self-disclosure which is so essential for intimate close relationships. However, online relationships allow a person to control the amount of privacy she is ready to give up at the given level of their relationship. A gradual release of one's privacy enables richer and more profound self-disclosure.

In light of the above (and other) considerations, text-based communication with a sincere person has the potential to provide richer information than a face-to-face meeting with another person. Indeed, as compared to face-to-face communication, online communication involves higher proportions of more intimate questions and lower proportions of peripheral questions. Online conversations seem to need fewer cues.

In both offline and online romantic relationships, understanding your partner's mind is complex and involves much more than merely reading faces or messages; it involves paying attention to many subtle cues. This is especially true in online communication, where there are fewer sources of information. Reading your partner's mind in online communication consists of reading both the lines and between the lines. The kinds of words chosen, the speed of the response, the length and frequency of messages are all cues to your partner's perception of the type and quality of the relationship. Thus, a fast response indicates great interest, whereas a slow response may suggest lack of enthusiasm.

This kind of reading sensitivity is so developed in online communication that people often say that their online lovers can read their mind better than their spouses can. Detecting, for example, that someone had a difficult day at work is often easier for an offline partner than an online partner. This is so since in offline relationships people must communicate with each other even if they have had a difficult day. However, the online lover, lacking many types of sensory information, must be sensitive to every signal conveyed by the other person; otherwise, their relationship cannot develop further. Thus, whereas in offline marital relationships seeing one another daily may make each spouse take the other for granted-and hence become blind to the other-in online relationships the inability to see the other prevents both partners from taking the other for granted and this enables each to perceive the other more clearly.

Of course, there is significant risk in online communication. If information is missing, people can also miss signs of risk. Ignoring such information can make people confuse the virtual and actual realities. Indeed, people are easily carried away and underestimate the risks of surfing the Net. Like drugs, which provide easy access to pleasure, online lovers can be dangerously addicted to the method. People want more and more, but satisfaction is limited and becomes more costly to achieve. An unfulfilled craving for drugs and cybering can cause great distress.

The reliance of online relationships on one type of communication may also lead to misunderstanding. Thus, a written phrase that is intended ironically may cause the other person to feel insulted and angry. In offline relationships, other cues carried by eye contact, facial expression, or tone of voice may clarify and contextualize the irony or humor, so that the intention behind the words becomes obvious; in online communication, such balancing factors are absent. The lean communication of online relationships may also generate intense positive emotions because the negative aspects of the correspondent tend to remain concealed.

In summary, the different mediums of communication online give rise to different depths in online relationships. Some of these relationships are highly random, shallow, and last less than a few minutes; others are serious, intensive, and last for months or years. It is not the case, however, that a leaner medium is also associated with a shallower relationship. Despite the leaner nature of online communication, it can give rise to profound personal relationships.

The natural tendency to want to know more about the beloved may harm some other benefits of an online relationship. Knowing you less is not always so bad. However, combining the two communicative vehicles may increase the benefits of the relationship.

The interesting question is what happens when lovers combine their online and offline relationships.  In fact, the less information people have online makes the chances of a successful first face-to-face meeting very low (according to one survey, merely 10%), because the two people may not "click". Still, the combination of the two communicative vehicles has a greater chance of success. Hence, when a woman says to her online lover that in the first (and last) time he approached her in offline circumstances she almost fainted, the chance of their online affair to become a profound offline loving relationship is considerably greater. In this case, there is more information and hence the connection to reality is much stronger. Accordingly, online romantic relationships should complement, but not substitute for, offline relationships. 

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that an online lover might express: "Darling, you may not be so real, but you are certainly what I have always dreamed about." 

 Adapted from "Love Online: Emotions on the Internet."

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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