It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. (Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince)

Love is what happens to men and women who don't know each other. (Somerset Maugham)

Which types of connection-those based upon vision or those based upon verbal communication-have a more profound impact on romantic relationships? And in what ways is an online lover different to an offline one?

The root of the word "respect" means "to look at." Respecting a person implies seeing her as she is, being aware of her unique personality. It is not clear, however, whether by just looking at a person we can really perceive her as she is. We should remember that Cupid, the Roman god of erotic love, was blind. People who have successful romantic affairs online declare that it is possible to find true love on the Net and that the surest way to do so is "to listen to your heart," and "to experience rather than to see."

I have argued that romantic love involves two basic evaluative patterns referring to (a) attractiveness-that is, an attraction to external appearance; and (b) praiseworthiness-that is, a positive appraisal of personal characteristics.

Visual capacities seem to be more essential for falling in love, since vision provides more information than any other sense. On the other hand, verbal capacities seem closer than visual capacities to properties essential for enduring romantic relationships. Following our visual evaluations may be advantageous in cases of infatuation, but may result in distorted evaluations in the long run; following our evaluation of the characteristics revealed by verbal capacities may be beneficial in the long run, but may be less useful for generating infatuation.

Vision is more closely related to physical attractiveness, while hearing or reading may be related to deeper aspects that refer more to intellectual capacities.

In face-to-face relationships, most people fall in love in response to what they see, and then love is strengthened or weakened as further information is revealed. In online relationships, where self-disclosure is greater and hence intimacy is significant and occurs early in the relationship, most people first get to know each other and only then fall in love. In the prevailing modern ideal of romantic love, love starts with its most intense form: passionate love. Such love is seen as something we do not learn about or prepare for; rather, it consists of a certain magic that happens to come our way. In this view, we stumble clumsily into passionate love and hope the magic will enable us to overcome any hurdle. Accordingly, we date people who are not available or not suitable, being hopeful that nothing will stop that magical love from occurring.

The above view has two basic assumptions: (a) passionate love is our truest guide, and (b) attraction is the hallmark of love-once it is present, praiseworthiness is supposed to emerge naturally. Both assumptions are wrong-or at least too simplistic. Passionate love is a kind of spontaneous evaluation that is based upon a partial perspective and limited information. Like other types of hunches, it may sometimes work out, but in many cases it does not. When a broader perspective based upon extended information supplements the spontaneous evaluation, we are more likely to make better choices. Love cannot be reduced to physical attractiveness. Love is a comprehensive attitude, which must also take into account the evaluation of the other person's personal characteristics. The high rate of divorce these days is one indication of the inadequacy of the two above assumptions-that passionate love is our truest guide and attraction is the hallmark of love. The fact that sometimes the intensity of our love increases as we come to know the other person better indicates that love consists of more than just physical attraction.

In a sense, online romantic relationships mark a return to this traditional order of falling in love. As in arranged marriages, cyberlove is the product of a process in which two people come to know each other. As in the conservative order of love and sex, sexual engagement is the fruit of intense love. In online romantic relationships, people first talk without actually seeing or touching each other, and only then do they move on to sexual activities. This manner of falling in love in cyberspace may greatly enhance the quality of the bond between the two partners. As one woman who married her online lover says: "I am so glad I knew him before I actually got to meet him face to face. Our love is stronger now than ever."

In cyberlove, where verbal skills are more important than physical attractiveness, romantic stereotypes concerning these skills are more dominant. One person notes that if someone makes a spelling mistake, it is acceptable since we all make mistakes, "but I can't tell you how much it irritates me when people don't know the difference between their, there, and they're and you're and your. GOD that annoys me and I would never cyber with someone who can't get those straight." In online relationships, "being able to type fast and write well is equivalent to having great legs or a tight butt in the real world."

In cases of a one-night cyberstand, the order of love and sex is similar to that typically prevailing in offline circumstances. Thus, Belle, a married woman for twelve years, notes: "It started one morning with me popping in with something like ‘anyone for a quickie?' The response was more than I bargained for, the quickie turned into a 3 or 4 hour long, hot and steamy sex conversation. The man I met online has been, and still remains, an inspiration in my life."

Just as both emotions and intellectual thinking are important in our lives, so a combination of visual and verbal capacities is important in romantic love. We love each other with both our eyes and hearts (or rather, our brains). In order to be the object of love, it is not enough simply to be attractive; other internal characteristics, such as wisdom and a sense of humor, are important as well. And, of course, we should not forget money, which is so seductive to the eyes and so persuasive to the heart.

Adapted from Love Online

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