Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Throughout history, love has meant different things.  For example, the ancient Greeks thought of love in a more platonic way, usually a nonsexual relationship between two men, whereas there are reports that the Romans tended to view love as in terms of an emotional torment, and not connected with marriage.  In twelfth century France, courtly love was often unrealistic where unmarried male knights paid homage to females who were married to someone else.   In modern times love is an almost necessary condition for marriage, in as much as we would be unlikely to marry without feeling love for our romantic partner.  Half a century ago, only a quarter of women and two thirds of males polled reported that they would not marry someone if they were not in love with them.  Twenty years later around 85% of each gender said no, suggesting that the way in which we think of love and relationships is constantly changing (Brehm, 1992).

Even today, love is classified in different ways, for example either passionate or compassionate (e.g. Hatfield, 1988).  Passionate or romantic love is accompanied by feelings of high emotional intensity which we have probably all experienced from time to time, and these emotions are associated with changes in our neurochemistry.  For example, changes in levels of Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Phenethylamine are all associated with the feelings we experience from being in love.

Can You Fall in Love Online?

In a world now dominated by social media, online communication and online dating, is it possible to fall in love online?  What has to happen for us to fall in love, and do we necessarily need to meet a person face-to-face in order to experience feelings of romantic or passionate love for them? 

Before addressing these questions we firstly need to understand the component parts of love.  Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love suggests that love comprises of three components which are commitment, passion and intimacy (Sternberg, 1986).  One major element of intimacy is self disclosure, whereby a person reveals information about themselves to another.

Self Disclosure

As romantic relationships progress, we gradually move from disclosing merely superficial information to eventually disclosing more personal and then intimate information.  Some years ago Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, explained self-disclosure using what they called the ‘social penetration model’ (Altman & Taylor, 1973).  This model proposes that when interacting with a new romantic partner, we engage in the exchange of only very superficial information, and the breadth of the exchange is fairly limited.  Gradually as a romantic relationship progresses, the number of superficial topics discussed tends to increase and we also begin to disclose more personal and then intimate information about ourselves.

Self-Disclosure and Attraction

As the level of self-disclosure in an interaction increases, so does our degree of liking and attraction for the person with whom we are interacting.  Years ago, Collins and Miller (1994) looked at three different research questions.

  • Do we like others who disclose to us? 
  • Do we disclose more to people we like? 
  • Do we like people more because we disclose to them? 

Their findings were positive to all three, in that self-disclosure led to liking of the discloser, people disclose more to the people they like, and people tend to like others as a result of disclosing to them.  Furthermore, our perceptions lead us to believe that when a person is not disclosing information to everyone and that they are disclosing information just to us we tend to increase our feelings of attraction for that person.

The degree of self disclosure in any interaction does not only depend upon an individual’s tendency to disclose, but also on the another person’s ability to elicit disclosure from them, and the term ‘openers’ has been used to characterize individuals who are able to elicit self-disclosure from others.

Love Online

In an online environment, we have only limited information about the person with whom we may be chatting.  We are unable to assess their appearance or indeed their nonverbal behaviour.  The only information we have to form our impressions is in what they say, and this doesn't even involve tone of voice.  Indeed our only indication of emotion comes from the use of emojis, and therefore the actual words used are very important. 

Online communication is often hyperpersonal, (Walster 1996) which means that this type of communication allows certain features not available in face-to-face communication.  Principally, it allows us to impression manage or carefully craft the right image of ourselves, because the pace of the interaction online allows us to do this.  In other words before we respond to a message, we have the time to stop and to think carefully about our reply.

Furthermore, in an online chat we are generally less inhibited about what we say - a phenomenon which has been referred to as the online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004).  One of the consequences of disinhibition is that we are more likely to disclose or reveal information about ourselves to the person with whom we are chatting. This facilitation of disclosure leads the other person to disclose also (reciprocal disclosure) and leads to rapport which finally leads to mutual affection.  Furthermore, in an online environment free of inhibitions, and where we can impression manage what we say, it is also easier for us to trade compliments principally because we are disinhibited and we can impression manage what we say. 

Therefore, all of these factors can sometimes conspire to lead us to think that we like and eventually may have even fallen in love with someone online, even though we’ve not even met them?  But how will you feel when you actually meet face-to-face?

References

  • Altman, I. & Taylor, D. A. (1973) ‘Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships’ New York: Holt, Rinehart &Winston.
  • Brehm, S. S.(1992) 'Intimate relationships' (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  • Collins, N. L. & Miller, L. C. (1994) ‘Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review’ Psychological Bulletin, 116(3), 457-475.
  • Hatfield, E. (1988) ‘Passionate and compassionate love’. In R. J. Sternberg & M. L. Barnes (Eds) The psychology of love (pp 191-217). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Sternberg, R. J. (1986) ‘A triangular theory of love’ Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.
  • Suler, J. (2004) ‘The online disinhibition effect’ Cyberpsychology & Behaviour, 7 (3), 321-326.
  • Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23, 3-43.

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