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Falling in Love Online: Romantic or Risky?

Online relationships can be thrilling and rewarding, but you need to be careful.

JÉSHOOTS/Pexels/Pixabay, CC0 public domain
Source: JÉSHOOTS/Pexels/Pixabay, CC0 public domain

Many people I know snicker at the Vows feature in The New York Times, especially those entries that focus on the weddings of two ambitious, Type-A personalities, both of whom launched their own hedge funds or internet companies, but only after they built a hospital in a third-world country with their bare hands.

But the latest Vows column was very different, breaking throughout the usual jaded snark with its earnest romanticism between two decidedly normal people. More specifically, it spoke to those of us who are more likely these days to meet someone special online, regardless of where they might live in the real world, and then deal with the unusual circumstances that follow.

In “Girl Meets Boy, Finally, After 9 Years Online,” we hear the story of Joanna and Tristan, who met in an online video-game forum when they were 14 and kept in touch for almost a decade, gradually becoming enamored with each other. Their online connection endured through life changes (high school, college, jobs) and real-life romantic partners, until finally they met nine years later for a long weekend in Seattle, which culminated in a kiss they had both been anticipating literally for years.

This struck a particular chord with me because I have had several experiences like theirs, in which I would meet someone online, correspond with her and grow closer over some length of time, and not meet her until we had developed an emotional or romantic connection. Never did I have to wait nine years (!) to meet someone I’d gotten to know online, but even several months of communication, every day if not many times a day, can feel nearly as long.

When we would eventually meet, sometimes it was pure magic, one of these rare times in a life when everything finally seemed to fit together and I felt I’d met my other half. Other times it was… well, less magic, because the spark in person didn’t match the connection we made online. Sometimes the other person and I would feel the same way, whether we were overwhelmed or underwhelmed; and even worse than both of us being disappointed was when one of us would be thrilled while the other was not, which would eventually result in hurt feelings on both sides.

The first time I met an online love it was magic, and as a longtime romantic, I simply assumed it would feel like that every time. So I was shocked when the second time I met someone I had connected with online, there was no magic, no spark, none of what I was so sure would happen because it had happened once before. On the bright side, she and I have been good friends ever since. And the couple more times I have met someone online and then met in person some time later, the experience has been somewhere in between the first and second times—some spark but not fireworks. (I have remained close friends with both of them too.)

Again, I had always thought connections were made between two people’s hearts and minds, their personalities and characters finding that match, without having anything to do with our physical forms, which is at best a distraction and at worst an obsession. But it isn’t necessarily just a matter of looks; the story of Joanna and Tristan shows us that it can be the smallest things that endear us to each other. During their first meeting, they made “the kind of in-person observations that were not visible over a phone line.”

“I realized I’m about an inch shorter than she is,” [Tristan] said, laughing. “I was a little self-conscious about that.”

His favorite first, however, was the sight of [Joanna] laughing at his jokes.

“For years, all I got when we made corny jokes was the sound of her laughing or two letters alternating back and forth, some variation of ha-ha,” he said. “I found out that I really loved her smile. Part of me always knew I would.”

The way someone laughs, the way they move their hands when they talk, the way their body moves when they walk… all of these little details are part of what makes a person, and they are more important than we may think. It’s not that any of these things seal the deal or break it, but that they add immeasurable nuance to who a person is in our minds and, sometimes, in our hearts.

It may be true that you learn the most important things about another person by talking to them, even over Skype or FaceTime, but there is so much more to learn about somebody from seeing and hearing them in person. Some things are conscious, such as how they look or sound, and others are unconscious, such as the body chemistry that can draw us to other people on a more primal level.

As ethereal and ideal as we may think love is, there is also an animal aspect to it that responds to physical aspects of other people that we may not even notice. These seemingly trivial things flesh out the person we get to know online, and may end up determining whether that online connection becomes a love affair or a long-lasting friendship (or both) in real life.

Joanna and Tristan’s story shows that online love can lead to a long-term relationship in the real world. But not all do, as my experiences clearly show. Do I regret any of my experiences? In general, no. Most of them resulted in friendships that are among the best and richest I’ve ever had. Also, they were marvelous experiences of getting to know another person and growing more intimate with each other over time. Any physical component of the relationship is delayed, of course, but other than that, this way of getting together, with its positive and negative sides, is not all that different from traditional relationships that begin in the real world (not all of which work out in the long run either).

This way of meeting people and forming connections is not for everyone, though. Obviously, it’s not optimal for those whose wants and needs are more physical—they may find people online, using various services or apps, but they would not correspond with them for months or years before meeting. The same goes for people who don’t want to wait for a real-life relationship, who choose to date more people in a certain period of time in an attempt to find one to settle down with.

I think stories like Joanna and Tristan’s can help dispel the myth that you cannot fall in love with someone without meeting them in person. Trust me, it’s possible, even though it may not be the type of love that works for everyone. But these stories, both theirs and mine, also show us that as well as we think we can know someone from online chats, phone calls, and Skype, there are still aspects of them we can never know until we meet. For Joanna and Tristan, those things didn’t change anything, but for me, sometimes they did, whether for both of us or only one of us.

This represents a risk inherent in this kind of relationship: having your expectations raised due to an intense online connection, only to have them crash to the ground after a disappointing real-life meeting. This is more likely to happen, and likely to be more serious, the longer you and your online love wait to meet.

If you want my advice, don’t avoid making online connections. They can be marvelous experiences while they last. But I would recommend trying to meet each other before your feelings become so intense that you’ll be seriously heartbroken if that initial meeting doesn’t go well. Think of it as having a crush for a long time: You may idealize someone to such an extent that when you finally get to meet them, you can’t help but be disappointed by the real person you actually meet. In the case of online relationships, you do get to know a lot about each other, but you may still idealize the rest, including the aspects of them that might make the difference when you meet between fireworks and heartbreak.

More from Mark D. White Ph.D.
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