INTERNET and "REAL LIFE" RELATIONSHIPS:
ARE THEY VIRTUALLY THE SAME?

Rena Popma

Jerri: So, what do you think I should do? Dump him or go for it?

Minta: I think you should dump him, after all, you guys hardly spend any time together anymore.

J: Yeah, but he's been real busy with work lately.

M: I know, and you said he hardly ever listens to you anymore.

J: Yeah, he talks a lot about work now. It seems like he wants to hang out with his friends more, even people from work, more than with me these days.

M: Yeah, so what are you going to do?

J: I dunno, we thought about getting together this weekend to see if that changed anything.

M: You mean in "real life"? Woah, that'd be expensive! Where does he live again?

Net relationships are unique yet strangely familiar. I have many net friends, and if I didn't already have a happy love relationship, I'd probably look for love on the net, too. Just like "real life", net relationships seem to work sometimes and not work other times. From talking with friends and from working with college students who had sought my services while I was with a campus based counseling center, it seems to me the number one reason that net relationships fall into trouble is the obvious one: it's the distance, silly. On the other hand, the net allows us to bridge distances better than any other method that humans have seen so far. You can meet folks from all over the world with a few simple mouse clicks or key strokes.

Here are some tips I've gathered from my own observations and conversations with others:

  1. Talking with a person over a period of time seems to reveal their personality and behaviors despite any attempt he/she may make to disguise who they "really" are.

  2. Some people can effectively pretend to be who they aren't. Of those people some have malevolent intentions.

  3. Net relationships seem to develop to an intimate level without some of the regular barriers hindering the process: i.e., looks, bad breath, etc.

  4. When people want to get "serious" often times those hidden barriers become important: i.e., looks, bad breath, etc.

  5. The more removed from a realistic setting the relationship is, the more prone individuals are to allow aspects uncharacteristic of themselves to emerge. For example, an otherwise meek man might show more aggressive actions in a gaming environment on-line than in a chat room on-line. The context in which we meet appears to set some of the dynamics of the relationship. Sometimes this can be a problem when meeting face-to-face, if characteristics we like in a person disappear.

  6. Net friends can be found 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. "Real life" friends can not be that available. This may relieve friends and family or it may threaten them if they feel usurped by the virtual world.

The two main areas of contention that I have encountered are:

  1. People who want strictly fantasy relationships and people who want the real thing run into each other frequently and can make each other miserable unless they communicate their intentions early and often.

  2. People who are delighted to meet people from all over the world are sometimes later torn when they want to move to a context where they can get to know the object of their affection on a face-to-face basis, and are thwarted by the geographical distance.

The most common advice on net relationships is also good advice for the rest of life: Enjoy life and the array of possibilities, but keep your eyes wide open and your brain engaged.

Rena M. Popma, M.S., is a Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology at Antioch New England Graduate School, in New Hampshire. She spends at least 50 hours a month on the Net. Her friends and family report that prior to the Net, she spent at least that much time reading books and talking on the phone -- so things about even out!

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