It’s Saturday night and time to check in with your online love.
No time to change? No worries – romance between two people can blossom in comfort online. Never mind the lack of physical intimacy that most counselors say is necessary for a healthy union.
What kind of people can carry on romantic relations exclusively online, over the phone or by text?
“It may be a person with an average concern of rejection,” said Nicole Urdang, a licensed mental health counselor in Amherst. “It may be someone who suffered extreme rejection in the past, a bad breakup – or even more deeply, a very bad experience in childhood with not being able to trust caretakers, which creates a deeper lack of trust.”
Those who choose digital romance over an in-person relationship may have little time for anything else, according to cyber attorney Parry Aftab.
“Because they are lonely, they will look for love online,” said Aftab, a national expert on Internet privacy law. “Because they are busy, they live with a connected relationship rather than an actual one. It happens far more often than any of us realize. You can reach out and check in with someone who will say something nice. You can turn it on and off when you want. You can engage in cyber sex or webcam sex and feel like you’re part of a couple without all the costs of dating, without having to get dressed up and without having to meet his mother.”
Who knows why Manti Te’o fell in virtual love? The Notre Dame linebacker who announced his girlfriend had died late last year discovered she did not exist at all. It appears, at this point, that their two-year phone relationship was a hoax perpetuated by a male admirer of Te’o.
While the baffling story of the nonexistent deceased girlfriend continued to make headlines, it also raised public awareness of the pitfalls facing those who fall in digital love. Online relationships, said one psychologist, can take on a huge role in people’s lives.
“The possibilities for projection online are great,” according to Sherry Turkle of MIT, who wrote “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.” “With a person one will never meet, one projects who one needs one’s lover to be. One can be less inhibited, and many people claim they express a ‘truer’ self.”
“Whether or not we call this intimacy can be debated, but it is psychologically compelling,” Turkle wrote in an email. “It can be healing. It can become the most important relationship in one’s life.”
Not for them
Two-thirds of the adults in this country regularly use social media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – to stay in touch with friends and family, according to new data from Pew Internet. Half of them go online to re-establish old friendships, while 14 percent connect with others around a shared hobby or interest. Only 3 percent say they use social media to find potential romantic partners, Pew data from 2012 indicated.
The reason is simple, according to one college student.
“It’s a risk,” said Marcella Osa, 20, of Clarence. “I just think it’s dangerous. I mean, I’ve been in a military relationship where our only communication was letters, but at least we met first and I knew who he was.”
Osa sat with her friends inside the Campbell Student Union at Buffalo State College. Their cellphones – like place cards – lined the table in front of them.
“It’s creepy,” said Lindsay Goff, 22 of Brewster. “If I see a picture, I may think they are attractive, but I would not want to date them just based on what they’re telling me. I want to see how they are around their friends. That’s really what creates chemistry.”
Long Islander Jenna Laricchia, 22, said people in online relationships have an issue with self-confidence.
“We have a better opportunity of finding someone who we like right here,” added Maddie Coneys, 19, of Albany. “And we know who they really are.”
Relationships of any sort are challenging to maintain in a world that is digitally connected, experts agreed. Conflicts surface when people who want to merge also want to maintain their own identity.
Urdang called it the approach/avoidance conflict of intimacy. Taking it online, she explained, leaves ample room to wiggle.
“Creating an online relationship where you never meet the person fulfills both criteria at the same time because on one hand you have a sense of connection – someone is waiting for a text or an email or a phone call – yet at the same time, you are separate,” she said. “I can see how the choice to have a virtual relationship would be very appealing to a certain segment of the population who do not feel safe trusting another person.”
One third of adult Americans believe it is possible to conduct a romantic relationship online, according to an online survey conducted in 2011 called “Love in the Age of Social Media.” Relationship counselors, however, question the level of intimacy that can be shared during digital relationships.
“There’s no way you can be intimate with someone you never actually truly met,” said Ceaton Falgiano, 42, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in Williamsville. “Intimacy has many levels. The intimate experience online is cerebral: I know all your secrets and you know mine. That’s a safe level and enough to satisfy them.”
Urdang said cyber relationships may also become addictive.
“We all know how powerful obsessive compulsive disorders can be,” she said. “Virtual relationships are conduits for that obsessive compulsive disorder. You don’t have to wait to get gratification.”
Falgiano told the story of a woman in her late 40s who plans to marry a man she met online.
“They have never met, but they Skype a lot,” Falgiano said. “It’s online. She’s self-employed, and does everything from home, including having a relationship.”
Could the couple marry by Skype?
“It’s possible in some jurisdictions to marry by proxy,” said Aftab during a phone interview from her New Jersey office. “As a rule, jurisdictions require that two people be physically present before the officiant. Skype has people in two different places.”
“People think teens are more susceptible to these online relationships than the [theoretical] lonely woman in New York State who goes online, falls in love and leaves her family,” Aftab said. “Kids are more likely to enter into casual relationships, but adults engage in very deep, protracted and meaningful – and therefore higher-risk – relationships.”
What would you think if someone you loved was involved in a virtual relationship and had an emotional affair? They may not be physically engaged with their e-mate, but they are sharing hopes and dreams and deepest thoughts and feelings.
“You’re siphoning off emotional energy that would best be focused on your mate,” said Urdang. “It’s difficult enough to maintain a long-term loving relationship with someone even if you shower them with romantic loving emotional energy. If you siphon it off to someone else, oftentimes it will jeopardize your primary relationship.”
The divisiveness created may lead to divorce, said Aftab.
“It’s unlikely that online relationships and cyber sex would qualify as adultery under most of the state laws,” said Aftab, “but it is enough to show the marriage is not working, and usually that’s enough to get you a divorce these days.”
Falgiano pointed to two cases where middle-aged women unhappy in their marriages developed online relationships with men that lasted several months. In each case, the woman who sought the online relationship created an online persona by shaving off years and inches. One was dying for intimacy, for someone to talk nicely to her, said Falgiano.
In both cases, their husbands found out.
Someone who assumes an online identity by posting false information is called a “catfish.” A phenomenon defined in the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” it is also the subject of a current MTV series.
Communicating with someone you do not meet is fertile waters for catfish, said Falgiano. Many lie about marital status, age. They may post their own decade-old photo or use a photo from someone else’s social networking profile.
While the consequences of deception rarely end well, they can turn downright deadly.
In 2006, an online love triangle led to the ambush murder of a 22-year-old man in Clarence. Both he and his 48-year-old killer had been involved in an online relationship with the same middle-aged woman from West Virginia who posed as an 18-year-old using her teenage daughter’s email and Web page to attract the men.
“People are just so miserable in their lives that they game,” Falgiano explained.
Over time, online friends can create ideal cyber partners.
“They don’t have to face each other or see their little habits,” said Urdang. “Are they a spendthrift? Are they an alcoholic? What are their issues? All we get is the little slice that they share, the little portion. We don’t get the full spectrum of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We form them through fantasy into an idealized partner.”