Relationships substituting electronic contact for real contact may suffer in the long run.
I'm a seasoned dater and attempted a distance romance for the third time—against my better judgment. Over two months, communication progressed from email, to calls, to texting. Over time, there was more texting than calling. We finally met face to face, and a week later he dropped out of sight. I wasn't sure what was going on. By day three, I started asking questions by text and email (he couldn't/wouldn't call) and probably ended up the clingy girlfriend. I'm not fond of my sometimes frantic tone, but I wonder whether I did something wrong.
Hara Estroff Marano is the Editor at Large of Psychology Today and writes the magazine's advice column, Unconventional Wisdom. Her newest book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, grew out the groundbreaking Psychology Today article A Nation of Wimps.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Ultimately, he thought he was not up for the relationship and felt I got impatient; I'd have to agree. Do distance relationships impose an extra burden on communication? Is over-communication common at first? What advice do you have for someone who might consider an online relationship again?
Starting, developing, and sustaining an online relationship for two months before meeting is actually a high-wire act. But because such relationships are easy to enter, we assume, mistakenly, that they are easy to conduct, which is why so many end badly. Further, they are almost always a kind of Rorschach test: They are more about ourselves and what we project onto others than what exists objectively. Very little personal investment is required to initiate or respond to an online overture. There's no way of knowing the intentions of the other, their real interest in or ability to invest in a new relationship, and confronting the matter is a sure turnoff. Is this person sincerely seeking a connection—or just testing the appeal of some facet of personality to see how others react? Is the person acting out of boredom or convenience or is there a true desire for commitment? And as easily as someone clicked on, that's how easily someone can click off. Next! The hazards imposed by the extremely low barrier to entry can, however, be considerably surmounted by moving communication forward at a measured pace, with equal contributions by both parties.
But that's not what usually happens. Online romances can feel quite thrilling (and some people engage in them just for such thrills) because they tend to move very quickly at first; people tend to reveal a great deal about themselves without emotional restraint, and, very often, one party is doing much more of the revealing while the other is merely reacting or, worse, just an audience for the performance of the other. As Israeli philosopher Aaron Ben-Ze'ev puts it in Love Online: Emotions on the Internet, there is a price to pay for attempting to conduct a relationship by solitary means—"the risk of being captured by your own desire."
Yet, for relationships to work, there generally has to be equality of investment every step of the way. Online, attachment develops separately and independently to differing degrees and at differing speeds in each party's imagination. Absent in-person contact, there is no means of developing a shared understanding of the degree of affection engaged. Each person is free to dwell in his and her own fantasies, to indulge emotions and project emotional needs onto the invisible other—without awareness that such events are going on—while deepening an investment in a relationship that…well, isn't quite yet a relationship. (And some people seem to prefer that kind of relationship to the greater complexities of real social involvement.) Because online relationships are such a novel development in the history of humanity, our own emotional systems are totally unprepared for dealing with all their contradictory elements.
Another challenge is that electronic communication compresses time so that waiting three days for a response feels like something has gone radically off track. That, of course, only encourages your own anxieties to work overtime, leading you to behave in desperate ways to preserve what seems threatened, which you may regard as a relationship but which may be far from having emotional traction yet for the other.
So, yes, distance relationships impose a huge and hidden burden on communication from the start. Sadly, what you describe is a trajectory of ascending then declining investment—from email, to calling, to texting. Texting is the ultimate in communication convenience. The medium is not conducive to articulating thoughts or feelings. Minimal as the psychic investment it requires is, the time investment it demands is even lower—waiting for a light to change is enough for firing off a message. Communication that quickly settles into texting in lieu of anything more engaging should set off alarm bells about interest level. In other words, there were signs that your relationship was downtrending before you and your friend even met. But it's difficult to countenance that when you're whipped up emotionally and high on the fumes of expectations. You'd be better off regularly testing the continuing interest of the invisible other—by not rushing to respond to each communiqué and allowing the other person the opportunity to reach out and contact you. Had you recognized the signals, you could have saved yourself a lot of disappointment and at least salvaged your dignity by not behaving in ways you hate.
But stop beating yourself up. Your friend was out of the relationship before he was in it. His withdrawal didn't hinge on your clinginess or impatience; those became convenient excuses; it started earlier.
You don't have to abandon the hope of finding love online. You just have to approach it with intelligence and restraint. Because online relationships pose the built-in risk of being more unilateral than mutual—more imagined than real—it's best to allow some breathing time between responses. And I don't mean heavy breathing. Further, because two months is a long time for sustaining an intimate relationship with a stranger, it's best to move for a face-to-face meeting sooner rather than later.
When Skype Is Not Enough
My boyfriend of almost a year and I met online and live in different cities. We can see each other only on weekends, if he isn't busy. I've doubted his definition of "busy" for a while now, but I just stumbled upon a bigger issue: He thinks chatting online and texting are equivalent to knowing someone in person (except for touch, of course). We argue about this—as always over Skype chat—and I just can't show him how wrong, just WRONG, this is! I know compromise is necessary, but I am not, and never will be, OK with this. I'm sick of never seeing him, sick of chatting by Skype, and sick of him thinking I have no reason to be angry! Am I "overreacting" again? Does this mean he has no motivation to see me except sex? I might leave him if we can't work this out.
Uh-oh. You seem to approach life as a joust. Your boyfriend is not an opponent. And the path to romance is not paved by showing anybody how wrong, just WRONG, he is—not via Skype, not via telephone, not even face to face. Distance relationships are hard enough. And then you top it all off with anger, which is not anyone's idea of an aphrodisiac. It's remarkable your boyfriend has endured it this long; most people tend to run like hell from it.
Overreacting "again"? It sounds as if you didn't get you what you wanted in the past. And you're not getting it now. So we can conclude that it's time to try a new strategy. The truth is that you don't know what your boyfriend's motivations are. You're giving him many reasons to pull back and then compounding the matter by not allowing him a way to reveal his true level of interest.
You don't have to be OK with conducting a relationship by Skype. It's richer than texting but no replacement for the real thing. However, instead of insisting that your boyfriend is wrong, channel your dissatisfaction in a positive direction by making a request (not a demand) for change. The goal is to keep it from sounding like a complaint while encouraging a response. You could say something along the lines of, "You know, I'm really fond of you and enjoy spending time with you. I'm glad we have Skype for being in touch, but for me, the computer is a poor second to being with you. I do better relating to the flesh-and-blood you. Does substituting electronic contact for real contact bother you as much as it does me?" That kind of request opens the door for you to get good information.
But the issue is deeper than a Skype gripe. You see your beau on weekends? Lucky you! Seeing someone on weekends only is not unreasonable—even for two people who live in the same city.
If you revise your expectations and reframe your dissatisfaction positively, you won't be working yourself into a lather all the time. And there's no telling what surprises you might hear from your boyfriend.