I’ve always been fascinated by online relationships and the processes behind them – how they form, how they are maintained and what forces them to come to an end. Inevitably, all of them do – whether they end completely or they move offline into an ‘in person relationship’. I based my psychology dissertation on the psychology of online relationships, which helped me gain an insight into others’ online relationships in relation to my own and see a pattern in how they progressed and ended.
“The vast majority of young people are now conducting their friendships and love affairs via social media, often (like me) with people they’ve never met in the flesh. Are you online? Then odds are you already know what I’m talking about: You’ve made friends, you’ve fallen in love, you’ve had entire relationships that never went past pixels on a screen.” (Schulman, 2014)
The internet has now been recognised as a basic human right in modern day society. With this, has come the normalisation of online and text-based relationships, and with the development of apps and instant messaging, maintaining them has never seemed more simple. However, as with any offline relationship, online relationships go through difficulties and cause as much emotional distress to a person. But how does the relationship progress, what happens between an online couple and what’s the end result?
Here I discuss some of my findings from my study:
1. Talking = Fulfilment
The most common theme I found was that the most fulfilling part of an online relationship was having somebody to talk to.
“…it fulfilled the emotional aspects in that I had someone I could talk to and depend on… you know, we talked for long periods of time about everything, things that I’d never spoken to anybody about.”
The internet allows us to remain connected 24/7. You don’t have to say goodbye because the bar is closing, or go home because the movie finished. You can literally talk to somebody anytime, anywhere. It is unsurprising that relationships online, that may take months to progress offline, take just days and weeks to become serious and harbour strong feelings between each other.
There is much more intensity online, because you talk for longer and more often, and so it doesn’t take long for feelings to develop and become strong. The use of a screen/phone acts as a barrier, and takes away the nervous feelings you might get when meeting somebody in person for a date or for the first time.
“You talk more online than in person. So like… you’d talk online for 5-6 hours a day compared to maybe a few texts a day in real life and meeting up once or twice a week for a couple of hours. The internet just makes it easy. Where you’d meet up, say, at a restaurant or a pub, you’d have to leave at a certain time or go home. Whereas online, you can literally just chat the hours away in your home or your room. There’s no limit to it. Time goes so quickly and you can talk for much longer.”
My study found that because of the emotional feelings involved, the participants didn’t question the authenticity of their relationship. They described their feelings as being just as real as they would be in an offline relationship.
For one participant, when asked what they found fulfilling about the relationship, they answered:
“I suppose that I felt like I was part of something and belonged to someone. That feeling of being wanted. I didn’t feel lonely anymore. It was like… I had someone to talk to about things that I couldn’t talk to my friends about and I just felt like we had a connection.”
Overall, it was understood that the connection with someone online felt just the same, if not more intense, than offline due to the intensity of communication, and the ability to speak freely and openly about feelings, experiences and thoughts and feel heard and understood. However, with the ease of communication, and the feeling that online relationships meant you could be more honest, my study also found…
2. Being dishonest is much easier
I remember watching MTV show Catfish for the first time. That first episode when she arrives at her ‘boyfriend’s’ house and it turns out to be a girl, I was floored. As well as posing the question, “was she in love with the boy or the girl?” – it also questions why the show has been able to make 7 seasons and still be flooded with material. It is so incredibly common to be Catfished, and shows that deception is not only easy but still not expected.
There’s something about being behind a screen that acts as a barrier and allows us to filter what we don’t want people to see. Have you ever made yourself sound more interesting to someone online – because you could? Or lied about your age, because you can make yourself look older in your pictures? Small lies, big lies – they’re all seemingly easier to follow through with online. One of my participants said:
“Well… it’s anonymous really. They don’t know who you are in person so… you’re kind of a different person in a way. You’re being you but… you’re being an online version of you.”
Whilst the internet allowed for ‘greater intimacy and self-disclosure’, it also encourages a ‘hyper imagination’, resulting in high expectations and believing what we want to believe, not what is the truth (Beiver, 2006).
What this means is that whilst we are able to disclose more online, because of the anonymity/physical barrier, it also means that we are able to portray a ‘better’ or ‘fantasised’ version of ourselves, and the other person is more likely to believe it – because it fits in with their fantasy. It becomes an escape from the boundaries of real life, and online we can live the life we want for ourselves. In his book, Nev Schulman (2014) wrote:
“There’s one common denominator that I’ve noticed in almost every catfish I’ve encountered […]: an active fantasy life. Catfish use the internet to fantasize the life that they want, in order to avoid dealing with the life they have.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that we are all catfishing our online significant others. But Nev makes the point that people who have engaged in online relationships have found deception much easier, because the internet has allowed them to create a separate and ‘better’ life online than to their real life.
I can verify this for myself; when I was younger, I was really unhappy with how I looked and wasn’t confident in myself whatsoever. But online, I had this really confident, alluring persona that was like my alter-ego. It was me being myself, without the awkward shyness that held me back in real life. I could enter into relationships, fantasise about how great it could be if we met, but deep down I knew that I would never be confident enough to make that step. I was always self-conscious and held back from taking it offline.
But, with social media now at it’s most popular, and different channels of social media, we are no longer limited to just ‘talking’. We openly share our photos, our thoughts and feelings publicly – not just to one person. An online relationship doesn’t just remain in ‘chat’…
3. It becomes an ‘inbetween’
My study questioned how online relationships were able to remain online for so long. We are now able to meet people online all over the world – there’s no limit, there’s no end. And distance doesn’t stop us from falling for a person. With the ease of contact, it creates an illusion that the distance doesn’t exist and does sustain the longevity of relationships. For some, it lasts years and never comes ‘offline’, for others, they move offline but only after a long period of time. But how were they able to stay ‘online’ for so long?
Let’s say you meet somebody on a game lobby or in a chatroom. You spend weeks and months logging on to talk to them, making arrangements to be online at a certain time to talk. But eventually, we want more. We don’t want to talk at 9pm every night, and not talk again for the rest of the day. We start to introduce Facebook or similar into the relationship. You can now talk on messenger for as long as you want – whenever you want. Soon, you start to want to actually talk to somebody. You swap numbers – and with apps such as Viber or Whatsapp, you can call each other for free! After a while, you decide you want to talk face-to-face, so you start Skyping or Facetiming.
And this constant progression gives the impression that you are moving forward with your relationship. This happened with all of my participants – and thus the feeling of being in a ‘real’ relationship solidified due to the integration of their online relationship with their real life. As one of them stated:
“…they become part of your everyday life. [Messenger] had all your real-life friends on it as well as your online ones, so they become part of your social routine…”
Social media is an extension of ourselves, and letting people connect through that is giving them a window into your life and your experiences, thoughts, feelings (for those that share everything, anyway). Seeing your online partner like and comment on statuses that your mum or your offline friends are commenting on gives the perception that they are just as present in your life as your family and friends.
But whilst this shows development, it also displays the need for a more ‘realistic’/offline relationship by integrating them into your real life which you share with your friends and family. It creates the impression that distance isn’t an issue and allows us to forget that they are 500+ miles away. They’re as far away as your friend who lives in the next town who is commenting on your picture of your lunch, or as close as your mum downstairs liking your new profile picture. But eventually, there becomes nowhere else to progress to. And then…
4. Distance becomes the largest obstacle
“Everyone that I’ve known who’s been in an online relationship has needed to meet the other person eventually. It’s just natural.”
As discussed in the previous point, progression is what helps maintain a relationship online. We go through different channels, slowly integrating them into our real life until – we reach the point we can go no further without meeting. And ‘distance’ suddenly becomes the elephant in the room.
Most of you will have come across the term ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ – which is displayed here:
It is the belief that we each have a basic set of human needs that need to be met in order to feel fulfilled. One of these is ‘affection, love and sexual intimacy’. My study questioned whether it is the physical act that needs to take place in order to quench a person’s sexual and romantically emotional appetite, or could words and other actions substitute, or even replace this natural desire?
Unfortunately, the common theme throughout was that all participants felt that they had a deep physical need to be with their online partner, and because of distance, this need couldn’t be met and started a downward effect for those that couldn’t meet. As one said:
“…it wasn’t fulfilling in a physical way. You know, there does eventually come a time when you desperately do need to be with that person and touch them and see them and spend time in person with them.”
My study found that all participants wanted to meet their online partner in person within just months of the relationship starting. Because the relationship had progressed so far, so quickly, they wanted their relationship to become more serious and more physical faster than they had anticipated.
For some, they were the ones who tried to initiate meeting, but for others, they were the ones that held it back due to their own insecurities, and worried they would have invested months or even years of their time to potentially be rejected upon meeting – especially for those who have been deceptive about themselves online or in their pictures.
But, regardless, came the need for change. This either resulted in meeting or the relationship ending. Either way…
5. The ‘online’ relationship ended
“It begins online and progresses offline or it begins and ends online.”
The header question of my study was, “Can an online relationship substitute the need for an offline relationship?” to which the answer at the end was – No.
In discussion with my participants, it was clear that the need for wanting more became too great and either ended completely, or it moved offline and into an in-person relationship.
They all agreed that they were able to create and maintain a relationship online for a period of time, but eventually, it got to a point where it could not work anymore without that further progression and had to end online.
“I think with any online relationship, there comes a point where you think, ‘right okay, this is gonna progress further’ or it just fizzles out.”
The difficulty with engaging into any online relationship is accepting that eventually, it will have to move forward. For me, I was afraid to make that progression on many occasions, and it resulted in the break-down of the relationship and we remained friends instead. For one particular person, our friendship broke down because I did eventually meet someone I had met online (my now boyfriend) and he took that personally, wondering why I could never make that leap with him several years earlier.
But the recurring theme is that meeting was the ultimate goal. Words could not always be a comfort, and could not meet your sexual or physical needs. One could only say so many times ‘I’d love to be able to cuddle you now’. Eventually, that wish becomes a need and starts to wedge itself in between you. It could not remain online forever.
When asked what would have happened had they stayed online, one participant shared:
“I think maybe we would have become too comfortable online. Like I know people who have been in online relationships for years and not met – simply with this driving hope they’re going to meet eventually. I’d have thought ‘yeah I want to us to be together in real life’ but then you become so accustomed to it being online that it becomes normality and you kind of put your life on hold.”
This ties in with the progression – you put your life on hold until you can progress. I cannot tell you the amount of people who have said they are waiting to move to go to college, or can’t take up that new job until they know where their online relationship is going. They couldn’t progress without that knowledge – they either stayed where they were in their life or they progressed without them. That’s what life is all about – it’s a journey, and we keep moving in order to feel like we’re living.
We set ourselves goals to work towards, and this helps us to feel like we’re working towards an achievement. But when your emotionally invested in something, it’s hard to move on without that closure or resolution. And with all other needs being met, distance was the one thing that stopped, what participants felt was, a vital need being met.
6. So what should I do if I’m in this position now?
The most important thing I believe comes out of this situation is that what you are feeling is real. You have an emotional and loving connection to somebody that doesn’t just appear out of nothing, or present itself without meaning.
“Just because you haven’t met someone, it doesn’t mean that the elements of the relationship are not true or genuine. I guess it’s the emotional aspect of any relationship that validates it… in my opinion anyway.”
However, it is also important to be realistic about the future of your relationship. Do you see your relationship progressing? And more so, what does progressing mean to you? Meeting somebody and having an offline relationship might not be what you want – and that’s ok. But make sure that the person you’re in a relationship with also doesn’t. It wouldn’t be fair to keep them hanging on if you have no intention of giving them what they want and need.
If you do see your relationship progressing, how possible can that be? Do they live in the UK and you live in the US? If you were to meet, would you be able to meet regularly, or is there a definite chance of one or both of you being able to relocate so you can be together? One of the hardest things about being in a relationship that is great in most ways – is that it is not good in the most important ways. Just because you know somebody who lived in Ireland that met and now live with their partner in Australia, and now have 4 kids and a dog with, it does not end that way for over 80% of online relationships. They were able to make that happen and had the means to. So try to be realistic, and try not to focus on the fantasy.
If there is the strong possibility of being able to meet, but having to do long-distance until you can make things more permanent, that’s great too. But also be mindful of timescales, can you risk putting your life on hold for them for 2 years or 10 years? What’s going to happen in that time? Be prepared for the long road ahead that emotionally, mentally and physically draining. But totally worth the end result!
Myself and my partner met online, and met in person after 9 months of talking online. He lived in Ireland, I lived in England. We have said before that if he had been in America, or I in Australia, we would not have continued the relationship or even discussed the potential of meeting. We were completely realistic. Before he met me, he always had the goal of studying in England after finishing college – so this meant we had a realistic end goal if we were to meet and go long distance. We were mindful of all these factors – especially time – and we knew that from the moment of meeting in person, it would be at least another year or two before we could be together full-time. We were students, so we had our own schedules and lives to follow. And we did it. I shared our story on a previous blog post here if you’re interested.
So, if you’ve done all that, and you’ve assessed and decided that you have a future that doesn’t stop you living your life for a significant length of time, then here are some tips for maintaining a healthy long-distance relationship:
- The reason me and my boyfriend have such a strong relationship now is because communication is at our core. We have talked and continue to talk about everything. When we were long-distance, it was important for us to be in contact regularly and make arrangements to talk face-to-face on Skype every evening or whatever, and definitely on the phone. We text regularly, and we worked around our schedules. It didn’t feel like such a slog with the communication. And again, it strengthens your bond and your relationship going forward. Viber was our life-saver – with him being in a different country, we relied on free calls and skype.
- Trust and honesty
- For some, after meeting and going long-distance, the issue of trust can come up and what you didn’t question whilst talking online, suddenly becomes an issue now that you’ve met and become an offline couple. It’s important to trust your partner, allow them space and time and remember how you survived online without that being an issue. Is it because you have now met, and your insecurities that you could keep private, are now on the table? That’s your issue to deal with and make peace with. Don’t smother them, and don’t accuse them if you’re being paranoid. They’re struggling with the distance just as much as you are – and you accusing them and mistrusting them isn’t going to help the situation, it’s going to push you further apart. Just talk; be honest about your feelings and discuss like adults. You’ll usually find your concerns are settled after talking them through.
- Goals and plans
- In order to keep focused, it’s so important to have goals for your relationship to work towards. This is usually through plans to meet next, or go away together. Me and my boyfriend, in our first year of long-distance, could only see each other every 3 months. This was so incredibly hard when it came to saying goodbye, because we knew it would be another 12 weeks before we could see each other again. So, as soon as one of us returned, we would check our university schedule, and book a flight literally within hours of returning home. We would take it in turns, so that one person wasn’t doing all the travelling, and would usually make a week-long visit where possible. This meant that we immediately had something to look forward to, and avoided getting sucked into feeling down whilst in limbo between visits.
- Mood & attitude
- I’m not gonna lie, this one was a tough one for me because it was always so hard. But, try to remain happy and positive where possible. I could be a drain on my boyfriend because I would cry on the phone or just be having a bad day and would pile it on him – whilst he was also dealing with those feelings but trying to remain focused. Keep each other going, when one is feeling down, don’t meet them at their level. One of you needs to keep the other motivated.
- Don’t pressure one another
- If there’s just one person who has something going on, such as college or family issues, that’s causing the relationship to be long distance, don’t put pressure on them to make things move faster. I know it’s hard when one of you is ready to go, but for them, they have other things going on and they will know that it is them preventing the next step. They will already be feeling miserable and guilty. But, support them through what they’re going through, give them space or time if they need, and it will come. Just keep those goals in mind, and try to focus on that instead.
- Be happy…
- Remind yourself why you’re doing this. You have met the love of your life and you’re doing this so that you can be together. Be happy you have met somebody that loves and wants to be with you; you’ve hit the jackpot! Everything you’re doing is for your relationship – and it will be worth it in the end, I promise. Nothing makes my heart melt more than to come home to my boyfriend and know those years of waiting and struggling is why we are here now.