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Do You Understand the Psychology of Online Relationships?

Susana has a background in Psychology and Counseling and a special interest in online relationships.

This article will break down the psychology of online relationships.

This article will break down the psychology of online relationships.

Understanding Online Relationships

There's no question that more and more of us are spending huge portions of our time online. Being the social creatures that we are, we naturally develop online relationships in much the same way as we would offline.

We may have gone out purposely to find the love of our lives on an online dating or chat website, or maybe we have developed a social network of friends quite by chance through our online interactions. Whatever we are doing online and our reasons for doing it, it is inevitable that we will encounter difficulties, as well as positives in our online relationships.

For anyone that has spent time online it becomes apparent that our online relationships can be sublime and they can also be very tricky. But why?

What kinds of differences can we see between relationships that are based purely in the online world in comparison to our relationships based mainly in the offline world? What types of online psychological behavior do we exhibit, and what does that tell us about our online relationships?

The Psychology of Internet Relationships

Many of the dynamics we see in our online relationships can be explained very well by traditional psychological theory. So explained in laymans terms, let's take a look at some of these aspects to help us understand our online relationships better and survive them intact.

  • The Role of Perception in Online Relationships
  • What's Missing Online?
  • Perception and Reality
  • The Role of Defense Mechanisms in Online Relationships
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Relationships

As well as some answers, you'll also see a lot of questions being posed here since there is still a great deal that is unanswered in terms of how the internet challenges our understanding of human interaction and how it affects our online relationships.

The Role of Perception in Online Relationships

Here's one definition of perception to think about, especially in relation to online relationships, online dating and perception:

"Perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of sensory information."

So perception is about sorting and processing the information that we receive through our 5 senses:

  • Touch
  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • (We can also insert a 6th sense if we want to: intuition.)

Can you see an immediate problem that we may encounter with our online relationships as opposed to our offline ones? Unlike the offline world where we use all 5 senses to gain information, when online we can only primarily use one sense to gain information with: sight. We are also very limited in our use of our sense of sight, because we can't benefit from the normal cues we pick up through non-verbal communication. We can see words that are typed, we can see someones avatar if they choose to post one and we can watch video or see someone through a webcam.

If using a webcam or video we can also use our sense of hearing, but the majority of online communication is through words on a screen. We can't pick up each others pheromones, we can't communicate via our eyes, we can't communicate via gestures, intonation or tone of voice, we don't know how it feels to hug that person or give them a squeeze of the hand.

What's Missing Online? Sensory Information and Body Language

So clearly most of our perceptual equipment cannot be utilized in our online relationships. Consequently, we miss out on huge chunks of information about other people that we would normally have. Various studies have been carried out to explore how much of our communication is verbal as opposed to non verbal. The percentage splits have been different, but what is not disputed is that non verbal communication is a very important aspect of communication and the development of human relationships.

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The major disadvantage of online relationships and communication is that there is no body language to read. One study shows that 93% of communication is through non verbal means (including body language) and only 7% down to verbal communication. So online, we're stuck with having to try to do all of our communicating (both listening and speaking) with 7% of the tools we would normally use. This is a bit like trying to fix a car with only a hammer and one socket wrench! How effective can our online relationships really be with such a limited amount of tools at our disposal?

Eye Contact and Touch Are So Important When Building Relationships

Eye Contact and Touch Are So Important When Building Relationships

Perception and Reality: What Is Real Anyway?

Even in the real world our perceptual equipment is far from perfect. Just look at the static image on the right. It looks like it's moving, but it's not—the way the image has been designed tricks our eyes into seeing movement when there's none.

When thinking about our online relationships and how "real" they are, we need to ask ourselves how much we trust the very limited perceptual information we have to go on. Who's in front of the screen and who's behind it? Do we really know or has our perceptual equipment given us false information?

Who are you on the internet? Are you "you"? Do you show all aspects of your character and personality or just parts of yourself? Even if you feel you show all of yourself, do others interpret what you present in the way you'd like them to or are there many misunderstandings about what you "mean" and "who you are"?

Who are the people that we "talk" to online? What can we really glean about someone from what they type?

Who is looking back at you from your computer screen? Is it the person you are talking to or simply an aspect of yourself that's being reflected back at you? How can we tell the difference?

The Role of Defense Mechanisms in Online Relationships

To attempt to answer some of these questions let's have a look at some common issues in online relationships and the types of psychological behaviors and processes we use in our web based relationships with others. In particular, I want to look at psychological defense mechanisms. We all have our favorite defense mechanisms that we use both on and offline, but from my experience the following ones are the defenses that we are most likely to use online. Notice that I include myself in this! Even after studying psychology, sociology and counseling for many years I'm certainly not immune to using defense mechanisms—I may just be slightly more aware when I have used one.


Simply put, projection is placing our unacceptable emotions onto someone else. The emotions, thoughts, or beliefs we project onto others tend to be ones that we deny we possess. Projection is slippery and can be very hard to see in ourselves unless we look really hard and are willing to be very honest with ourselves!

An example of projection would be denying to ourselves that we are attracted to someone outside of our relationship and then accusing our partner of being attracted to someone else. We see others carrying out the behavior instead of ourselves. The faceless world of the web enables us to project our stuff onto others far more easily than in the real world and to "get away with it" more often, since there's rarely any challenge or consequence.

Idealization and Devaluation (Splitting)

In simple terms idealization and devaluation means having a strong tendency to see things (and people) in black and white terms—as either all good or all bad. When idealizing someone, we are unable to see them as a whole person with both positive and negative qualities. We only see the good parts. The opposite is true for devaluation—we only see the bad qualities that someone possesses even though in reality we all possess a mixture of both good and bad qualities.

In "splitting", we might feel that we are intrinsically bad and others are intrinsically good or the other way round. This will express itself as someone "putting you on a pedestal" while constantly depreciating themselves. In the reverse it will be expressed as having someone constantly give the impression of "looking down on you" and criticizing your every word—they feel that they are "good" and you are "bad".

In the world of the internet it can be hard to challenge these kinds of interactions, since people often present themselves to us as "all good". Offline we'll soon find out if someone is as good as they present—we can see if their body language and actions match their words over time. In our online relationships we don't have this ability, unless that person chooses to reveal their negative characteristics, they can easily hide them from our awareness from behind their computer screen.


Displacement is easy to explain and I'm sure you'll be able to recognize this defense mechanism quickly. Ever have a bad day at work and then find yourself shouting at the kids when you get home? This is displacement.

Instead of being angry with whoever or whatever upset us at work, we displace it onto something or someone else, allowing us to discharge some of the emotion. This happens a great deal in the online world. Just look into any forum to see how people let their emotions out on other forum members for the smallest things!

Displacement can also occur with positive emotions. For instance someone who finds it difficult to be open and honest in their relationships in the "real world", may find they can displace their loving feelings onto their online friends.


There are many types of cognitive distortions which are all basically exaggerated thoughts or thinking styles. Here are a few distortions and some common online examples to go with them:

Jumping to Conclusions

"Such and such person ignored my comment on their article, therefore they don't like me."


"All Indian bloggers are scammers."


"Google has rejected my adsense application because they don't like my writing style."

Emotional Reasoning

"I feel that God exists therefore he must do."


A positive defence mechanism that being on the web often enhances, is sublimation. Sublimation is when we take our angst and difficult emotions and do something positive with them, such as write poetry, blog our worries away, create art or video or helping others through writing articles about difficulties we have overcome.

Summing Up Defense Mechanisms

The above are just a few examples of defence mechanisms that we all use in both our offline and online relationships, but it seems to me that the online world actually magnifies many of the defense mechanisms because unlike the real world, there are very few consequences for these behaviors and they mainly go unchallenged. Maybe we don't challenge as much as we might do offline, because there often is such confusion about which feelings, thoughts and beliefs belong to whom?

Whatever we think about our relationship experiences online, one thing is true—the emotions and reactions we experience in relation to online exchanges are ours and no-one elses. If we look honestly at what we're getting back from the screen, we can see that a great deal of it is a reflection of ourselves. What this means is that the problems that arise in our online communications are an extremely good pointer to our own difficulties, anxieties and distorted thinking patterns.

The Positives & Negatives of Online Relationships

Anyone that's spent more than a little time online will probably have had both positive and negative experiences of online relationships. While the internet can certainly be liberating, allowing us to connect freely to a wider range of people and giving us the opportunity to give and receive information faster than ever before, it certainly has it's disadvantages as well as it's advantages when it comes to human relationships. The following are some examples I came up with—you may have more.

Some Advantages of Online Relationships

  • We can meet people we would never have had the chance to connect with before.
  • We can test out different ways of communicating e.g. allowing ourselves to be more open, allowing ourselves to be angry etc. There are fewer consequences to our behavior and so we can take more risks.
  • If we lack confidence, get tongue tied or have a stutter it's not going to be obvious online and therefore being online might aid confidence.
  • We feel like we can be who we want to be and escape from roles imposed on us in the outside world.
  • We can think more clearly about our thoughts and ideas, since we have to write them down.
  • We can edit what we say a lot more readily by hitting delete.
  • If we are good at writing, we might actually be able to communicate ourselves better in the online world.

Some Disadvantages of Online Relationships

  • We often don't make the effort to "check things out" properly. For instance if we're having difficulty with someone in the work place we may check out if they are having a personal problem which is impacting on their behavior. People online rarely do this—why bother when there are a billion other people you can talk to instead?
  • We may be a very physically expressive person and use gestures, eye contact and touch to express ourselves—this isn't an available option on the internet. Use of symbols and smilies can help convey our message somewhat, but it really isn't the same as a genuine smile or seeing someone genuinely upset.
  • We can be lied to and manipulated very easily—there are no physical cues to alert us.
  • There is a huge potential for misinterpretation of what people are saying and what people "mean" when they type.
  • Many people are better at expressing themselves verbally than through the written word and so are at a disadvantage online.


Reading back over this article I can see it may be coming across as quite negative, (that's my perception—I may be wrong!) but that wasn't my aim at all. My aim in writing this was to help us all develop our awareness and understanding of the kinds of psychological hazards that we can experience in our online relationships, and through this awareness, either have a chance of averting problems before they arise or be able to see them for what they are afterwards.

Here are my original questions and some brief answers:

How is our online perception different to, or the same as, "real world" perception? We use the same perceptual equipment both online and offline, but online we are extremely limited in which perceptual abilities we can utilize.

What types of psychological behavior do we exhibit in our online relationships? The same as the real world, but our behavior may be more concentrated online and there are far fewer consequences for it.

And what kinds of differences can we see between relationships that are based purely in the online world in comparison to our relationships based mainly in the offline world? There seems to be a lot more room for confusion in the online world and because we can only show parts of ourselves and others can only see a part of the part that we show, the internet has the potential to turn us into caricatures of ourselves.

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