Understanding Online Relationships
There's no question that more and more of us are spending huge portions of our time online and 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:
- (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.
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?
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.
Just some person out there on July 18, 2019:
While I do enjoy psychology, and I will apply a lot of this to my current online relationship, I feel like this article is very critical in terms of what is actually good about an online relationship. I know the author mentions this, I’m simply restating.
I think, in terms of good things about an online relationship, (which I have been in many, though I’m not exactly proud of that) the best part is that you are so far away. It forces you to have a lot of faith in the other person, hopes and dreams are built on the fantasy of it working out. That can be a really beautiful thing if it is carried out in a healthy manner. It makes the experience almost...what’s the word for it...desirable? Basically the longer you stay without that person, the more you want them. That means that when you do finally meet you will be a lot happier then someone who sees that person everyday. It makes that person more special, it makes them worth the wait, the money, and the hours you spend on the phone talking all worth it.
It’s honestly been bad and good for me, it seems silly I know, but it has made me a better person and I’m a lot less naive than I was before I began online dating.
I think in life, you get what you put in.
And online relationships are the hardest relationships of all. So after giving so much, you’re bound to have a much more satisfying love than one with a “real” person.
In any case, you know what they say...
Distance makes the heart grow fonder.
broken99 on April 20, 2019:
Thank you. This helped a lot. I feel like after experiencing an online relationship, that you can still feel the pain of an actual break up. No one ever admits it. Its basically world where u can say what u want without consequences. So at any point you or them can walk away.
In my situation though I got cat-fished like (im not ashamed of it, we are all human and needy). It wasn't the glitz and glamour that got me. It was the fact that someone was there for me.
If they start playing games (despite the 'high' they may put u on) like flirting or u get this feeling that you are "replaceable". Pain aside, you have to accept you were only meant to help each other for a time. For example in irl, i have friend i discuss computers with, a friend i discuss finance with. The onliner/real-lifer (it can happen irl too) you might get called fake because u pop up at a certain time, but u know by this point they are moving on as well. It should be mutually understood at this point (remember they gave u permission to move on when u became 'replaceable'). Let them know you are handling matters as u usually do.
Anyway i hope this helps
Thomas42 on November 07, 2017:
Online dating was a useless waste of time for me. Sending out messages to never get a reply. Reading profiles , writing profiles, scammers, fakes and old accounts left to make it look like there were more available women.
GoTBuff on September 22, 2017:
I just went through a very horrible breakup with an online friend- a friendship I got very invested in. And your article makes total sense. I traveled to meet this friend in person 2-3 times but that brief in person meeting does not give you a true sense of the person's nature. That can only come when you engage in shared activities over a period of time in person. I felt like we both created a perception of each other based on what we revealed to each other online, the meeting kinda reinforced those perceptions but as soon as circumstances changed and problems arose the friendship fell apart very quickly . So while I think internet may be fine to discuss common interests with ppl - it is not wise to get invested in those friendships. It takes a lot of commitment and communication for any friendship and online is more like a fling than a long term commitment. As they say you never really know someone unless you live with them, something very similar holds true for friendships. I now pass time on the internet but have no desire or expectations of friendships via this medium
Cheryl on December 28, 2016:
Carl Junior on July 05, 2013:
I am now better equipped for an online relationship :P . Thanks for sharing, really informative.
Writer Fox from the wadi near the little river on May 21, 2013:
There's a cartoon that appeared in 'The New Yorker' magazine in 1993. It had a picture of a dog sitting at a computer with this caption:
"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
I think that aptly sums up Internet dating sites.
Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on August 05, 2012:
This is a good read Susana S. I will have to come back and read a bit slower for absorbation. Having an online relationship now and having each of traversing learning of each other I agree a lot of what you shared. Although I accept it can be quantified as a generality from the big picture perspective, once the wide angle lens is set aside nuances of personality can be recognized within the written word.
I may comment further after reading again once home. Thank you for this insightful article on relationships on the internet dating or otherwise.
Sandra Busby from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA on August 05, 2012:
Very nice article about online relating. Voted up and shared.
Venugopaal from India on August 05, 2012:
It is a real and interesting hub, which all internet users must have a read. We are not aware of the person otherwise and just starting relationship. The dark side is more strong than the advantages. So be careful before starting a relationship online. Best wishes.
Mahaveer Sanglikar from Pune, India on August 05, 2012:
Great Hub, thank you for sharing.
ME on March 22, 2012:
U R THE BEST
opaqueeyes on December 26, 2011:
Very interesting Hub , when talking to someone on the internet you never truly know their telling the truth or their making up a whole other person because they have no consequences unless it (selling people,trafficking or children)
I like that people can connect to one another on the internet because you meet people all around the world stay connected to family far away.
But I don't like the idea of having an online relationship based on all the risks.
Luna on November 23, 2011:
Your information has really helped me realised more of what I was already thinking about the worries of having an internet relationship, I have online friendships so to speak, (I'm a young adult and I do have online communities ;) and I am a little bit apprehensive of having them online and I have a hard time interpreting certain things, its because i have a mind for details and interet things and I continually analyze think too much about certain things in real life, (I do love stories). Anyways you have made certain worries clear (not in a bad way but in a good and positive way too). I now feel i fully know what I'm letting my self into but to also stay alert, reading your article, was sort of like getting advice so am happy about that. . i love psychology, I'm a bit happy now, my doubts have been cleared.
Chris on October 10, 2011:
This was helpful n fun. People act different in person that online, like they're afraid of being them self in the real worl.
Susana Smith (author) from UK on November 12, 2010:
Hi pmccray - online dating is a great way to find a mate, but having been stung badly in the past it got me thinking about the mechanics of what went wrong from a psychological perspective and a lot of it is expressed here. I love the internet, but online relationships can be tricky!
Many thanks for the ratings and share :)
pmccray from Utah on November 11, 2010:
You know if I were not already in a relationship I would definitely use online dating. I think it gives people a more convenient way of thinning the herd so to speak. But there is a dark side.
It amazes me how many people use the internet to disguise themselves, but many are unhappy with there lives. Excellent piece, well researched, marked useful, awesome and shared.
Hello, hello, from London, UK on November 02, 2010:
A very interesting point of view you have put across here.