Even twenty years ago it was hard to imagine that people from the basements of their houses would be able to connect with hundreds, thousands even millions of people all over the world through their magical internet connections. There is no doubt that the internet has revolutionized how we communicate with the rest of the world. It has taken the role that newspapers, radios and televisions used to play and pushed it a step further. Internet encounters are living proof that we have become a part of a global village as the internet transcends provincial, national and international borders and boundaries.
Being a practicing psychotherapist I have met many men and women who have been suffering because of the consequences of hurtful internet affairs and sexual abuse and I have been trying to help them deal with and heal from the emotional pain caused by such interactions. When I review all the personal and professional encounters with internet relationships and try to understand the psychology of such relationships, I strongly feel that such relationships can be divided in five distinct groups. There can be others that are a combination of those five groups. We can see them on a spectrum from healthy and enjoyable to unhealthy and painful.
Internet friendships are the healthiest. In such relationships those men and women connect who cannot meet each other physically because of geographical distances. Such men and women share common interests, hobbies and passions. As time passes their relationships evolve and they become part of a creative network that not only support and inspire but also challenge each other in a constructive way.
Internet dating is a mixed blessing. It provides an opportunity to those shy or socially isolated men and women who cannot meet their partners in real life. Different internet dating services arrange blind dates. While some people find a suitable mate there are many who feel quite frustrated with the process. Some also lose thousands of dollars as some agencies charge large fees to provide such services.
Internet relationships enter a slippery slope when one or both parties are emotionally needy and desperate. In the beginning the relationship provides a lot of support and fills the emotional vacuum but over a period of time one party becomes more and more demanding and the other party with all the good intentions cannot keep up with the need. It is not uncommon for the needy person to project their unfulfilled desires and dreams and get involved in an emotional affair. This is quite tricky if one or both parties are involved in monogamous and committed relationships as their partners can perceive such relationships as affairs and feel jealous. I have met many such couples in my practice in which one spouse insisted it was just friendship while the other spouse insisted it was an affair and it was difficult to change their individual perspectives.
Internet extra-marital affairs
In these internet relationships unhappy and distressed spouses choose to have extra-marital affairs or those men and women who do not believe in monogamous relationships choose to meet other available men and women. In such cases it is not uncommon for them to arrange to meet each other for romantic and sexual affairs. I met a few cases in which the affairs became more significant than the marriages and spouses divorced each other marrying the person they met on the internet. It is not uncommon for the faithful spouse to feel angry, hurt and betrayed. I was involved in many discussions where one spouse defined an affair in sexual terms while the other defined it in emotional terms and felt that secret relationships were affairs.
These relationships are most unhealthy and painful. It is not uncommon for some men and women to conceal their identity and present themselves of different gender, age or marital status and have an affair based on a series of lies. The other party continues the internet relationships in innocence and then sooner or later finds out the reality. In many case the person is traumatized and in some cases has a breakdown. I know a young woman who was so obsessed with an older writer that she took three female and two male identities pretending to write from different countries of the world to interact with him. I met a number of young girls who thought they were interacting with other teenagers and later on found out that they were interacting with adults. Many parents are genuinely concerned, as they do not want their innocent children to be the victims of sexual abuse. In some communities police is getting involved to protect children from such internet abuse.
As a student of human psychology I feel that the mystery of internet relationships stimulates people’s imagination and they start the relationships where reality merges with fantasy. If both parties are pursuing the dialogue with good conscience then it enriches the relationship but if one or both parties are emotionally desperate or delinquent and interact with bad conscience then the chances of emotional hurt and pain is more.
Internet relationships can also be affected by the rapidity of the exchange. In many internet dialogues and interactions it is not uncommon for strangers to have multiple heated and emotionally charged exchanges in a short time. It is amazing to see how such exchanges can bring out the best and the worst in people and when the dark side starts to surface then people are vulnerable to be emotionally bruised and friendships are vulnerable to suffer temporarily or permanently. Some socially conscious websites make sure that their members are not abused by other members and have high ethical standards and independent and powerful mediators..
There are a number of psychotherapists who are seriously exploring the possibility of internet psychotherapy. But the practice is in its infancy and genuine therapists are concerned, as they do not want to make the lives of their clients worse if not better. Internet psychotherapy also compromises the confidentiality of patients, as therapists do not know who is reading their letters. They are aware that the discipline of psychotherapy is so delicate that internet exchange can be misunderstood and misinterpreted by patients. On the other hand internet can provide an opportunity for those patients to get therapy who could not get help by walking into a therapist’s house because of their shy personality or geographical distance. It seems as if internet relationships are a blessing as well as a curse. Internet like any other medium is as useful or hurtful as the people who use it. It is a privilege but it also comes with certain responsibilities.
Whether as friends, lovers or therapists those people who respect the power of words and feelings of other human beings benefit a lot from it. On the other hand it can be a dangerous tool in the hands of frustrated, angry and bitter people. Since internet is new to us we are not fully aware of its impact on human psychology. I am optimistic that as we become more experienced as internet users we would be able to increase its usefulness and decrease its abuse. Internet relationships are a new chapter in human evolution and are gradually developing its own dynamics and identity. As such relationships grow we hope we become wiser and enrich our personal, romantic and professional lives and points of view.
Syed Mohammad Masoom Abidi