A major reason people go online is to find intimacy. At least that’s what psychologist Dr. David Greenfield discovered in a recent survey of over 18,000 people. But can intimacy be found online? It depends on your definition of intimacy.
Some people simply define intimacy as sex. By that definition, there’s plenty of intimacy online, including thousands of Web sites filled with sexual images and stories as well as scores of high-tech virtual sex services. This kind of content can easily lead to sexual stimulation, but can it deliver the dictionary definition of “intimacy”—very close association, warm familiarity? Not at all. Airbrushed models, virtual strippers, and a whole range of online personalities may get close enough to their viewers to get into their wallets—but not to develop a meaningful connection.
Some people think intimacy can be found, however, in the hundreds of sexually-oriented newsgroups and chat rooms. At least in those areas real people interact with each other and often trade communication that is not blatantly sexual. In fact, many newsgroup participants report being able to get close with people in interactive online areas in a way they never could in “real life.” “I’ve found a guy who actually wants to talk about the things I care about,” writes one chat room regular. “Without our relationship having to be based on looks, we are able to go much deeper,” writes another. Indeed, faceless communication on the Internet does allow individuals to bypass a lot of shyness and awkwardness. Wallflowers can become the star of the chat room. Those who are self-conscious about their body image can choose to share the things about themselves with which they are more comfortable.
But that kind of interaction also allows individuals the opportunity to hide all of their weaknesses while exaggerating their strengths. It’s easy for people to feel close with someone who is always able to “put their best foot forward.” We all want to be able to grow close to someone else while being able to also cover up bad things. Regrettably, all close relationships eventually have to address the good and the bad, the joys and the disappointments. Many men and women who leave their spouses for strangers they meet online are disappointed to find that their new relationship doesn’t seem as perfect in “real life” as it did online.
A consistent problem online (as well as offline) is the temptation to allow relational closeness to lead prematurely to sex. Women who go to chat rooms just to find someone to talk to are often overwhelmed with sexual banter. Even when they find someone who doesn’t seem interested in sex, their conversations can eventually become sensual—especially when they are trading deep secrets and strong passions. “Men tend to give intimacy in order to get sex,” says psychologist Dr. James Dobson, “ and women tend to give sex in order to get intimacy.” Internet chat rooms and newsgroups have a way of bringing those tendencies together. A man who only seems interested in discussing the challenges of being a divorced parent of teenagers can soon begin to pry about erotic interests. Furthermore, a woman who has invested in such a relationship and allows it to meet a need for her may decide to respond.
So can an online relationship made up of deep conversation and occasionally punctuated with sexual banter meet the need we all have for intimacy—close association, warm familiarity? Once again, not at all. A relationship that can only be sustained by camouflaging problems and indulging in passionate pleasures is headed for disaster. Eventually we all need someone who can still love us when we are not at our best—when we are sick, unattractive, or have made mistakes.
If we are honest, the intimacy we all want is to be known for who we are—warts and all and still be loved. That intimacy can exist when we are prepared to do the same thing—to discover all the good and bad about someone else and then show them unconditional love. That process may benefit from some online communication but it inevitably requires a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction in the “real world.” In the real world we are able to put everything on the table. We can process non-verbal communication, interpret emotions, and evaluate little habits and routines that may one day grow annoying. Therefore, true intimacy can not be found exclusively online.
Furthermore, the illusions of perfect images and perfect conversations online may make it even more difficult for us to ever experience intimacy with a less-than-perfect person in real life. The lure of fantasy partners can impair our ability to set realistic expectations for our mate and the temptation to cover up flaws through virtual interaction can damage our ability to communicate openly and honestly enough to make a meaningful, long-term connection.
“Life in the real world is far more interesting, far more important, far richer, than anything you’ll ever find on a computer screen,” says Internet pioneer Clifford Stoll. The high jinx of face-to-face relationships may seem too challenging compared to the online world, but at the end of the day, they offer a much greater chance of satisfying and fulfilling intimacy than anything found online.