Online Relationships: Real or Fantasy?

When I “e-meet” someone, that is connect online, I often have strong and immediate feelings that I like them or that I don’t, even though I have never seen them or talked to them in person.  It is not a stretch to see that this feeling of connection can be experienced by many people as an intimate and even sexual attraction.  (I have dealt with the topic of connecting sexually through cybersex vs. real sex in another post.)

The reality basis of online connecting and “she sounded cute on the phone”

Part of the sense of immediately knowing someone from very little actual information has to do with the fact that we as humans may be using our gift for “rapid cognition” as it is described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book  Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Gladwell also uses the term “thin slicing” to describe the phenomenon by which we can sometimes evaluate situations and make decisions almost instantaneously, with a seemingly miniscule amount of information and without actual logical reasoning.

This is a scientific description of what I think of in some situations as “intuition”.  I am reminded of my surprise when first hearing men say things like “she sounded cute on the phone.”  “She sounded cute?”  How does somebody sound cute looking?

Regardless of what we call it, it does seem that we can get a powerful and sometimes fairly accurate idea of what someone is like with limited actual input and without the aid of analytic thought. And this is especially true as people scan for sexual cues.  But surely there is much more that we don’t know that may be crucially important in determining whether they could be a close friend or lover.

However, in connecting online we have come into contact with someone with whom closeness and even intimacy could be a real possibility as opposed to the millions of people we wouldn’t even want to know.  We have used our intuition and our computer tools to give us better odds than we would ever have otherwise.  And of course this is the numbers game that online dating and friendship sites depend on.

The fact that we can connect in real ways online has become a pervasive and important part of life.

The fantasy element in online relating and the bridal veil

As a sex addiction therapist I deal with many people who have fantasy relationships online including sexual chat, hook-ups, cybersex experiences, and finding prostitutes.

Obviously for sex addicts online relationships can be part of a pattern of intimacy avoidance and usually involve splitting off part of the addict’s life that deals with sex, often at the expense of real intimacy with a partner.

But the fantasy element of online relating can enhance the illusion of intimacy for addict and non addict alike.

I think of the experience of online intimacy as having a “value added” element. What we add is our imagination of reality in order to complete the online picture which is always incomplete.  These value added elements appeal to our all-too-human needs.  Here are a few.

  • Intimacy without accountability.  In online relationships we don’t owe each other anything and we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do.  We can just enjoy each other and then walk away from the computer.
  • Perpetual romance.  In an online romance we can idealize the other person and since the fantasy is never contaminated by reality we never have to let go of our ideal.  This allows us to avoid real intimacy and puts in its place a “story” we can concoct about the essence of the relationship—one that fits out best fantasies.
  • Idealizing our self image.  In online relating we can curate and embellish our own image. People can and often do deceive others and indulge in a fantasy of being better looking, more successful, smarter, younger or whatever helps alleviate their insecurities.
  • The excitement of the unknown.  The element of mystery, surprise and sometimes danger involved in the online encounter is powerful fuel which can propel us further into the “relationship” and the excitement can be an end in itself.

Why do some brides still wear veils covering their faces until after they are officially married?  This archaic gesture conveys not only the idea that the bride is pure and untouched, but also serves to prolong until the last possible moment, the fantasy of what physical and sexual intimacy will be like.  In this way veils are a precursor of the mystery and fantasy involved in online encounters.

As with so many things the online relationship can be great or it can become a problem, a substitute for off line relating and even an obsession.  We are still learning how to navigate this new world.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Mistaking Sex for Love: Sex Addiction Symptoms and Relationships

Evaluating people in sexual terms is becoming a more common cultural phenomenon as opposed to just one of the sex addiction symptoms. There are increasingly sexualized imagery appearing across all media.  Cocktail waitresses and centerfolds have always looked sexy, but now our TV news anchor seems to look more and more like a former beauty queen at a singles party. At some point most people can begin to separate love from mere physical lust.  But for sex and love addicts this can be a difficult distinction.  One of the sex addiction symptoms is the avoidance of real intimacy with a partner and the seeking out of an intense “experience” with a fantasy object of some sort. The real relationship in the sex addict’s life, if there is one, is likely to be somewhat alienated, even when there is an apparent feeling of attachment.  This is not universally true of course but often the same addict who says he loves his wife will avidly seek out online encounters with people he barely knows, or build elaborate fantasies around his “relationship” with a sexual masseuse or believe that he will be able to date his favorite stripper.  Many addicts in and out of relationships feel a strong and seemingly delusional pull to connect with people they relate to only sexually and sometimes only in their minds. Sex addiction symptoms and behaviors impact a relationship in that the addict is partly “gone,” and this is what often gives partners and spouses the feeling that something is wrong even when they can’t prove it and the addict denies it. Mistaking sex for love can spread in families Children The culture at large tends to encourage young people to view others (and themselves) increasingly in sexual terms.  Children are exposed to sexually explicit material at younger and younger ages not only in online pornography but also in print media, music videos, movies, TV and gaming.  Hopefully most will grow up to be relatively normal in sexual and relationship terms. What happens to children of sex addicts is that they may be given covert messages about sex that cause confusion.  It does not matter whether the addict is an outwardly puritanical while secretly leading a double life, or whether he is more overtly sexual in his talk and attitudes toward people.  The result is the same for the children.  The message gets through that sex is crucial. In the puritanical message sex is given extreme importance through being seen as too dangerous even to talk openly about. And as Patrick Carnes has pointed out the puritanical façade promotes sexual duplicity as the norm. In the overtly sexual parent there may be much discussion of other people’s looks or sexual attributes or even inappropriate focus on the sexual features or attractiveness of the child or their friends.  This conveys to the growing child or adolescent that they are and will be evaluated and found worthy or not in terms of their sexual appeal. Partners Partners and spouses of sex addicts tend to be lead down the same path in various ways.  If the partner or spouse is a woman she will have experienced the cultural pressure to be sexually “hot” from a very early age.  If a core belief of the addict is that “sex is my most important need” then the woman who is the partner of the addict may internalize the corresponding belief that “sex is the most important sign of love.” Long before discovering the sex addiction, partners of addicts may be conditioned to believe that their value as a woman or spouse is largely in their sexual desirability.   This can be reinforced in many subtle ways by a sex addict. I had a voyeuristic sex and porn addict tell me that he knowingly pointed out attractive men to his wife in order to clear the way for him to fixate on other women.  In this way the addict can normalize his preoccupation with sex both for himself and in his wife’s eyes. Another addict in his 60’s that I worked with fixated on and ogled young girls.  He made frequent comments to his wife about women being old or “long in the tooth,” etc. Sometimes women will begin to be more overt in making sexual comments about other men as a way to restore parity, to get back at the partner, and to defend against her own fear of being sexually evaluated. A word about sexual betrayal Most of the literature on partners of sex addicts emphasizes the fact that of all the sex addiction symptoms the deception, secrecy and breach of trust are seen by partners as the most traumatic aspects of the discovery of betrayal.  But the fact that the betrayal is a seen as a sexual rejection (even if some would say that logically it isn’t) is likely to be experienced as a rejection of the whole relationship. It can and does feel like the end of what is most essential to them and to their bond of love. Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Is “Real” Sex Healthier Than Porn and Cybersex?

Many sex addiction therapists base their thinking on the idea that real or “relational” sex, sex with a real person as opposed to porn, cybersex or masturbation is healthier in some way.  They tend to believe that a preference for non-relational sex is not entirely healthy and that it is often the basis of sexual addiction.

Other clinicians and many people generally feel that it is wrong to place relational sex on a pedestal.

Some think non-relational sex is just as valid a form of sexual expression and feel that the other side is just being moralistic and narrow-minded.  I will look at some of the arguments on either side.

The argument for fantasy sex

  • All sex is about domination fantasies anyway

Experts have argued that all sexual arousal relates in some way to fantasy and that all sexual fantasy has ultimately got something to do with domination and submission.  It doesn’t matter whether you are dominant or submissive, so the argument goes, your arousal relates ultimately to a fantasy involving unequal power.

This argument suggests that there is not so much to choose between the real person and the virtual one if the fantasy content that arouses us sexually is basically the same.

  • All sex can be used for damaging purposes

The pro relational sex folks might argue that relational sex is somehow more humane and less prone to exploitive or criminal behavior.  But the other side would argue that sex with a partner can be just as exploitive and potentially harmful in certain circumstances and that solitary sex such as masturbation to porn or fantasy can be seen as safe and humane.

  • The preference for relational sex is a religious leftover

This argument assumes that if you are not an anything-goes “liberal” then you are a conservative throw-back.  It ignores the fact that there are increasingly arguments coming from the gender justice, humanist and neo-feminist camps that view pornographic fantasies as corrosive on grounds other than traditional ones.  The “liberals” argue that there is nothing wrong with heightening arousal through imagery and fantasies that add an air of mystery or the forbidden and that sexual experimentation is normal and healthy.

The argument for relational sex

  • Deception, secrecy and shame

We don’t blatantly look at pornography in public or engage in cybersex in front of friends and relatives and so there must be something inherently shameful about it.  Although the secrecy may add to the arousal, it can also be construed as promoting a secret life and a splitting off of sexuality from relationships.

Having a secret life is an integral part of sex addiction and so the pro relational sex people might see that what started out as a harmless promoter of fantasy arousal can become a compartmentalized way of life.

  • Cybersex leads to losing track of reality

People who engage in cybersex can present themselves as other than who they really are.  This is based on the problematic belief that no one would want them as they really are.  But this can lead deeper into fantasy life and away from reality.

Sex addicts who engage in behaviors like online relationships, phone sex and even massage parlors and prostitutes can and do become very fantasy ridden about the person they have the make-believe relationship with.  They can become semi-delusional about what is really going on in the “relationship.”

  • Relational sex is more gender equal

A recent article reported that sex in an onging relationship provided more equal satisfaction to both partners in terms of such things as orgasm and equal amounts of giving and receiving of oral sex when compared to having sex with someone you were not dating or just met.

Another line of argument says that sex outside of a real relationship with another person is sexual objectification.  And a host of ill effects of sexual objectification  are talked about; everything from eating disorders to an increase in cosmetic surgery among teens.  See any of the excellent work by professor Robert Jensen like “Pornography is What the End of the World Looks Like.”

There is no question that there are major changes going on in the realm of real and virtual relating as well as changes in the way relationships are established and conducted.  My own feeling is that we are in a period of great turmoil and confusion about where it will all end up.  This in turn breeds overblown fear and polarized attitudes.  But real connecting with another person is a huge part of what makes us human, and I for one believe it’s here to stay.   Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource