Managing Virtual and Face-to-Face Relationships

• It would seem that there is a fundamental human urge to connect and relate to others – although that may be expressed in a multiplicity of ways. Each person will have their own definition of intimacy, closeness, love, relationship, connection, friendship – and what is necessary for them to remain comfortable and relaxed within their different relationships.
• How we relate to one another as adults is affected by our reactions to the combination of our family histories, our friendships, our school experiences, our romantic liaisons, our work colleagues. But connect to others we do. It is an expression of our need to be known and belong, to be recognised and heard, to be attached, to be seen as special.
• This seems to be indicated by the growth of Social Networks – whether Facebook (with billions of members), Twitter, Linkedin – where we count the number of ‘friends’, ‘followers’, or ‘contacts’ and get a sense of affirmation and validation that we matter.
• But how does a development of online relationships, and an absorption with our screens, impact on our face-to-face relationships? Is our understanding of what is a ‘friend’ changing? We can feel challenged and frustrated when we are faced with the complexities and flaws of the ‘whole’ person in reality. We can escape into online relationships, which are often ‘part’ relationships, with fantasy filling in the bits that are unknown. The ‘perfect’ person seems tantalisingly within reach. On dating websites there is always someone else to choose, with the click of a mouse, as we chase the elusive perfect match.
• There can be a danger of developing a powerful emotional connection with someone we message online but whom we have never met. The difficulty lies in the fact that we do not have to accommodate their foibles, idiosyncrasies, mood changes and we can role-play in return. There can be a frisson of excitement that transcends the mundanity of ordinary life. We can become addicted to the escapism offered by the virtual world. Do we use social media to avoid tackling a problem in our ‘real’ relationships?
• Does confiding in an online friend matter if we are in a close couple relationship? If the messaging becomes sexual will it be experienced as a betrayal and viewed as an affair? Are boundaries broken if photographs and images are exchanged? Aaron Balick describes it as one of the partners going ‘missing in action’. If things are serious it may be time to seek counselling and explore what is happening in the dynamics of the relationship.
• Recognising it can be compulsive, it may be that consciously monitoring our use of tablets and smartphones will be enough. We may need to discipline ourselves to switch off during mealtimes, sitting on the sofa, at bedtime, and talk face-to-face and touch skin-to-skin!

Kathy Rees

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