Last week, college football player Manti Te’o’s revelations that he was duped by a “catfish” scam made big headlines. A painful online hoax had him falling head-over-heels for a digital girlfriend who turned out to be a man with complicated webs of fake online identities.
While Manti’s case is extreme — it went on for years with him never meeting his “girlfriend” — it’s not uncommon for people to fall in love online and believe the feelings they have are true love.
In fact, business owners have capitalized on the idea of fake online relationships and launched sites, like CloudGirlfriend.com, where the girl of your dreams will post loving messages on your Facebook wall for all to see. She’ll even hit you up on Twitter, too.
The urge to bond
So what’s behind this relationship trend? Cloud relationships have psychological, sociological and even biological underpinnings, and understanding them can prevent you from falling into one.
First of all, human beings are wired to bond. We are social creatures and our evolution was dependent on creating secure bonds, healthy families and intricate give-and-take social networks. But back when we were hunter/gatherers, we lived in a small moving group of 20-40, and when we came upon a new hunter carrying sweet smelling new genes, we sat up and took notice. That was before technology brought a new sexual opportunity with every click of the mouse. Today’s crowded online world makes us very susceptible to fake love because we are wired to connect.
Secondly, technology has helped us fall in love with our own projections. When two people first begin dating, if they are sexually attracted, they project upon that other person the ideal of a perfect boyfriend or girlfriend. As they spend more time together and the sexual hormones subside, they begin to see the flaws in the other. At this point, if a healthy bond has been created, they integrate their ideal with the reality of the other person and make an intellectual commitment to participate in the relationship.
But something else is happening today not created by technology and that is that we, as a culture, are becoming more emotionally avoidant. We are losing important relationship skills like empathy and conflict resolution and we are becoming less tolerant of intimate emotions. Social researchers think this kind of emotional avoidance is linked to how mobile our workforce has become. As a child, we attend numerous schools, we move across country because of a parental divorce or job chase, and rather than learning to have long-term friendships, we mostly learn how to say goodbye. This makes us a little rusty when it comes to relationship skills.
Let’s talk about sex
Finally, we have begun to separate sex from emotions all in the name of sexual freedom. We tend to compartmentalize pieces of relationships — sex with one, intellectual stimulation with another, friendship with another.
A “cloud” boyfriend or girlfriend is the culmination of all these factors. We desire to bond and are alert to sexual opportunity on the internet. We get to know the other person through an online exchange based solely on our own projections. It feels so real because we are being teased by comments that come back our way. We read into those emails anything we want. We may be fearful of true emotional intimacy so we are in no hurry to meet in the real world.
Besides the obvious downside that we could become victims of a scam, the other danger of cloud boyfriends, whether they be Facebook friends, email buddies or Twitter followers, is that this false emotional relationship keeps us from finding real love — the messy kind with real world conflicts and spectacular sexual highs. Online, flirtatious relationships satisfy part of ourselves but do not provide real emotional fuel. They are like junk food — calories without nutrition. And the only thing they train us for are other false relationships.