Can an online relationship be successful?
There is the general perception that online relationships rarely move to offline face to face, real life communication. Although research on this issue has yielded mixed results, it seems that many people who meet online do transition later on to the physical world.
Besides resorting to online dating sites, we can also find a partner through other virtual environments, such as forums, discussion groups, listserv, newsgroups, chatrooms, and so forth. The question is: can online relationships be successful? “Successful” means, in this context, that a romantic relationship evolves and lasts. This is a particularly interesting question for adults as they grown into their 40s, 50s and older.
Andrea Baker, a sociology professor at Ohio University, conducted a series of interviews with sixty-eight couples, or 136 respondents who have met on the Internet and whose relationship progressed to form a more intimate offline partnership. The couples’ ages ranged from the 20’s to the 50’s.
According to these personal experiences, Baker concluded that there were four critical factors that play a role in the success of a relationship that starts in the virtual world and migrates to the physical world: the Where, What, When and How of online relationships. Let’s take a look of these four aspects.
- The Where: The meeting place
The place, space or location in the virtual environment where the two people meet is a critical element in the relationship. People can meet in places where they share common interests and hobbies, such as chatrooms, bulletin boards or forums for specific topics or activities.
Joanie and Sam met on an occupational newsgroup. She posted a message asking for advice about enrolling in a law enforcement program. She immediately got a response from Sam, a law enforcement officer. They started exchanging emails from then on.
Jeff and Annette, in their late forties and early fifties at the time, got in contact in a more general online forum. Jeff was interested in the writing and word games parts of the bulletin board, whereas Annette was more into the relationship group. Both connected through their mutual interest in poetry.
- What obstacles the members of the couple overcame to be together
One of the main problems of meeting online is the physical distance between the two people. The most likely is that each person lives far from the other, so sacrifices (time, financial resources, and so forth) have to be made to keep the relationship working.
A decisive factor in the success of the relationship is deciding who is going to travel to visit the other, and who will be, at some point, willing to move if the relationship becomes long-term. Obligations with work and children hinder the chances of forming long-distance, long-lasting, successful relationships. To be together, people have to travel to different parts of the country or they may even have to leave their home country. The reward of living a fulfilling life with a true love motivates many of us to explore new settings and different cultures.
- When people meet: How long they communicate online and delay initiation of sexual intimacy.
According to Bakers’ interviewers, the more the two people got to know each other online, the better chances of maintaining a long-term relationship. Keeping the interaction on the text-only level deepens the communication between the two people. Couples are able to share likes and dislikes, emotional and life experiences, personal traits and lifestyle preferences, which sets the ground for building compatibility and mutual understanding. Actually, an experimental study conducted by Adam N. Joinson in 2001 showed that people who communicate only by text disclose four times more information than when using webcams or when talking in person.
Cybersex before meeting in person, on the other hand, seems to be counterproductive. Those couples, according to Baker, that put off sex until they met face to face lasted longer than those who practice cybersex early on in the relationship. Therefore, Baker concludes: “saving intimacy for in-person meeting and beyond seems a more workable strategy for long-term liasons than sharing sexual preferences and scenarios”.
The couples interviewed by Baker recommended not to join online communities seeking lovers or romantic partners, but rather to find people with common interests who one can relate and communicate in meaningful and enriching ways. Most of the successful couples in Bakers’ study developed their interaction at the friendship level before they met face to face. In general, it took months for people to build a connection online that led to an encounter in the real life.
- How people interact
In contrast to the offline world, people communicating and "dating" online have the chance to explain themselves better, with more planning ahead and more time to reflect on what the other person is feeling and how he or she is behaving. When problems of communication, conflicts of goals, or misunderstandings arise, the online environment makes them appear more evident and clearer than in the face to face interaction. Developing skills to solve communication problems pays off in the online world, and improves the chances of a successful transition to a loving relationship in the offline world.
What all these findings reveal is that when people meet online, the basis for a long-lasting relationship is not the looks nor the physical attraction, but the shared thoughts and emotions that bind people together. Perhaps, as Baker suggests, “more durable relationships may result from the focus upon non-physical factors”.
Baker, A. (2002). What makes an online relationship successful? CyberPsychology and Behavior, 5(4), 363-375.
Joinson, A.N. (2001). Self-disclosure in computer-mediated communication: The role of self-awareness and visual anonymity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31 (2), 177–192.