by John Suler, Ph.D.

Often there are several stages in the development of an e-mail relationship. First, the people must come in contact with each other. That may seem like a serendipitous or uneventful occurrence -- they just "happened" to run into each other on the internet, or that first round of e-mail involved some "simple" request for information. But often there is more going on below the surface. Although, theoretically, people can connect with everyone else on the internet, they don't. They establish ongoing relationships with only a handful of people. Consciously -- and often unconsciously -- we filter through the hundreds and thousands of names that scroll down our monitor and select out those people that have similar interests to ours, those that address our psychological and emotional needs... those that fit our transference dynamics. When reflecting on one of your ongoing e-mail relationships, it's interesting to open your archive and look up those first few messages that were exchanged. Exactly when and where did you meet? Exactly what was said? Those first few messages can reveal the needs and emotional dynamics that sparked the relationship.

As in all relationships, the momentum begins with those sparked dynamics and evolves from there. The people gradually reveal more about themselves to each other, which adds more layers of complexity onto the core dynamics that drew them together. The lack of face-to-face cues encourages them to discuss thoughts and feelings that they otherwise might not reveal -- which helps solidify the bond between them. But filling in for that lack of face-to-face cues also deepens the relationship. Describing how one looks, for example, is a powerful way of saying, "I want you to see the real me." The same principle holds true for disclosing facts about your in-person life. Because cyberspace easily can be a world isolated from one's "real" life -- a world where you can remain anonymous or take on an imaginative identity -- revealing your ACTUAL identity is taken as a sign of intimacy and commitment. The more people start to share that kind of real-world information in their e-mail, the more the relationship is deepening.

The developmental path in e-mail relationships is one that leads towards becoming more and more real to the other person. For the relationship to move beyond a certain point, the couple will want and need to have more real-time and face-to-face contact. They might try meeting in online chat, which can make the other person's "presence" seem more powerful and thereby enhance the feeling of actually "being together" in real time. It also tests each other's commitment to the relationship, because you both have to be there at a specific time. If they have the technical skills, they might try communicating with video or audio streaming. They might attach pictures of themselves to their e-mail. An even bigger move forward is to step outside the sometimes invisible psychological boundary that "we are ONLINE friends". You break the cyberspace barrier by sending letters, photos, and gifts via postal mail... or telephone the other person... or you take the final, inevitable step of actually meeting your friend in-person.

Each of these moves towards becoming more real to the e-mail partner is a significant turning point in the relationship. The thoughts and feelings that are discussed during and after each of these more intimate contacts builds new dimensions to the relationship. This is especially true of taking that big step forward by meeting your e-mail companion in-person. Both of you are taking that decisive step OUT of cyberspace and into the face-to-face encounter. It can be a bit anxiety-provoking. Will he be what I've imagined him to be? What will she think of me? Why did we decide to meet each other NOW in the relationship? What are we both expecting from the rendezvous? All of these are important questions.

Some experienced online people feel they can suspend any expectations about what others will actually be like when they meet in-person. They claim that they are rarely surprised by that real world encounter. Others say that got to know someone so well through e-mail that meeting in person seemed very smooth and natural. In many cases, however, finally standing toe to toe with the other person can be a real eye-opener. The companion is not exactly what you expected. They look or talk differently than you had imagined. Some aspect of their personality is very different than you had imagined. Due to the lack of f2f cues, people do not act the same in e-mail as they do in-person -- and that difference may be striking when you meet. On the other hand, the contrast in how they appear on and offline may be the result of the false impression you had formed of them.

Standing toe to toe, you have the opportunity to test out the image of your companion that you had created in your mind. While conversing via e-mail, how did you accurately perceive this person? And where did your perceptions go astray? By answering those questions, you may come to understand how your own mind set shaped the image you had formed. You may have wanted or needed the person to be a certain way. Steered by your past intimate relationships, you may have EXPECTED them to be a certain way. Or you may have completely overlooked something in the e-mail that couldn't be ignored in the f2f encounter. Stated in a nutshell, meeting the person gives you the opportunity to understand and work through your transference reactions.

Meeting in-person often will deepen the relationship. Afterwards the couple discuss, assimilate, reminisce, and cherish the encounter. They build on it. They share the ways in which the meeting confirmed and altered their perceptions of each other. As such, ideally, they help each other understand and work through their transference reactions. But the in-person meeting doesn't always enhance the relationship. People may be disappointed after the meeting. The companion was not what they had hoped for. This unfortunate outcome may indicate that transference wishes were strong but off target.

Some e-mail companions may not have the opportunity to meet each other. In some cases, the relationship still thrives -- though there may be periods when the conversation dwindles. In other cases, the e-mail contact fades away for good. A face-to-face meeting may have been needed to energize the relationship, or perhaps it was inevitable that the relationship would evaporate.

Some people choose NOT to phone or meet in-person their e-mail companion, even though such meetings could be arranged. They prefer to limit the relationship to cyberspace. Perhaps they fear that their expectations and hopes will be dashed, or they feel more safe and comfortable with the relative anonymity of e-mail contact. They may be relishing the online fantasy they have created for themselves. Or they simply enjoy the e-mail relationship as it is and have no desire the develop the relationship any further. In all cases, choosing not to increase face-to-face contact with the e-mail partner is a choice not to make the relationship more intimate, well-rounded, or reality-based.


John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.


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