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The emergence of online technologies has brought a new variety of ways in which people communicate. Online communication has a number of differences from face-to-face interpersonal communication that have been extensively studied within recent decades. Academic attention has been particularly focused on how people build romantic relationships online. Although it was believed that, in the context of interpersonal communications and interactions, people mostly use the Internet to exchange erotic and sexual messages, it was discovered that online communications could lead to serious relationships with commitment and real emotional interdependence (Cooper & Sportolari, 1997). Therefore, it can be argued that online relationships should be regarded as “real” as opposed to the vision that they are make-believe because online identities of people may be different from their real-life identities. Moreover, certain advantages of online relationships can be found in comparing them to offline relationships. These advantages are a lesser role in physical attraction, a greater degree of familiarization, special intimacy, and finding common interests.
First of all, before addressing particular characteristics of online relationships, it is important to define a relationship itself and establish what constitutes it. A relationship is defined as an “ongoing, interdependent process of interaction between two or more people” (Morreale, Spitzberg, & Barge, 2007, p. 475). A particularly important aspect of this process is emotional interdependence, which occurs when people not only interact with high frequency but also put special meaning into their interactions; therefore, these interactions should be approached from a qualitative perspective rather than from a quantitative one. What is normally associated with romantic relationships is a high level of intimacy, sharing, rapport, and interest in a person. Since people who are in a relationship spend much time together and interact a lot, they may experience conflicts, and their ability to resolve conflicts with the willingness to stay together is one of the main skills needed for repairing and preserving relationships. It is somewhat debatable what should be considered a “successful relationship,” but most definitions will include the notion of relationship satisfaction (Malouff, Schutte, & Thorsteinsson, 2014) that encompasses perceived benefits from being in a relationship with a certain person and positive emotions associated with it. There are also such considerations as common goals and combining efforts in order to achieve them, which may be relevant when discussing successful relationships.
Online relationships can be successful, and they are even more likely to be such because, first of all, they rely to a lesser extent on physical attraction. When meeting offline, two persons may develop a liking for one another based on their appearances and perceived attractiveness, which can lead to a relationship, but it is possible that further interactions will reveal certain aspects of incompatibility. Therefore, relying on physical attraction solely when building relationships can be misleading because a relationship requires emotional and behavioral commitments that cannot be driven by attraction only for a long time. Cooper and Sportolari (1997) state that, in online relationships building, the role of physical attributes is reduced, and the role of intimacy and mutual self-disclosure is enhanced, which promotes “erotic connections that stem from emotional intimacy rather than lustful attraction” (p. 7). However, it should not be disregarded that the article was written 20 years ago, and Internet communications were different then. Today, with the widespread use of social networking services, it is much easier to access a lot of photographs of a person one is likely to meet online, which brings physical attraction back to the table, but its role in building an online relationship is still lesser than in building an offline one, which allows avoiding the risk of initiating relationships with someone who is a not a good match and avoiding the risk of using physical attraction as the foundation for a relationship.
Another advantage of online communications in building a relationship is that they provide a vast array of opportunities for getting to know each other closer than offline. Smith and Duggan (2013) note that one of the main aspects of Internet communications to which researchers should pay special attention is that individuals who exchange messages online are likely to be deprived of communication barriers that occur in offline interactions. This particularly applies to perceived social norms. An example is the understanding of gender roles (Cooper & Sportolari, 1997) that translates into behavioral patterns and makes people act in a way that they think they are supposed to act, which lowers the chances of becoming closer. When communicating online, people tend to be more honest and less inhibited, which results in better familiarization with one another than it is possible when talking to a stranger’s face to face. By getting to know each other more profoundly, people develop more successful communication strategies, e.g. approaches to conflict resolution (Baker, 2004). In other words, when people in a relationship are more open to one another, they are more likely to learn how to deal with one another and overcome possible complications when conflicts occur.
One of the main aspects of online communications that make them favorable for building a successful relationship is that they promote intimacy. Ben-Ze’ev (2003) explores this statement and adopts a perspective of explaining intimacy online through the contradictions among such notions as privacy, emotional closeness, and openness. It is suggested that a person can simultaneously have the desire for emotional closeness with other people and the desire for privacy, which come into conflict because privacy requires limiting other people’s access to one’s emotions and thoughts, while emotional closeness requires providing extended access to them to other people. From an emotional perspective, a person may feel the need to be open and have privacy at the same time. This conflict may become a major complication in one’s communications and interactions with people, and Ben-Ze’ev (2003) argues that the conflict is “considerably weaker in cyberspace” (p. 451). When communicating online, a person has an opportunity to protect his or her privacy while also being open and seeking closeness at the same time. Privacy is also associated with the protection from vulnerability, and from this perspective, online communications give a person the feeling of being safe and being able to open up to someone, which is a prerequisite for emotional interdependence. Therefore, online communications promote intimacy and help build stronger connections that are likely to contribute to a successful relationship and maintain it.
Finally, it is noteworthy that online communications are likely to bring people together on the basis of common interests, which contributes to a stronger romantic relationship. It can be argued that the search for a partner online is more targeted because online communities can be neatly organized according to interests and aspirations, while people offline may be deprived of opportunities to constantly meet other people sharing their interests and find a partner among them. It is easier to find a community of fans of one’s favorite band or a community of people who have the same hobby online than looking for such communities offline. Building a romantic relationship with a person from such a community is likely to be successful. According to Baker (2004), people who met online on websites where their common interests were discussed were more likely to stay together after meeting offline. It can be said that online communications provide wider opportunities to meet someone who likes or likes to do the same things that a person likes or likes to do. According to the attraction theory, the perceived similarity is one of the main aspects of being attracted to someone, but similarity does not only bring people together but also helps them stay together. Finding similarity online is easier, which makes online dating a favorable environment for forming and maintaining stronger and more satisfying romantic relationships.
Upon reviewing different aspects of online communications, it has been established that they reduce the role of physical attraction in building relationships (which reduces the risks of building weak relationships or relationships with people with which one is incompatible), provide better opportunities for getting to know one another closer, promote intimacy and emotional connections, and help meet someone who shares one’s interest. These four factors contribute to more successful relationships, which means not only that online communications should be regarded as “real,” but also that they have a number of advantages over relationships that start offline.
Baker, A. (2004). What makes an online relationship successful? Clues from couples who met in cyberspace. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 5(4), 363-375.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2003). Privacy, emotional closeness, and openness in cyberspace. Computers in Human Behavior, 19(4), 451-467.
Cooper, A., & Sportolari, L. (1997). Romance in cyberspace: Understanding online attraction. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 22(1), 7-14.
Malouff, J. M., Schutte, N. S., & Thorsteinsson, E. B. (2014). Trait emotional intelligence and romantic relationship satisfaction: A meta-analysis. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 42(1), 53-66.
Morreale, S. P., Spitzberg, B. H., & Barge, J. K. (2007). Human communication: motivation, knowledge, and skills (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.
Smith, A. W., & Duggan, M. (2013). Online dating & relationship. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.