Click to Expand Sidebar

Apr 25 2009

E-Dating / E-Therapy

Published by at 4:09 am under Advice

My favorite story about the strangeness of e-dating appeared in The New Yorker magazine a few years ago. The writer, a woman from Seattle, had developed a lively email exchange with a man in New York. It took her two years to finally get to New York, on business, and there she was, having lunch with him. And there he was, across the table from her, in the flesh.

However during lunch, she found herself bored, distracted and restless. She wanted to get away, to go home, to check her email. Like so many other dates she’d had in the last two year, she wanted to get away from whoever she was with so she could go home and enjoy the latest email from… him.

What’s going on? Had an e-relationship actually trumped flesh and blood? Why would that happen?

Here is another story, a common one. A woman writes with a question. She’s started up an Internet relationship with a man and now, after six months she is about to meet him. However, the picture on her profile is 10 years old and 40 pounds lighter than her current self. Now what?

What strange dynamic seems to be playing itself out with e-relationships?

E-relationships invite fantasies. In e-dating the lack of visual information feeds fantasies. If the person you are investigating as a possible companion isn’t right there in front of you, your tendency will be to fill in the blank spaces with all your fears, hopes, dreams, and fancies. Some people take advantage of that.

I received a panic-stricken letter from a woman who had been corresponding with a man for six months. She hadn’t yet met the man. They’d progressed to phone calls and then to phone sex. The woman’s dating life was dominated by fantasies, fears and wild longings. There was no way for these two to meet and figure out who they were to each other.

E- Communication Encourages Disinhibition. People who have had a drink or two are said to “get disinhibited.” Disinhibition means shedding your inhibitions. The effect of alcohol on your brain is much like ether. It puts to sleep the little voices that say “let’s think before we act.”

How many people become audacious at a masked balls? Being invisible is just like having a drink or two. Being online, and connecting with someone new, who is open to something new, is a bit like talking from behind a mask, which is what you are in the early stages of an e-relationship.

E-communication creates safety impersonally but intimacy depends on safety created in a personal way.

There are impersonal ways to create safety and personal ways. The personal forms of safety come when two people test each other out, become genuinely vulnerable and learn what they can really expect from each other. What if she tells him she thinks his ex-wife was right about his selfish streak? To be able to speak at this level of candor is real safety, and real intimacy. That kind of real safety takes a long time to develop.

In e-flirting, safety isn’t something people have worked out with each other. Instead, safety is circumstantial. It happens because there is an automatic distance between the two people. The feeling of safety is there, but it is untested by real intimacy.

It helps to remember that people will exaggerate their responses and be more emotional than normal. If you connect with someone via Internet and then go to instant messaging and phone conversations, you will want to schedule face time soon. In e-dating, one of the smartest things you can do is have a chemistry check as early as possible.

It helps to be very aware of your own ideas about the other person and that your ideas are more like to be projections than perceptions.

And sometimes, none of this is true.

If there is one rule I’ve learned about midlife dating is that anything can happen. I know a woman who started an email relationship and they corresponded for almost a year. It was a love affair of letters, very old fashioned and Victorian. They are now very happily married. Go figure.

The same disinhibition that leads people to over-share in e-dating makes e-therapy work.

First, a confession. Last December, I took a continuing education course in how e-therapy works. In the last four years more and more therapists have been working on the phone, like me, and some are even working exclusively through email. It’s all quite new and we are just beginning to understand how it works. This isn’t the first time therapists have had to develop new theory. There was a time when the only therapy anyone could imagine involved only one-to-one. Therapists who say couples or even families, with all members attending, were pioneering and often in secret. It was as though, to see both members of a couple simultaneously was a kind of malpractice. All that has changed, of course. And now we are comparing notes and working out how to do virtual therapy.

As I listened to the material presented, I saw how many of the insights could be applied to e-dating. In both e-therapy and e-dating, the idea applies that two people who don’t know each other and are negotiating at relationship that involves some intimacy. So in this next part of the essay, I’ll tell you some of what we’ve learned about e-therapy.

One of the objections to e-therapy, which is how I conduct most of my professional practice, is that there is no visual connection. One day this will end, as broadband allows more and more video telephoning. But even now the objection about a lack of visual contact isn’t that valid. People who are totally blind get 100% of their meaningful communication input from others in the form of sounds. One of my favorite teachers and therapists was functionally blind. He read by holding papers up to his left cheek. Blind as he was, I still believed he could see me.

The same disinhibiting that makes e-dating so tricky can be very helpful in e-therapy. There are even a sizeable number of people who work entirely through email. They don’t even go to the phone. The impersonal safety serves them and allows them to talk about very tender matters.

The best way to help someone talk about tender matters of the heart is to encourage them to look inward and share outward. A good way to do this is to remove distractions. Visual information can be a distraction. Time on the telephone can create tremendous intensity. And this can be used therapeutically.

In some cities you can rent time in a sensory deprivation chamber, floating in water at body temperature in silent darkness, as a way to create extremely deep meditative states. In classical analysis, the analyst sits where she can’t be seen, a voice in the ear. In hypnotic work, in guided visualization, in focusing work, the person doing the work closes his or her eyes and the guide, coach, or therapist, stands by and offers coaching and suggestions as needed. Centuries earlier, there was the invention of the confession booth, which in turn was an adaptation of more ancient practices.

The same mechanisms, disinhibition and impersonal safety, can be taken advantage of in a number of ways. In e-dating, it can sometimes lead to distortions and risks. In e-therapy it can lead to a chance for the rapid expansion of self-knowledge.


Recent Posts:

Post to Twitter    Send article as PDF   

Comments Off on E-Dating / E-Therapy

Comments are closed at this time.