Mar 25, 2009

Arm’s–length intimacy

Posted by: Marian Salzman In: internet

Recently, a steamy online romance between bullet-scarred bad boy Tommy, 18, and hot 17-year-old jailbait Jessica ended badly. After exchanging countless e-mails full of intimate details and passionate promises of what they would do when they finally met in person, it turned out that Tommy was actually an overweight, lonely 45-year-old bachelor and Jessica was an unhappily married mother of four. Sure, it could still work out, though it doesn’t have quite the same soft porn spark, does it? But do the secret identities really change the truth and passion in the e-mails?


Meanwhile, over on Facebook, people are revealing the walk-of-shame moments of their lives with alarming indiscretion (and regularity—doesn’t anybody spend a quiet night at home anymore?). Drunken binges, one-night stands—these used to be relegated to embarrassed, Tylenol-soothed phone calls to best friends. Now they are uploaded instantly and broadcast globally to an ever-widening circle of online friends, acquaintances and why-did-I-click-approve strangers. The problem is, the Internet never forgets and the horror of the Google image search shows no mercy.


It’s all part of what psychologist Daniel Goleman refers to negatively as “Cyber-disinhibition.” Apparently, people are more inclined to act out impulses online than in person.[1]  Believe it or not, though, there is a real positive side to these uninhibited arm’s-length relationships on the Internet.  It’s what you might call the Cyber-Couch Effect. 


In classic Freudian psychoanalysis, as we all know from … uhm … Woody Allen movies, the client reclines on a couch and the analyst sits out of sight, deliberately creating an “arm’s-length” interaction. This allows the patient the space and freedom to open up. Social networking sites such as Facebook and instant chat applications such as AIM and Skype function as online recreations of these therapeutic “arm’s-length” interactions. They may not be as professional and structured as psychoanalysis but they’re a lot less expensive and a lot more spontaneous—with almost as many acronyms (ROTFLMFAO!).


Psychotherapist Paula Hall says communicating online allows intimacy to build quickly. When people can’t see each other to track facial reactions and body language, they’re less likely to feel nervous. This means they’re more likely to reveal personal information much earlier than in a face-to-face situation.[2]  What’s more, established and stable online groups typically become very supportive. It’s not unusual for people in such groups to write “I don’t know why I’m sharing this, but…” and go on to open up deeply.


The intimacy of online connections is no substitute for real in-person relationships.  But they can be great sources of comfort for people living in situations where expressing soul-bearing honesty is not really appropriate or possible. Just ask Tommy and Jessica.

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