Online Connections

Intimacy witn anonymity -- the allure of the Internet

Jim is about as white-bread a guy as you'll ever meet. His job is selling industrial supplies, and like most good salesmen, he knows how to put people at ease and make them laugh; he's a walking encyclopedia of one-liners and off-color jokes. And although his approaching middle age has broadened Jim's waistline and thinned his hair, he's kept his boyishly handsome looks. All of which makes him the last guy who you'd think would hang out in Internet chat rooms.

Jim's marriage, he says, was "all over but the leaving" a decade ago. He and his wife stayed together for appearances, financial stability and "the kids' sake." He had long since tired of the separate beds and the cold shoulder, but refused to look around.

But several months ago, Jim's boss decided all the salesmen needed laptop computers with modems. A consultant set Jim up, showed him how to connect to the system computer and then, leering like a schoolyard pusher, asked him if he'd like to visit a chat room. A few days later, Jim decided to kill a little time between sales calls by chatting for a while, "just to see what it was like."

He met Diane, a homemaker with a couple of teen-agers. She had been chatting for only two weeks, filling the time while the kids were at school and her husband was working. "Something clicked," he says, and they started meeting online every day. "For a couple of months it was all very innocent -- just small talk." Then one afternoon, "right out of the blue," she told him she loved him. "I didn't answer right away," he says. "She asked me if I was OK. I said that I'd been thinking the same thing, but didn't know how to tell her."

"First, she fell in love with my sense of humor," he says, "then we started talking on the phone, and she fell in love with my voice. When we finally met, she fell in love with the rest of me."

What were they -- and growing numbers of other people drawn to Internet relationships -- seeking that was absent from their "real time" lives?

Maybe it was the easy intimacy. Maybe it was the chance to create for themselves a new "appearance" rather than dress up the old one. Maybe it was simply the convenience of a relationship that could be turned off and on with an electrical switch, and carried on from the everyday comfort of the home or office.

Whatever the allure, it proved fateful.

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Jim found an excuse to visit Diane, who lived almost 1,000 miles away. They only had a couple of hours to spend together, so they didn't waste much time on small talk. "We wondered if we'd talk in short, broken sentences," he laughs. By the time Jim returned home, he'd decided to end his marriage to be with Diane. They don't plan to rush things; rather, they want to continue getting to know each other online and on the phone -- and to see each other when they can. Yet they're both convinced that this is "the real thing." Jim already has moved out on his wife and is looking for work in Diane's town. But she still lives with her husband; Jim insisted that she not tell him about the affair until her kids are older.

Their story is but one example of the Internet's influence in affairs of the heart. And although it may be less headline-worthy than the bizarre accounts of those who abandon the kids and become cyber shut-ins, the phenomenon is nonetheless being watched by the researcher who defined Internet addiction.

;"Most [Internet addicts] are seduced by the lure of chat rooms and anonymous communication," says Kimberly S. Young, the University of Pittsburgh psychology professor and author of the academic paper, "Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder." "The problems stemming from chatting appear to mainly affect real-life relationships -- marital separation and divorce being the worst aftermath -- as a person has a cyber affair, then divorces a current spouse to run off with a new-found lover they met online that, due to geographic limitations, they probably saw only once or twice in real life."

Romance aside, the compulsion recently prompted an Orlando-area mental-health clinic to begin a recovery group for Internet addicts. And in an irony worthy of Jonathan Swift, computer users searching for help can log on to the Center for On-line Addiction and its Internet Addiction Support Chat Room (http: www.;

But many are not looking for help. Instead, they find in the Internet an outlet where virtual anonymity frequently encourages genuine, heartfelt expression from people for whom such expressions may not come so easily in one-on-one situations.

Bobby, who visits chat rooms when he gets home from work in the wee hours of the morning, said there are many reasons people get "hooked" on chat. "Some people join online communities because there's something there they can't get locally, or because of time constraints -- they keep odd hours, for instance." Indeed, it's hard to find someone to talk to when you get home from work at 4 a.m. -- but not hard to find an active chat room, he says.

Plus, he says that online interaction is emotionally safer than meeting someone face-to-face, and that people are attracted to cyber-sexual relationships because of that fact; there are "no emotional strings attached, and there is less fear of rejection," he says. "You're just an anonymous name on a screen; you can be anyone you want to be, and if you ran into the person later on the street, no one would know."

Another frequent chat-room user, Sabrina, concurs. "Some people act differently online than in real time. Lonely people who have trouble making friends in the real world may find it easier online, because of that reduced fear of rejection."

But she says there isn't much to do in a chat room if you're too shy to join in the chat. "Perhaps people who are shy in real life can come out of their shells online, and learn that nothing bad will happen to you if you speak up and express yourself," she says.

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"Sandy" has a real-time husband plus a boyfriend, Joe, that she met online. She also has two regular cyber-lovers -- including a 33-year-old man whose wife doesn't share his fantasies about cross-dressing and domination. She thinks cyber-fantasy is appealing because "you can leave your hectic, humdrum world behind and go to a whole new world where you can put your best foot forward -- where people actually look forward to talking to you because of your wit, charm or cyber-sex techniques, and where you get to know a person without looks getting in the way -- a great accomplishment in our shallow, beauty-oriented world."

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She believes that the anonymous nature of the communication lets her "delve deeper" into the others' psyches, which may lead to the feeling that two chatters can know each other better than anyone else does. But that assumes they are trafficking in the truth. Sandy first hung out in chat rooms to cope with the boredom and loneliness brought about by a husband who travels frequently. Wanting to be accepted by the twentysomething crowd that she met there, she chose a handle based on a character from a science-fiction novel: a beautiful, buxom, mid-20s blonde.

Her quick, sarcastic wit enticed Joe, a 23-year-old computer programmer; she initially wrote him off as "just another computer geek." But eventually she gave in and chatted with him, and he "fell" for her. He sent her his picture, and she sent back a photo of a beautiful, buxom, mid-20s blonde. He begged her to let him come visit.

A little at a time, she broke the truth to him: She's in her mid 40s, not her mid-20s. She's married. She has a child almost as old as Joe.

Joe didn't care. He'd fallen in love with some part of her personality that she revealed as she sent her thoughts;across a computer screen, stripped of the distractions of looks, body language and practical circumstance.

He flew to meet her -- all the way from the southwest to the northeast. He told her that he knew he loved her as soon as they hugged at the airport. He now lives nearby, works nearby and moves in when her husband is away. A year ago, he proposed, and she accepted -- though first she must divorce her husband.

Like Jim and Diane, Sandy concedes that hers is not a good marriage, and that at some level she was looking for a new relationship. Geographical distance aside, she says that she probably would have considered Joe too young, and would have assumed he'd think she was too old, if they'd met first and hadn't developed a foundation built on computer communications (her initial facade notwithstanding).

Obviously not all Internet-based relationships involve marital breakups. But the geographical override highlights professor Young's finding. People struggling with real-life relationships may find it easier -- and perhaps a little safer -- to pursue them online. It doesn't require getting dressed up, sneaking around or spending money; it can happen in your home office or at your desk during a lunch break. And the anonymity afforded by Internet chat allows the chatter to engage in both emotional and -- oftentimes -- sexual intimacy without risk of getting caught by someone who might feel betrayed.

There is also this, says Sabrina: "If my online relations become too intense, I can just log off, change my name and come back as someone new."

There are other reasons to keep the worlds separate. Sandy's friend, Courtney, allowed a few personal details to slip into a chat with a man. He found out who she was and where she lived, then began to stalk her online and off -- following her from chat room to chat room, calling her at home, driving past her workplace. She had to involve the police and has stopped using the Internet altogether.

But the twin conveniences of time and access -- especially for those with odd schedules, people who are insecure about entering or re-entering the "dating game," and single parents whose leisure hours are consumed by balancing work and family -- help keep the lines busy.

"Lisa" met her husband online while hosting a game room. They struck up a friendship and started meeting online every night; eventually they picked up the phone. They knew each other for six months before meeting face-to-face. They've now been married for six years.

"I have many friends online that I will never have the opportunity to meet -- but I still call them friends," she says. "I can't honestly say I know why I fell for my husband instead of a real-time guy. When I met him, I was between jobs and in the process of getting a divorce. It took me awhile to find myself -- to know where I was going. He was there to lend support every time I felt my world was about to cave in. By talking online, we got to know each other -- we talked about everything from A to Z."

And it changed the way she related to other online friends. "After I met the man who is now my hubby, I would spend more time chatting with him than playing in the chat rooms."

She adds, "If you talk to a person online. you do get to know the true person better, but there have been many times I've wondered what a person sounds like, or if they look and sound the way I picture them.

"Voice chat might be interesting, but video would spoil things too soon."

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