Opinion- Don't Fall in Love with Online Strangers (Here's Why)

Crystal Jackson

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Falling in love with a stranger online seems like such a good idea at the time. After all, social media makes it so easy to build relationships. Almost anyone in the world is merely a direct message away. Intimacy builds through messages and pictures, and it’s easier to catch feelings than a computer virus these days.

Don’t fall in love with strangers on the Internet.

It probably seems like there’s no harm to it. After all, don’t we all need just a little more love in our lives? Even distance doesn’t have to be a deterrent when it’s oh-so-easy to connect online.

Real vs Make Believe

Social media may make us seem like we know other people, but the truth is that there’s the real version of our lives, and there’s the life we want people to think we have. It’s rare for these two things to be the same. Can we really fall in love with strangers when how they represent their lives may not be the reality?

I speak from personal experience here. I never thought of myself as inauthentic. I just didn’t realize I was an expert at illusion. I believed a lot of my own story, and for years, I was in a marriage where I rarely mentioned my then-husband. It caused some curiosity, but the few times I posted about him, it was in glowingly positive terms.

All the way up until I revealed that I had gotten divorced.

What we post online isn’t really real. Even living in a deeply authentic way, I don’t post every bump in the road or bad day. I post what I want to post, and it’s usually because I prioritize the things that I want to remember versus trying to fake my way through my life the way I once did.

When we fall in love with strangers on the Internet, we have to make sure that we’re not just falling for what writer David Baumrind calls the highlight reel. It can be easy to believe that everything we’re seeing or being told is the reality, but the highlight reel can also be deeply deceptive- sometimes, purposefully so.

Shady Stuff and Strangers

We’ve all been there. We’ve seen the profiles that tell you little about the other person. Maybe there’s no relationship status and few personal photos. All we know about the other person is what they’re telling us. But let’s talk a little bit about shady behavior and strangers.

I once knew a man who had multiple Facebook pages. I’m not talking about a personal page, a business page, and an interesting group. I’m talking about multiple personal pages. He needed to appear very much single while running game on probably a dozen different women. He could fire off a “hey, beautiful” text message en masse, and a single photo could be used multiple times to continue stringing along all the women who thought- for good reason- that he was single.

The pieces started clicking into place for me when I noticed the multiple personal accounts, the generic messages, and the strange hours he was available to communicate with me. I’m not going to say that he put me into a particular time slot for our communication, but I’m also not going to say that he didn’t. I would think he’d have needed a flow chart for all the women he was trying to keep on the hook. Not being one to share, particularly when I don’t know I am, I opted out of the drama.

Luckily, he was just a stranger on the Internet at a distance, and we hadn’t been up close and personal. It was a tentative connection that he tried to make into something more — and failed spectacularly when I realized what he was all about. Unfortunately, many other women who had been more involved weren’t so lucky.

If someone seems like they’re hiding something, they probably are. If you have intimate communication with them but aren’t in any way acknowledged on their social media, something’s probably wrong. They’ll tell you they just want to keep their private lives private, but sometimes that’s just a convenient excuse. Figure out which it is and proceed accordingly.

The other shady behavior we should watch for is when someone immediately asks for pictures. Just know that they don’t want your latest cute social media selfie; they just want nudes. This is a warning sign, not the sign of a budding relationship. Whether or not you choose to engage in this texting behavior, don’t mistake a connection that starts this way for being an actual relationship.

The Progression

Online relationships should have a progression. They might go from DMs to phone calls or video chats to meeting in person. If they sound like a relationship but aren’t progressing outside of online messages, be wary of attaching to this person.

That stranger on the Internet we’re catching feelings for just might be using the connection as an ego boost or a way to pass the time. It happens all too often. An online flirtation is often just an ego stroke.

If there’s truly a potential for more, the relationship should progress to other forms of communication like actual phone calls or video chats. Even those should eventually progress to a plan to meet — if what is happening is an actual relationship and not just an ego boost where one person is benefitting while the other person is under the impression it’s an actual relationship.

When Not to Do It

Of course, there’s a time when there should be no messages and no progression of the relationship. For instance, if a person is in an existing relationship, they shouldn’t be flirting with strangers on the Internet in the first place. Establishing an intimate, romantic communication with someone else isn’t appropriate for someone in a committed, monogamous relationship. Even in a polyamorous relationship, communication shouldn’t be something that is hidden away from the partner. Suffice it to say that if our partner knew about it and experienced hurt or anger as a result, we probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Falling in love with strangers on the Internet is also a bad idea if we’ve got multiple threads going where we’re keeping multiple people on the line. Some people will tell you that dating is a numbers game, but playing it like a numbers game isn’t really an effective strategy for a happy, healthy, or secure relationship. There’s such a thing as the paradox of choice and always feeling like the grass is greener elsewhere. Decision fatigue plays a role, and if we’re just getting ego strokes from multiple strangers, we’re probably not building lasting relationships.

If falling in love online is meant to fix or fulfill you, it’s a bad idea. It’s not therapy. We shouldn’t be using other people to fix what we feel is broken about us or fill an empty space in our lives. That’s just codependence. No relationship is going to magically give us healthy self-esteem when we have none or make us happy when we’re not happy people. If we’re finding that our motivations lie in these areas, we’re better off scheduling a therapy session than engaging in an online relationship.

How I Fell in Love with a Stranger on the Internet

I know I said that we shouldn’t fall in love with strangers on the Internet, and I stand by that statement. But sometimes the stranger on the Internet becomes a friend who becomes a lover who becomes a partner who will share our lives. It’s a progression, and it’s one that can’t exist when we’re being deceptive about who we are or hiding other relationships. It’s not something we can find when we’re just looking for a quick fix or someone to make us feel better about ourselves. Sometimes, it comes when we least expect it and surprises us in the best way possible.

The thing is that we don’t fall in love with the stranger on the Internet at that point. They are no longer a stranger. They have become a trusted person, a real person, and what began as an online connection can become so much more.

At least, that’s how it started for me. I didn’t want an online relationship, and I certainly had no interest in a long-distance one. I do, however, have many friends online, and I found an online connection evolving. It started as a friendship, and then it began to transform into something more. I wondered about it, but I didn’t want to begin putting expectations into something so fragile.

I let it unfold, and what happened is that the online connection progressed from messages to phone calls to an in-person meet. The online chemistry I’d wondered about was even more apparent in person, and I found myself falling in love with the person who used to just be a stranger on the Internet.

Life is funny that way.

So maybe nine times out of ten, we shouldn’t do it. We should absolutely not fall in love with the stranger on the Internet. But maybe sometimes they become something more than a stranger. Maybe they become a friend who becomes so much more.

Originally published on Medium

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails: https://crystaljacksonwriter.substack.com/

Madison, GA

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