The Internet provides us with new ways of connecting and relating to people.

The Internet allows users to make many new and different connections with people, some just down the street and others on the other side of the world. Stories abound with the sophisticated ways that people have met and forged new relationships on the Internet.

The type of example which gives people hope is that of a woman in Australia who visited chat rooms around the globe… and met a potential partner. They communicated by instant messaging and via email for months until they decided to meet face-to-face. They then met in Sydney and were married six months later.

Before the existence of the Internet, relationships used all the other types of technology; telephone, fax and postal mail, to communicate. What is distinctive about this communication is that before they initiated the connection they knew who they wanted to communicate with. Even if they did not know the person they did have some clues to who they were, where they lived and why they might need to make contact with this person(s).

The Internet has provided us with a particularly new way of relating. We can log on to the net and meet new people every day and all we will know about them is what we see on the screen. That is their name or Internet username and what they actually type into their computer.

We can strike up friendships or just have very brief chats with people and never lay eyes on them or speak to them in person. Some people would say that is no way to have a relationship, yet millions of people now do it daily.

The Internet is an informal, anonymous place to meet people. People don't know what you do or what you look like. You can change your sex, job, sexual preferences, age and culture. You are known by what you write. You are allowed incredible freedom of expression, any expression you choose. As much as the other person only knows what you tell them, the same applies to you.

How can you know about the person who says they live in downtown Los Angeles, who you have been chatting with for the last three months?

The risks of online relating

As much as it is exciting to explore the Internet, there are risks involved. These risks are there when we choose to make a change in an Internet relationship. This might be moving from a public to a private chat room, starting to correspond by email, starting to communicate by telephone or even arranging a rendezvous in the person.

The risks are highest when we move straight from the Internet world into the real world, as we are basing our decision to meet the other person only on information we are told, not on something we can independently assess. When we meet someone in the flesh we hear not only what they say, but notice their body language and non-verbal cues and also their overall behaviour in real time.

The Internet can be a place of immense deception or great honesty, more honesty than some people would normally express in person; and this creates an interesting paradox. The art of thriving on the Internet involves knowing the difference and being cautious at the right times. There are horror stories of people who have not been cautious at the right times, or with the right people.

If you choose to meet someone in person after meeting them on the Internet, here is some advice:

  1. Don't go alone - have someone you trust with you and meet them in a public place.
  2. Start the relationship anew. When people first meet and start new relationships they check each other out and then gradually reveal themselves, bit-by-bit bringing down their barriers and protection. When you meet an Internet traveller in the flesh, treat it like a new beginning and make sure you have your barriers up, even if you think you know this person. They might not be who they say they are or who you expect them to be.
  3. Be in control of what is happening. Don't allow yourself to do anything that you don't want to do and make sure you have ways to leave the situation safely.

If you need help in the real world with your online relationships, we offer a face-to-face Counselling Service. Alternatively, contact your nearest office of Relationships Australia to find out about other services that may be available to you. Call 1300 364 277 for more information or to make an appointment.