In Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ Boldwood becomes entranced with Bathsheba, after, in a moment of idle fancy, she sends him a Valentine. He hardly knows her and as the narrator tells us: -

The great aids to idealization in love were present here: occasional observation of her from a distance, and the absence of social intercourse with her - visual familiarity, oral strangeness. The smaller human elements were kept out of sight; the pettinesses that enter so largely into all earthly living and doing were disguised by the accident of lover and loved-one not being on visiting terms; and there was hardly awakened a thought in Boldwood that sorry household realities appertained to her, or that she, like all others, had moments of commonplace, when to be least plainly seen was to be most prettily remembered. 

Hardy gives us a picture of romantic idealisation; an important part of the process of falling in love. In the psychoanalytic view of love and infatuation, we are inclined to project on to others what we most desire in ourselves. We each foster within ourselves an idealised self and look to the other to complete what we lack. For this to happen, it helps that the other person fits our ideal in some sense. However, it also helps that we don’t see too much detail; thus the other person can become a blank slate on which we write our desires. Popular sayings and songs remind us of this:

‘Love is blind’,

‘When your heart’s on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes’ ,
‘You know it’s clear that I’ve been blind, I’ve been a fool’.

Internet communication, for many, provides the ideal conditions in which to fall in love. Just enough cues about the other person to hook into our desires, not enough information to shatter the romantic illusion. Candid self disclosure becomes common as it is the only means of getting to know each other and is protected by a degree of anonymity, but it is also easy to build a picture that the other wishes to see. Indeed, as I discussed in a recent column on the psychology of deception, the distancing provided by the internet can reduce the emotional costs of deceiving others. Many are attracted to the internet as a medium for relationships for just this reason - it provides the opportunity for emotional contact without personal risk or exposure.

Face-to-face relationships move from an initial encounter in a physical location and based on physical attractiveness, to the discovery of common interests and self-disclosure. Internet relationships proceed in the opposite direction – the physical encounter comes last. For some the transition from romantic idealisation to genuine attachment happens during the course of an internet romance. For others the fantasy becomes tempered with reality as they meet for the first time. For a few the relationship endures. For many the intense feelings of the online relationship evaporate when confronted with the detailed reality of their amorata.

Rosantonietta Scramaglia interviewed fifty people who had fallen in love on the internet. She describes what they told her about the positive and negative sides of the experience:

It creates ‘mystery’, ‘the unknown’, ‘the excitement of something you’ve never experienced before’, ‘it lets you dream’. It is ‘more fun because you can discover the other person gradually’. People feel ‘the fascination of novelty’…

[but] a relationship can spring up which is, … ‘not as serious because it is easier to leave each other because you do not have to face the situation in person’, or ‘not as easy because you are going into it blind’, or a situation where ‘uncertainty’ prevails, where it is ‘impossible to be sure that the other person is really sincere’, where you have to have a blind faith in what you are told, and you risk meeting the wrong kind of people or being taken for a ride’. And, confronted with these unknowns, ‘the worse thing is that you get your expectations up’, and tend to ‘idealize the partner more’.

An increasing number of online services exist to provide opportunities for online romance. A Google search identifies nearly 8.6 million references on the net to ‘online dating’. As we have seen the internet is a medium which provides mystery and distance. As Thomas Hardy shows us, these provide a fertile medium in which love can flourish.

Is internet romance here to stay? I think I can confidently predict that it will continue to grow and make a few entrepreneurs, who have captured the right mix of mystery, distance and intimacy, very rich indeed.