The Internet & Real Relationships

Today I was slicing some lemons for shish kabobs and so not surprisingly I began to think about social media, attachment and what constitutes an authentic relationship.

Authenticity was a key term when I was becoming a therapist in the mid nineties, and society in general.  Today, most people I have spoken to in the mental health profession would say our happiness in part depends on having authentic relationships with others.  Setting aside for a moment that we often talk about “authenticity” as if there is one monolithic thing that “everyone knows” it is, this belief in the connection between authentic relationships and happiness often gives psychotherapists, social workers and educators their moral imperative to discourage use of technology.  That’s where the lemons come in.

Ten years ago, I met my friend Jackie Dotson on the bulletin boards of Psychology Today.  These bulletin boards were designed for clinicians to have an online forum where they could discuss a range of issues, make referrals, and share ideas.  They were also a place where early-adopting clinicians stumbled and experimented, behaved badly, gossiped and misspoke, as we tried to make sense of emerging technologies.  I remember heated online conversations about whether the forums were private and “safe,” where people were startled to consider that anyone could cut and paste your confidential posts anywhere on the web.  People were emboldened or perhaps I should say “emoboldened” by the relative anonymity on the forum to say things that could be breathtaking in both their vulnerability and/or sadism.  It was the Wild West of mental health on the web.

My interactions with Jackie were few and far between when she and I were both active there.  It wasn’t until I moved on from the forums to spending more time on Facebook that I think we really began socializing more.  Perhaps it was because FB allowed for a flow of text and images, more seamless interaction, and chat.  Whatever the reason, over the past few years my life has intersected with Jackie more and more.  We have several mutual acquaintances from the PT forums, and a mutual friend with whom I went to college with.  I’m glad I friended her.

From 3,000 miles away, Jackie has crept into my online and emotional life with the secret code of affinity that could only be shared via social media.  We share a love of bone marrow as evidenced by our food pics, and she has forced me to rethink my stance in social media workshops I do where I used to announce to my audience, “Nobody wants to see your food.”  Our dark wit and banter is present more days than not in my FB feeds, I’ve even taken more of an interest in my local sports teams so I can insult hers.  In return she pretends to be a bigot on LGBT issues to bait me.  Although I’ve never told her explicitly, she has reassured me when I worried about how my picture looks online, and comforted me when my city suffered a terrorist attack.

And then last year she started sending me lemons.  Real lemons.

Jackie lives in CA, and has at least one prolific lemon tree.  Last year she offered to mail a box of them to anyone of her friends on Facebook for the price of shipping.  I jumped at the chance.  They arrived within days and were enjoyed by my family immensely.  So immensely, that when Jackie began posting pictures of budding trees this year, I grew quite impatient for them.  They arrived two weeks ago, and for the past two Sundays I have used them for cooking.  As I write this, there are chicken kabobs marinating in lemon and thyme for tonight.

Jackie and I have never sat down together for a heart to heart or face to face conversation, but we carry our connection to each other throughout our day with our smartphones.  In the decade that we have been in each others’ orbits, I suspect we have each known deep sadnesses that we haven’t spoken of to each other.  Yet I am convinced that if I ever chose to reach out to her that way it would be okay and vice verse.  Not all intimacy needs to be acted on.

That said, for two Sundays, as I have chopped and squeezed fresh lemons, I have thought of Jackie and smiled.  I have imagined her and our conversations as I move through my kitchen, while my brain alters levels of different neurochemicals and changes my affective state in ways that are real and comforting to me.

The stubborn adherence to imagining that technological use inherently diminishes our authenticity has been eroding the mental health field’s relationship with the people we work with for decades now.  Friends and colleagues of mine in the tech industry are consistently amazed that I still need to educate and advocate with my peers about this.  Our profession continues to act as if relationship mediated by emerging technologies is one step removed from other relationships, less authentic because we use our bodies in different ways to achieve connection with each other.  I wonder if our dogs feel that we are less authentic because we have replaced smelling butts with eye contact and uttering sounds all the time?

I jest, in part because I doubt our companion animals feels as fearful of becoming irrelevant as many of my colleagues do.  I think this fear is only justified to the extent that we are dogmatic about what constitute authenticity for everyone.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said:

Love is the only force which can make things one without destroying them. … Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness.. the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

I do not think it is the role of the therapist to be the arbiter of truth in what makes intimacy or authentic relationships.  Our role is to help our patients explore their capacity and harness their energies for love in ways that may go beyond the imagination our own experience affords us.  It is not for us to give them fire as gods would, but to help them make themselves whole without destroying them.

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  1. What a wonderful post about your relationship with Jackie, and about the continued challenge our profession faces with accepting technology-mediated relationships as real.

    I recall talking to a colleague years ago about this very issue–the reality of internet-mediated relationships and I pointed out to her that the concept of relationships mediated by technology is not new: in the 19th century it was fairly common for people to establish and continue relationships by letter (and it certainly didn’t start in the 19th century). And when I was growing up it was common for girls to establish “pen pals.” These relationships were never labeled by therapists (or others, for that matter) as less than real. The mistake, according to William Powers (author of Hamlet’s Blackberry) is that people judge new technologies exclusively through the lens of the old technologies–this perspective filters out the qualities of the new technologies that don’t fit the paradigm of the old. His insight resonated with me when I read it — I know that I’ve been guilty of the same–years ago I felt that SMS wouldn’t be appropriate for telling someone about the death of a family member — and yet a year and a half ago, I heard that my mom had died via SMS/text messaging, and it turned out to be fine (I wrote a blog post about SMS that talked about the context that made this experience fine– see if interested). The whole experience taught me that we need to be careful about issuing judgments for what is and isn’t appropriate for new technologies.

  2. I fell in love with someone before we ever met in person or even spoke on the phone. It ended up being one of my best relationships (and it did include living together). So I have no doubt that emotions and relationships can be real even if communication is tech-mediated.

    That being said, I tend to avoid initiating therapy with a new client via video-conferencing (I will do it with well-established clients when one of us is traveling). Despite the research indicating that it works fine… Maybe I’ll get over the reluctance some day.

  3. I am lucky to be at an age where I can witness at least 3 generations of how we relate. I have seen and experienced a difference in how technology has influenced relationships; mine and others. There is no judgment in this observation. Every generation can find something that influenced relationships, our time now is not unique. What is unique about technology is the impact on the physiology of relationships; the sensory experience. Again, not a judgment but a reality. As I have often talked about and written about, adaptation is human kind’s most creative ability. I have to be optimistic that we will be able to adapt to technology in a way that will not diminish the potential that relating has for human development.

  4. As always. what a wonderful post!

  5. …absolutely excellent article. I have been living like that for years and it really works. I am a student of art therapy based on very traditional approache. But I was recently allowed by my beloved teacher to introduce digital art technique as a pioneer project.

  6. MaryAnn Brown, MFT says

    What a great blog post! I have found myself
    increasingly open to the technologies that can and
    have enriched my personal and professional
    lives. In my work, I use SMS with new and established
    clients for short communications re: scheduling/rescheduling,
    as well as for those occasions when I feel that a particular
    link to resources, a blog post or article would be appreciated
    by a client. One client recently sent me a photo by text
    message of herself holding her brand new baby!! We both
    took such delight and joy from this simple exchange and it
    deepened our connection far beyond the short investment of
    time and energy.
    In my personal life, SMS has been very healing for my relationship
    with my father. He has difficulty tolerating crying in any face to
    face or telephone conversation with me. I am highly sensitive (as
    is he,) but he has somatic symptoms when hurt, sad, or frustrated.
    I cry easily and do so in response to his gruff ways, at times.
    We decided to use SMS for potentially charged conversations. I am
    proud that my 85 yr. old father is so very tech saavy and thankful that
    he is remarkably healthy with a clear mind. We also talk on the phone
    and I feel much more connected in our daily lives, as does he. If you’d
    witnessed our relationship before we made our “texting pact,” a couple of
    years ago, you would consider the transformation to be a miracle! Consider
    the human potential of the technologies that are available to any two people with smartphones!!

  7. I just wanted to share that I loved this article. I enjoyed how you used the lemons in the beginning to make us wonder what the correlation between lemons and social media could be, and then later connected it all with such a poignant and meaningful example. I agree that technology can provide an opportunity for meaningful relationships. In fact, I think it opens up many new ways in which people can connect and find support because the vast array of opportunities technology allows for connecting with others. It helps reduce the potential for isolation. Imagine a person who can find comfort through connecting online not having that opportunity. They would surely feel along otherwise and it would be more of a challenge to push past the obstacles to find the connection they are seeking. I also feel that online technologies and social media can actually increase authenticity in that in some ways, people can feel freer to express themselves through writing than they can verbally sometimes. As with anything, there is a continuum and I believe that getting to far to an extreme one way or another is where people can run into problems. If one is completely dependent on technology for interaction, and has little face to face interaction that could be problematic. And if people are isolated from technology, that can be limiting and problematic as well. In any case, I really appreciated your insights on this topic, it was very thought provoking and intellectually stimulating! I have been on a journey towards learning more about technology and integrating it with my practice, and so far it has been a really interesting and rewarding experience! Thanks for being a guide along the way 🙂

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