Is Your Online Lover Sincere to You?

Like self-disclosure, sincerity can be painful

Posted Dec 25, 2009

"The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made." Jean Giraudoux

Romantic relationships have traditionally involved deceptive elements; these are supposed to increase the romantic attraction and to decrease the risk of ending the relationship. Cyberspace provides more means to improve the deception. The more voluntary nature of online self-presentation involves the risk of being more susceptible to manipulations; in such controlled exposure, there is much room for deception and misrepresentation (see here). As one woman remarked: "It's harder to lie when you live 3 blocks away than 500 miles away."

People in cyberspace are often dishonest about their identifying features, such as age, race, height, weight, gender, or employment. When it comes to interests and background, there are no significant differences between offline and online relationships. In the latter, false claims concerning age and external appearance are difficult to detect; false claims concerning interests, occupation, education, and other background characteristics are easier to refute, as those issues become the topic of conversations between the two online partners. Indeed, Al Cooper and his colleagues found that in one survey, 48% of users reported that they changed their age "occasionally," and 23% reported they did so "often." Furthermore, 38% changed their race while online, and 5% admitted to changing their gender occasionally. In both offline and online relationships, when the level of commitment is high, misrepresentation is low.

In chat rooms, men are more likely to lie about their socio-economic status; women are more likely to lie for safety reasons. Both often believe that by disguising their identity, they can be more emotionally honest and open. Lying in this case signifies a desire to reveal a deeper level of truth about the self, while avoiding the risk involved in reducing privacy.

Online relationships, however, encourage many people to present a more accurate picture of their true self, which is characterized as that version of self that a person believes she actually is, but is unable to present, or is prevented from presenting, to others in most situations. This is especially true for people whose immediate apparent characteristics are not perceived in the most favorable light. These people are motivated to deepen their new relationships further by transforming them into offline relationships as well. Indeed, a sizeable proportion of such relationships leads to engagement or marriage.

Greater control over the aspects people are ready to conceal or reveal puts less strain on online relationships and reduces the conflict between emotional disclosure and privacy. Although cyberspace provides opportunities for individuals to present themselves as someone else, many people present themselves honestly online. This is especially true if the relationship continues and develops further. The more time people spend in chatting with each other, the more open they are about themselves and the less likely they are to lie.

At the beginning of online relationships, people may lie about external identifying features, such as age, race, marital status, number of children, or employment; however, they cannot lie about constitutive personal features, such as kindness, a sense of humor, wittiness, and personal interests, all of which emerge during lengthy online conversations. While external identifying features may prevent the formation of an offline relationship, constitutive features are crucial for maintaining an enduring loving relationship.

One married woman, who had an online affair with a married man, reports that she lied to him about her real name, age (instead of thirty-eight, she claimed to be twenty-eight), and the number of kids she has. They both admitted to being married. After six months of online romance and "being madly in love with him," she came out with the truth. To her surprise, "he said that he understood why I lied and that he loved my inner me." She also notes: "when people lie online it isn't always because they are vicious or mean to hurt anyone." As in offline circumstances, the development of trust in online relationships is a gradual process.

Sincerity is a great asset to successful personal relationships as it is correlated with a higher degree of intimacy. In a study of regular personal advertisements, sincerity was the single most frequently listed characteristic sought by women-male advertisers also seek sincerity in women but this characteristic is far less important to them. Accordingly, someone who wants to be emotionally close to another person will attempt to be sincere-or at least need to fake sincerity. By sharing intimate information, you are flattering the other person with your trust. Accordingly, if you are seeking to flatter someone, one of the best ways of doing this is to reveal a secret.

The more sincere and open nature of cyberspace induces people to behave in ways that do not accord with their stereotypic figure. Thus, women may be more sexually expressive than they are in offline relationships and men may be more emotionally sensitive. Cyberspace has been characterized by disinhibition, including phenomena such as flaming and excessive self-disclosure that are untypical of people's behavior offline. The reduced weight of ordinary constraints, such as social norms and harmful practical implications, enables online behavior to be less constrained. This may be expressed in more violent behavior or in more intense love and sexual desire.

A related conflict in cyberspace is that between sincerity and imagination. On the one hand, online relationships involve more sincere communication, which more accurately expresses the real attitudes of the correspondents. On the other hand, imagination and fantasies, which ignore offline reality, play a central role in online relationships. These accurate and inaccurate descriptions of reality actually refer to different aspects. Online relationships typically involve more accurate descriptions of people's own personal attitudes, but less accurate descriptions of the reality beyond them. When someone writes to her online friend that she would like to have sexual intercourse with him, she typically describes her present emotions in an accurate manner; in face-to-face relationships, such sincere expression of one's desires is less frequent. But when this woman writing to her online friend describes how she is taking his clothes off and kissing his lips, she is describing an illusory reality, which exists in her fantasy. Sincerity about emotional desires is not at odds with a fantasy concerning the fulfillment of these desires.

A high degree of concealment along with a high degree of self-disclosure and sincerity are both common in online relationships. In such relationships, we often either do not know anything real about our online partner or know more about her than her most intimate friends do. Such extreme levels of familiarity are not common in offline circumstances. Having no true information at all about our offline friend is impossible, since our activities together will reveal some of her characteristics. It is also rare, however, to know our actual friend's most profound secrets; she is likely to keep such secrets private since they may make her extremely vulnerable.

Like self-disclosure, sincerity can also be painful. Sometimes we do not want to know all the other person's secrets. When we are more sincere, though, the less vulnerable nature of cyberspace reduces the risks of hurting other people.

In light of the above considerations, I would say that dreams, rather than deception, characterize online relationships. Such dreams are often accompanied by a profound knowledge of reality.

The coexistence of the opposing features of sincerity and deception (as other types of opposites) cannot be found in offline relationships. Human beings have never before had access to such an ambivalent type of romantic relationship. This possibility presents an entirely different ball game in the field of personal interactions. In this exciting, novel game, the rules and consequences are also different.

Adapted from Love Online