When I first went online, I was fearful of the power of the ‘net and had lots of paranoia about having an online persona. Emails and eBay were manageable, and made Christmas shopping much easier. But just before my sister emigrated to Australia in 2006, I saw her clicking away on the social networking site “MySpace”. I decided to set myself up a profile so I could easily keep in touch with her. I liked the easy sharing of pictures and links and the broader opportunity of linking up with others outside of my usual social realm. It took me a few months to put a picture up, and even then it was of me in disguise. Initially my profile was public but I tired of getting rude messages of a sexual nature. So, swiftly making my profile “private” I continued to experiment with online social networking. I decided that I wanted to be very upfront about who I am , including all my quirks and bizarre preferences. I was sure that somewhere out there in the world there would be people with whom what I wanted to say resonated and this absolutely turned out to be the case. I scoured the lists of users for women roughly 10 years either side of me in age and looked at their profiles, sending a friend request if their profiles or blogs piqued my curiosity enough. Occasionally I would receive a friend request from somebody that wasn’t some dodgy bloke asking for private pictures, and so as time went on I accumulated many online “friends”.
Online romance blossomed where it wasn’t being looked for and whilst on MySpace I was aware that two British "friends" were having online relationships with American men they had “met” on MySpace. It seemed a little crazy at the time, but they are all married now and really happy. One of the benefits to online courting is that you have time and space to really get to know each other without getting physically hooked on one another. Of course, the physical side is a valid and important part of intimate relationships, and I know a few people who “fell in love” online and then when they met in the flesh it was a disappointment, because the chemistry just wasn’t there or because one or both had simply told too many fibs about themselves.
Forming close friendships
I am aware and cautious of the perils of an online presence but having spent a good while socialising in Cyberspace I am as aware of the good as the bad. I have had the privilege of being able to make very meaningful connections with people. My friend Sue, who shares her experience below, has shared ups and downs with me and she helped me through some challenging times through online messaging.
My longest and best online friend has got to be a man who I shall refer to as bollers. He writes a little about our friendship in a paragraph below. We have known each other for nearly 7 years now and I believe that we have provided a lot of mutual support and companionship throughout life’s ups and downs. bollers was kind and trusting enough to share with me the difficulties of his diagnosis of suffering with schizophrenia and I have learned a lot about his experience. He has had his fair share of my issues directed his way so it feels, to me, like a two-way street with plenty of room for us to walk freely side by side. In fact, bollers very generously assisted me with my Counselling Certificate presentation on schizophrenia. As part of my presentation I asked my peers a week or so beforehand what they would ask if they could ask a person with schizophrenia anything. On the day, I handed them back their questions and asked them in turn to read the questions out loud. On a big projector screen was a recording of bollers, answering the questions individually, his face filling the screen, his voice booming around the room, his very presence felt by all. Not bad for a self-professed hermit and such a generous thing to do. After 4 and half years of online friendship we met in the flesh – he came to stay for a long weekend, and it was so fantastic to spend time with him. He was as he is online.
I have made other good friends online. Codename is a marvellous mentor. I first met her on MySpace and was deeply impressed by her intelligence and philosophical leanings. She made the leap to Facebook, when MySpace started to lose what was good about it, and the friendship grew. She helped me with some of my written assignments for my diploma in counselling and gave excellent, supportive feedback. I finally got to meet her in the flesh a year or so ago and she is as sidesplittingly funny, gorgeous and deeply intelligent as her online persona.
From personal experience I am aware that meaningful relationship can be made online and am looking to integrate an element of online counselling into my private practice. For bollers, online relationship was the only feasible option. For me, it was an opportunity to be brave enough to express who I really am, a risk that was very much worth taking.
Here follows a few paragraphs written by people who have kindly agreed to share their experience of cyber-relationship.
I didn't meet my partner online, though we did start seeing each other and properly getting to know one another shortly before he was due to spend a four month stint in the States.
So when he went away, we were at that crucial 'are we going to carry on seeing each other stage'. Our interaction was quite constant on Skype, and we would talk for (literally) hours every day. It was kind of nice because I had the opportunity to separate the exciting physicality of a new relationship from the actually talking and getting to know each other. Having said that, it was also very frustrating not to be able to touch the other person, and we did engage in a bit of web cam naughtiness. As the months drew on, we both became more and more frustrated with the inadequacy of online contact, and by the end of three months, we were talking less on Skype. Interestingly, talking on the phone became preferable, I suppose because there was a juddering web cam, or slight time delay, it actually felt more real to speak.
I met my wife online and though one would think it wouldn’t be the most normal place to meet someone I did and I am glad I did. Never did it before, but if I didn’t I would have never met my wife. If you think of it bars, clubs, stores etc aren't really that good places. It took six months of writing back and forth before she gave me her telephone number, and another two weeks of texts before she allowed me to ring her but it was well worth it. I waited 46ys for the love of my life and I did it online. Crazy as it seems, it worked for me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I was probably the most unlikely person to ever have imagined I’d end up married to someone who I met online, but this is exactly what happened. In 2008 I got talking to a chap in America on MySpace and we messaged for nine months just chatting and catching up on life. Over this time we became really good friends and would ring each other and text, after some persuasion by him, as I was very cautious and doubtful of online friendships being anything other than that. However in 2009 we finally met in person and knew immediately it was going to be a big relationship, we always maintained our online relationship when he went back home and this became a huge part of our courting and when we married in 2011 in Las Vegas the first thing we did was publish our wedding pics on Facebook and MySpace as it has been such a major part in bringing us together over all the miles. Although at the moment my husband cannot live with me in the UK as he has various things to tie up before he moves here permanently, we still communicate by messaging and msn and truly think that online relationships are probably more likely to succeed than randomly meeting people the normal route ie pubs clubs etc... In online relationships you tend to open up more about your life and I think this can either determine if you are suited or not to one another’s lifestyles. So all I can say is I’m very grateful for online messaging as its brought me someone who is wonderful to me and my children. Along the way I’ve met quite a few new friends on it , of course there has been occasional "weird " people but I can say genuinely the majority of friends I’ve made are ones I will keep forever Amanda being one of them as she too has had lot of experience, and has often given us advice and help along the way to which we are extremely blessed and grateful.
in a land before facebook there lived a magical kingdom called myspace and it was here that i first encountered amanda. she had left a interesting comment about a television “face” and i had felt compelled to write to her, which was saying something as over the prior few years i had turned into a hermit who’d left all his friends long behind whilst learning to live with being schizophrenic. this was a new horizon for me that offered some hope of a future as well as being a worthy new way to pass the time as i convalesced. so “message” amanda i did and thankfully she replied and that is how it began.
what do i like about cyber friendships? well typing keys opposed to chatting face to face allows me to pause for thought, unlike when i am in a “real” life situations, as i have a proven record of putting my foot in it. it also suits my hermit lifestyle, a way of having company in my life without a lot of the hassle. then there’s the possibility of helping other people, which by its very act helps me- not that i ever expect anything back from a online friendship but more often than not it does happen, simple things like someone to hear my space like scream from time to time.
i am no expert on this sort of thing, the number of online friendships i’ve been in is low, but quantity is not the issue, it’s about the quality of the relationship, about creating meaningful relationships and that takes effort and honesty reciprocated both ways and this is something i have found with amanda. she’s straight talking in a gentle way and her words are always the righteous truth. she has much wisdom within her and being part of her life is something i shall always treasure. with cyber friends travelling the galaxy becomes a reality.
My presence on the ‘net as a therapist
The issue of therapist self-disclosure gets batted round from time to time. Should we be “blank screens”? Is it really possible to be “blank screens”? I don’t think so. What I believe, and this works for some people (but I do not claim that it will work for all), is that looking for a therapist is tricky. That there are many homogenised counselling websites out there – how do you choose who to see? Some of my clients have told me that it is purely down to the amount of information I share on my website that makes them choose me. They feel more comfortable knowing more about me beforehand, and I have even heard that they felt a connection with me before meeting me. This fits perfectly with my experience (click here for my blog on my session with the world famous psychotherapist and author Irvin Yalom) of feeling a connection of another through reading their written word.
Amanda Williamson is a professional counsellor with a thriving private practice in central Exeter, UK
Amanda Williamson is a professional counsellor with a thriving private practice in central Exeter, UK