At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking we have a script for dating. We meet on apps or in person; we go on dates. We go from ‘casual’ to ‘seeing each other’ to ‘in a relationship’, from first kiss to, months or years later, moving in together, sometimes marriage. There are exceptions, obviously – human relationships are far from categorisable. But when we enter a new emotional entanglement, we like to believe we know what we’re doing.
Online, we have no such script. Exchanging 50,000 messages with someone in the space of a few months simply isn’t built into our dating to-do list – it’s not a recognisable milestone like a first kiss, the first time you sleep with someone. It’s more nebulous than that – partly, I suppose, because it’s not a discrete event, partly because it doesn’t happen in person.
This can lead to a strange linguistic and emotional gap. It’s less clear what has happened or how to talk about it when a relationship takes place mostly or wholly online – we question whether it was ‘real’ or not, whether it meant something at all. A few years ago, breaking it off with someone I was dating, I realised my sadness was largely based on our online interactions, not our in-person meetings – and that was someone I’d met in real life.
There are others, more recent, who I’ll never meet: someone I exchanged tens of thousands of messages with; voice notes, photos, videos, texts. It all took place online – not even a phone call – and was mostly non-sexual. The intimacy was intangible, yes, but it was also undeniable.
So why, with the relationship over, do I not feel equipped to talk about it? It was hard to verbalise, to start: how could I tell my friends I was so sad about someone I’d never even met? How could I even begin to process it myself? The sheer context I had to explain so my therapist understood made it all seem faintly absurd.
This speaks to a wider tendency: a desire to categorise our relationships, scrutinising them in excruciating detail in an attempt to shove them into spaces that don’t, in the end, do them justice at all. Sometimes, this can help us: there’s no point being led on forever by someone not interested in having a relationship with you, in being glumly and permanently heartbroken over a friend who may or may not want more. But to do so with other relationships can squeeze the joy from them, the intimacy; it chokes the life from them altogether.
We do it with sadness, too, even have trite little sayings about it: “getting over someone takes half the time you were with them”; “getting over someone takes three months”. I once saw an article that suggested it takes exactly 17 months and 26 days to really get over the end of a long-term relationship: a real and very precise attempt at making a science of heartbreak.
This isn’t how it should work – and, in reality, it isn’t. Sometimes, we feel more for someone we spend a week with than someone we date for six months; sometimes someone we’ve never met means more to us than someone we’ve known all our lives. I think of exes I’m not really over, even years later; others I’ve felt immediately able to be friends with, to speak to every day and feel nothing romantic towards at all. Time can be an element, yes, but in other ways it can mean absolutely nothing at all: there’s no hierarchy when it comes to emotion, after all.
This isn’t a plea to be stricter with vocabulary: the opposite, in fact. Our urge to pin down love or intimacy – which in reality is strange and shifting – is understandable. We want to categorise things because it makes them feel more real, more significant; because it makes our sadness feel more justified when things end, because it makes it easier to talk about. But, on the whole, it’s fruitless.
It might be frustrating that we don’t quite have the words to describe the connections we forge online: we might never know whether a relationship was platonic or romantic, someone a friend or a partner or a lover or something skewed and in-between, something we don’t have a word for at all. But that doesn’t make what happened less meaningful: it makes it more substantial, more intimate, more authentic. It makes it tangible and it makes it alive.
In my connection online, I felt something real and true, something deeper and more sincere than many experiences I’ve had offline in the last few months. It doesn’t matter what you want to call it: in simple terms, it meant something to me. It’s that purity of feeling we should cherish – not the words we use to pointlessly, ineptly, inadequately describe it.
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