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Column: Did I really fall in love online?

Falling in love with someone you’ve never met sounds unlikely… but when have our rational minds ever controlled our hearts?

Christine Allen Sports convert and IT engineer

“I JUST LOVE everything about her – she’s my world. ”

Early last year, I glanced up from the latest Linwood Barclay novel to see a guy waxing lyrical on my TV screen about a woman. Nothing unusual there, right?

Think again.

As the episode continued, it soon became apparent that the man in question had never met his ‘dreamgirl’ in real life. In fact, he had never even spoken to her via Skype. Lengthy VOIP conversations and a handful of photographs made up the extent of their courtship.

As you may have guessed, I was watching an episode of MTV’s popular online dating series Catfish. Despite all the hype surrounding it, it was in fact the first time that I had ever seen the series.

I pressed mute on the television, laughing inwardly not only at the notion that someone would proclaim their love for a person that they had never met, but at their choice to do it with a global audience watching.

Why would anyone invest their time and energy into an online relationship?

You see, at the time I believed that people who were one half of a purely online relationship had a void in their day-to-day life that needed to be filled. After all, why would anyone invest their time and energy in someone that they had never physically touched, when they could be pursuing other more substantial relationships?

However recently, something happened that caused me to reassess my initial judgemental attitude.

I met someone. Online.

While our situation was slightly different from any romantic relationship depicted on MTV’s Catfish – in that we Skyped regularly, and so knew exactly who we were talking to – it was similar in that our ‘courtship’ occurred online. This was due to the fact that we lived in different cities.

In fact, this distance was the primary factor in our decision to place our pursuit of a romantic relationship on hold. Instead, we opted for a friendship (famous last words.)

And here is where the Catfish connection kicks in.

As our online communication continued, increasing in its frequency despite our all-so-sensible decision to keep things strictly platonic, I found myself looking forward to our next Skype and smiling like a Cheshire cat whenever we were in communication.

I began to deeply care for her, and found myself missing her when her Facebook Messenger chat light was off. Most tellingly, I found myself thinking about her when on real life dates with others.

Had I fallen in love with someone through my smartphone?

After a few months of engaging in this intense communication behind a screen, we decided to take a step back.

While our choice to take some space wasn’t technically the ending of a relationship in the real world sense, it sure felt like it. I missed her as if she had been a physical presence in my life. And so it got me thinking… had I fallen in love with someone via my smartphone?

Throwback to the ’90s Haddaway hit here, but I wanted to know, ‘What is Love?’

So, I did what most of us do when curious about a topic. I googled.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only person who had looked to the world’s largest search engine for an answer to such a philosophical question. In 2012, ‘What is Love?’ was in fact the most searched term on Google.

So what did I find?

Well, the meaning of love differs – depending on who you ask.

The biologist will describe love purely from a neurological point of view. The chemistry involved – dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, otherwise known as the ‘feel good hormones’ – that are released in their droves when we fall head over heels for someone.

The romance novelist, on the other hand, will favour the Wuthering Heights depiction of love between Heathcliff and Cathy – an all-consuming obsession, a physical pain. Meanwhile, the psychoanalyst may refer to the declaration of love as a wish to be loved.

However, according to Anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher, who has been studying the subject for more than 32 years, love can be categorised into three ‘entities’ – lust, romance and attachment.

Lust, romance and attachment don’t need to occur in sequence

Perhaps most relevant to the argument that love can develop purely through an online medium is Fisher’s finding that an individual can fall in love with another before the relationship progresses to the physical – that the entities of lust, romance and attachment don’t need to occur in sequence.

Yet, on the other hand, her studies state that physical contact can’t be minimised.

Activities such as holding hands and looking deeply into a loved one’s eyes were found to drive oxytocin levels, a hormone associated with the feeling of trust. Vasopressin, a hormone which stimulates the long-term commitment stage was also found to be released after physical sex.

So far, it was becoming clear that the releasing of certain brain chemicals were tied to the experience of falling in love. So, if such hormones were triggered only on foot of physical contact, how could anyone claim to have fallen in love via their iPhone?

Does the brain distinguish different types of conversation? 

Professor of neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University, Paul J Zak, offered an explanation. While examining how our perceptions of our relationships via social media differed to our views of our real life relationships, he found that the brain didn’t distinguish between a post on social media and a conversation in person.

In fact, in one study Zak recorded a 150% spike in the oxytocin levels of a South Korean man who spent ten minutes posting to his girlfriend’s Facebook page.

Aaron Ben Ze’ev, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa and author of the book Love Online: Emotions on the Internet, believes that despite the lack of physical contact, falling in love online is not only entirely possible, but understandable:

“Online technology enables a connection that is faster and more direct. It enables ongoing dialogue as compared to the slow interactions that are typical of letters.”

Keeping in train with this viewpoint, Catalina Toma, an associate professor of Communications at the University of Wisconcin has found that humans who communicate remotely by email or chat often have an easier time forming personal bonds than people who meet face-to-face.

Are our definitions of relationships – and even love itself – changing?

With the Hava Worldwide annual ‘Love & Lust’ survey also revealing that almost one third of 18–34 year olds believe that virtual reality is reality, I couldn’t help but wonder if our definitions of not only love, but our relationships too, were set to change in the future.

With regard to the future of our relationships, according to artifical intelligence expert David Levy’s book Love and Sex with Robots, humans will be falling in love with machines by 2050.

Sounds a little out there right? Not according to Steve Brown, a futurist at Intel who focuses on evolving trends in technology:

We have this device that has become a companion. As these devices become more personal and they get to know us, that bond and the relationship we feel with our devices will only start to strengthen.

Despite the work of engineers globally at this very moment to progress our computers capabilities to understand us, our iPads are a long way from having a consciousness akin to the operation system Samantha, as depicted in Spike Jonze’s film Her. But what about our online relationships with other humans? Are they set to continue to play a more dominant role in our love lives?

Ze’ev doesn’t think that online relationships will ever replace offline ones – but he does believe that the advent of internet relationships will cause us to develop a greater sense of ‘romantic flexibility’ and ‘imagination’.

However, recent findings like those uncovered by Harris Interactive, in conjuctuon with online dating site AnastasiaDate, in which 39% of respondents confirmed that they could in fact fall in love with someone that they had never met in person, may indicate the potential for many of us to fall in love via broadband in the near future.

When have our rational minds ever controlled our hearts?

So, after undertaking all of the above research, do I believe that I fell in love online?

Maybe.

While I undoubtedly experienced feelings associated with falling in love, the rational part of my brain can’t help but be sceptical. After all, when only conversing with someone through the internet, how can anyone be certain that the person they love is not just an ideal, presented to them in a certain light?

Then again, when do our rational minds ever control our hearts? Mine certainly wasn’t in the driving seat as I rushed back from a meeting with friends in order to Skype my online ‘friend.’

Perhaps Ed Sheeran hit the nail on the head when he put pen to paper and wrote, ‘Maybe we found love right where we are.’

Christine is 26 and entering her third year of Information Technology at DCU – a part time course funded for those that are unemployed. In between trying to get to grips with JAVA programming and looking for work, she loves nothing better than sitting down at the laptop with a cup of tea, and writing. She has been published in DIVA Magazine, on TheJournal.ie and Gaelick.com. She is also Opinions Editor for the DCU newspaper, thecollegeview. One day she would like to be known as the lesbian version of Carrie Bradshaw. Follow Christine on Twitter @AllenChristine2.

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About the author:

Christine Allen  / Sports convert and IT engineer

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