We’ve seen the raised eyebrow that greets us when we talk about a relationship that is conducted online, with a person whom we rarely or never meet face-to-face. And we’re all familiar with the part that folks sometimes have trouble accepting: that you can have a healthy, substantive and fulfilling relationship with someone purely through the exchange of text-based messages.* Mixed into that skepticism, I think, is also a sense that an online relationship is faddish. Newfangled. A new manifestation of technology for its own sake. Bound to fail or inherently misguided because it’s contrary to the way people have always naturally talked to each other.
It’s not any of those things.
At earlier times in human history, when travel to neighboring communities was expensive or dangerous and travel to distant lands all but impossible for the average citizen, letter-writing reigned as the essential medium for carrying on a relationship with a trusted friend, family member, business associate or romantic partner in a far-off place. Written correspondence became so central to everyday life that a rich literary genre rose up around it: the epistolary novel, structured entirely around the exchange of letters. Letter-writing has served as a central part of family and business life until very, very recently (historically speaking), when the invention of the telegraph and then of the telephone gave us other options.
(Monica Whitty writes about the tradition of romantic correspondence and how it might parallel online relationships in her fascinating article, “Love letters: The development of romantic relationships throughout the ages,” compiled in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology.)
When correspondence was the only tool we had for talking to those who couldn’t be there with us, we cherished the letter and nurtured our skill in expressing ourselves with the written word. Now we have a technology that welcomes us back into the epistolary tradition, giving us a new means of overcoming a geographical barrier to form an intimate bond. Is a relationship conducted via email or chat different in some basic ways than a face-to-face relationship? Sure — and helping folks understand how the medium might be influencing the message is part of my work as a therapist specializing in online issues. But when the validity of your online relationship is challenged, take heart. Hundreds of years of human history say you’re in good company.
A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.
* The advent of Skype, as broadband connectivity becomes increasingly affordable, offers an online communication medium that includes visual and sound cues, but I’ll focus on text-based correspondence for the purposes of this post.