I am sure there is a lot unknown and unclear about the Manti Te’o virtual girlfriend situation. If you haven’t read about this already, a synopsis is; football player Manti Te’o was hoaxed by a friend, who had unrequited romantic feeling for Manti Te’o, into having an online and phone relationship with a fictional woman. This relationship apparently went on for 3 years. After this time, the friend had the fake girlfriend die of leukemia. Manti Te’o went public with his grief and the hoax was revealed.
Now I feel sad for the suffering of everyone in this story and am unwilling to speculate about how this all unfolded. As a couple’s therapist however, it does bring up some fascinating questions about our current cultural models of relationship and intimacy and how social media and technology are re-shaping what it means to be connected. I have seen priorities change and more of more of the meat of communication happening through text or online sites. And while I recognize the convenience of being virtually connected, I worry about some of the deeper impacts on our relationships. I think it is important to ask ourselves some questions as we navigate these cultural changes.
Do we now think it is reasonable to have a significant relationship with someone that we cannot make time to see in person in over 3 years? Have we developed a cultural model in which we are all so busy that actually being physically together is negotiable? A 3 year romantic relationship is an extreme example, no doubt, but I encourage you to think about your friendships and how often you now prioritize updating posts so that people are “caught up with your life” versus making plans to see someone live and in person. How much time do you spend with romantic partners that doesn’t involve looking into screens? How many relationships are you willing to spend energy on when the thought of actually doing something with that person is unappealing?
Do we believe that people’s words are the core of who they are and the primary way to get to know them? As a therapist, I see every day the difference between what people say and what they feel, in fact this is much of what couples therapy is meant to reveal – the truth functioning underneath all the words. Now that most everyone has an online profile (or two), are we relying on that manufactured information to get to know someone? I recently read that people no longer know what to talk about on first dates because they have already read a basic bio of the person, which leads me to wonder – have we forgotten how to talk about our lives, the things we like, the dreams we have? Are we losing the gift of reading subtle cues from people, body language, eye contact, even the way we respond to the world around us? I remember when I was dating we learned a lot from observing how a person treated the waitstaff. Is this kind of social interaction irrelevant now? Is how someone literally moves through the world - how they drive, how much patience they show in doing tasks, if they move out of the way for other people in a crowded space- no longer considered part of who they are? Do we know the difference between persona and personality? Do we care?
And, of course, I do not know what kind of sexuality was or was not being expressed in Manti Te’o’s virtual relationship, but I worry for us all about the beautiful, awkward, sweaty, intimate, vulnerable, bonding experience of human sexuality being squeezed out by a reliance on the ease of words and pictures, fictional stories and our own minds. Virtual sex can be a fun addition but I hope we never lose sight of our desire for the astounding, risky experience of being physical with another person, and what it asks of us.
I have my own “connections” to celebrities, writers, artists, even politicians, that I will never meet in person. And I will grieve for them when they are gone and no longer playing an active part in my world. I believe it is good for us to learn from strangers, to allow ourselves to feel love for people far apart from us, to even develop stories about what they are like in person. But I hope I never lose sight of the fact that I do not know these people – that, in fact, they are a mystery to me, no matter how much written material I read about them. I hope I never forget to value the subtlety and fragility in the ongoing process of really getting to know someone.