Certain languages have different words for two different kinds of love. Intensely romantic love – the kind people describe as “getting hit over the head by a ton of bricks” – goes by a different word than the kind of love that exists between two people who’ve been married for years. One kind can be obsessive and all-consuming, while the second can feel comfortable, familiar, and caring.
New research is indicating that online love affairs work differently than conventional face-to-face ones. Online lovers can become more psychologically and emotionally intimate more quickly than people in conventional dating relationships precisely because the relationship is not face-to-face.
People behave and communicate more openly when they cannot see each other face-to-face. For example, an interesting study of college students performed in 1973 found that those who met in darkened rooms were more open to one another and communicated more freely than those who met in rooms brightly lit with fluorescent lights.
According to Dr. Aaron Ben-Ze-ev, author of Love Online: Emotions on the Internet, “Online technology enables having a connection that is faster and more direct,” and yet at the same time, the technology facilitates an open and intimate kind of communication commonly found only in letter-writing.
Because online lovers are unable to see one another, they are more likely to create fantasies and to idealize each other. For a woman who has been in a long-term marriage, having a man who makes her feel beautiful, funny, and desirable can be exhilarating. For a man who thinks his wife is more concerned with his children than him, the online lover who makes him feel interesting and sexy again can quickly become an obsession. Sexual energy also builds up between the two precisely because they cannot physically consummate their relationship, making the affair all the more intense and interesting.
Emailing and texting create what psychologists call the “Cyrano de Bergerac” effect. The person receiving them tends to project all the qualities they want in a lover onto the writer. If my husband is logical and grounded, this new man is romantic and appreciative. If my wife is overweight and boring, my online partner is gorgeous and fascinating. Cheating partners usually tell themselves that this new relationship is everything they have ever been looking for.
The initial stage of love has been compared to drug addiction, and new science does support the premise that “love is a drug.” For example, magnetic resonance technology can show that the brains of infatuated people release certain brain chemicals associated with pleasure and that their strong emotions cause measurable changes in their brains. And when you break up with someone, your brain registers it the same way it registers physical pain.
Exhilaration? Discovery? Infatuation? Obsession? Getting hit by a ton of bricks? A long-term marriage cannot compete with it until the unfaithful partner realizes that the kind of love he or she is looking for is the lifetime caring and sharing that happily married people understand.