Q : I am a divorced American man with a 12-year-old daughter living in the US. Three years ago, I started an online friendship with a French woman. We really clicked, and eventually fell deeply in love. We talked many times on the phone besides e-mailing each other every day. After ten months, I asked her to come and live with me and she accepted. This woman always called me, and never gave me her address or phone. About a month before she was due to arrive, her brother e-mailed me that she had been killed in a car crash. My life just collapsed, and I’ve been depressed ever since. A colleague who knows the whole story thinks I’ve been duped, and suggested I write to you because you live in France, and might help me find out more.
A : This story is very sad because of the pain and anguish you have been through. What you tell me sounds suspicious and demonstrates the danger of online romances. The depth of communication which you experienced is a phenomenon often encountered in such relationships. Without the elements inherent in face-to-face communication physical appearance, dress, ethnicity, mannerisms etc. which often determine willingness to engage or not in a relationship, people’s perceptions of one another are formed solely on the basis of the information given, which can be whatever a person wants. This can range from lying about one’s age to lying about one’s sex, and an exchange of photographs can be equally fraudulent.
Being able to express oneself in the absence of all environmental stimuli including immediate verbal and non-verbal feedback from the other, gives us the sensation of being “our real selves” in online relationships. But how real are we outside the constraints of our daily lives? We need to eat, sleep, keep ourselves and our homes clean, attend to friends and family members, make and spend money... None of these often conflict-causing phenomena enter into a cyber-rapport, which can retain a form of purity until its transformation into real time and space pokes holes in the illusion.
To understand how we get trapped, we must also look at our own hopes, expectations and “neediness.” All of us have an ardent wish to meet that soul mate who’s going to understand, comfort, accept and unconditionally love us. Some of us have unhappy lives, are either really alone, or are lonely within our existing relationships. In such cases, the perceived synchronicity between the e-companion and oneself (based often on what may be partial or total misrepresentations of the truth), as well as the interpersonal closeness which self-disclosure is known to engender, makes that companion more of a character that we shape within our own intrapsychic world, than a real flesh-and-blood and inevitably imperfect human being.
Your online friend may well have had feelings for you at some point, but at the basis there was probably a gross deception which caused her to fake her own death as a way of getting out of an impossible situation. This is cruel indeed, but your own reluctance to take basic precautions such as insisting on a face-to-face encounter at an early stage of the correspondence, and your willingness to accept many of her excuses throughout, are what you need to examine more closely, as you seek to understand your long-lasting devastation over the loss of a person you never once saw.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem. Tel: 01 43 54 79 25. Questions for the Close-Ups column may be mailed to the Paris Voice, 7 rue Papillon, 9e, or emailed to her directly at JABourdais@aol.com