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I’m really happy I’m not in my 20s and looking for love in 2013. It’s not that I love being middle-aged (although I’ve accepted it and am aging as gracefully as I can). It’s just that I remember when things were, well, different.

I’m old enough to remember when a guy asked you out on a real date, not a text, “do u want 2 hang out?” There was a bit of a courtship, too, a slow seduction that made sex — when you finally got around to it — that much more exciting.

I’m old enough that porn wasn’t an issue in your relationship; if your boyfriend wanted to look at porn, he’d have to steal his dad’s Playboy or his older brother’s Hustler. There didn’t seem to be “porn addicts.”   Virtual_lovers

And I’m old enough that I wasn’t competing with videogames and virtual reality games. I hear a lot
of twenty- and thirty-something women complain about how much time their boyfriends/husbands spend in front of their PlayStations and Xboxes, and some studies suggest video game playing can impact relationships. It didn’t strike me as being much different than sitting in front of the tube watching crap. But then I came upon a study, Does Loving an Avatar Threaten Real Life Marriage?, which looks at how an online virtual world such as Second Life (SL) compares with real life (RL). As one might expect, fantasy trumps reality:

the results of this study found virtual love in SL to be highly satisfying for those participants studied. In fact, the results of this study clearly and consistently showed that: 1). virtual relationships can be highly satisfying for those involved in them, for both males and females; 2). men typically found their virtual relationships and real life relationships to be equally satisfying; 3). women were typically more satisfied with their avatar partner than they were with their real life lover; 4). and that SL love was never found to be less satisfying than RL love, for either women or men in any of the statistical analyses conducted. And with 81.7% of those studied reporting that they were involved with an avatar partner who was not their RL partner, it clearly seems that romantic virtual relationships may not only be as, or even more, attractive than real ones, but that virtual love can actually provide relationship satisfaction that may both rival and threaten RL love. The power of this potential threat to marriage, family, and other committed relationships represents an important focus for future research. tweet

Is that last sentence disturbing to you, too?

OK, before we get to that, the study’s authors themselves are surprised at their results, mostly by how:

relating to an avatar on a gaming social platform can be both real and satisfying for males and females despite the virtual and real distances between avatar partners, despite the lack of intimate knowledge (even true RL gender) of a relationship partner, and despite the overall RL veil of secrecy behind which any avatar plays. It is also surprising that both men and women felt themselves to be in truly committed relationships on SL even though all that is required to end an SL relationship is to simply never log on again or to log on as a brand new, alternative avatar (i.e. an “alt”); this enabling that player to continue playing the game while remaining completely hidden from an old love. tweet

Why would someone feel that attached to someone with whom he or she has no real physical intimacy? Well, that’s the question and answer right there. The anonymity of virtual love, the authors suggest, may allow for more disclosure in the absence of actual intimacy. You know how you reveal so much of yourself and your life to a stranger on a plane or bus? You don’t have to have physical intimacy to communicate in real and meaningful ways with someone you’ve never met before.

And, some believe it’s possible to have meaningful — dare I say loving — relationships with our new technology.  As I wrote in “Can Loving a Robot Lead to Divorce,” According to artificial intelligent expert David Levy, author of Love and Sex With Robots:

human-robot sex, love and marriage is inevitable — perhaps as soon as 2025. He predicts that robots may not only be more lovable and faithful than many humans, but they may even be more emotionally available than the “typical American human male.” Not only will they make us become better, more creative lovers, but they also will offer those singles who feel a void in their emotional and sexual lives and married couples with differing sexual needs new, nonjudgmental ways to be happy and healthy. tweet

We really don’t understand how technology is effecting us emotionally, but some people such as human/computer interface psychology consultants are exploring that; there’s even a book to help people handle virtual online world relationships.

So, let’s get back to that last sentence: are online virtual games like SL a “potential threat to marriage, family, and other committed relationships”?

If technology is increasingly being mentioned as a factor in divorce and even eHarmony”s relationship psychologist acknowledges that commitment is at odds with technology, it seems like the answer is yes — although perhaps those relationships would have been threatened by anything. What do you think?


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