Dumped by an online lover – before you ever met. Why does it still hurt so much?

Online love connections happen everyday, partly because, in the last decade, the popularity of dating sites has grown exponentially. The top five dating sites boast a combined 65-million users, and add to that the “hooking up” that happens through social networking sites, and you can see it’s a whole new world of dating, mating, and relating. For single Moms the allure of meeting a romantic suitor online is huge because it so darned convenient. Courtship can be managed without makeup, high heels, or an expensive babysitter. And imagine what’s in it for the guys. Not one dime shelled out for romantic dates. Sounds like a win-win. But more often it’s a lose-lose.

Dumped by an online lover

One new phenomenon in the high-tech dating landscape is the online or telephone break up that occurs even before the first date. Here’s the usual scenario: You meet a guy online and begin an email exchange that evolves into a phone and text relationship. Photos are exchanged. Intimacies are revealed. Weeks or months may go by as your build up to that first date. You begin to fantasize about your possible lives together. Then it’s suddenly over. If you’re lucky you get “the chat” or in worst cases you are suddenly defriended on Facebook. And when this happens the feelings are very real and very visceral. Confusing, I know. The guy wasn’t even a real-world presence. Yet the feelings of loss were so painful. Like a real break up, you drag your feet for a week or longer and vow never to enter love’s snare again.

In one other scenario of this mating dance, you finally do meet in the real world, and after one meeting, everything fallsWhy does it still hurt so much? apart. The spell is broken and he disappears from your cyber world.

So, psychologically speaking, what’s going on here? Let’s start with what’s NOT going on here. What’s not going on here is authentic love. What’s not going on here is even a relationship. What IS going on here is something Psychologists call mutual projections. In an online courtship, you are in love with your own fantasies of what the perfect love-mate is, that is, your own projections. And, he (if he is actually a he) is doing the same thing. It’s like you have a blank screen on which to project a perfect sketch of a mate. And it feels real because he plays along just enough to feed your fantasies. In a cyber match up, you are not in love with him, the real, thinking, breathing, flawed, him. You are in love with hope. Hope that this time he could be the one to bring you happiness. And when that hope is taken away, it hurts. It hurts bad. The loss of hope can sometimes hurt even more than the loss of a real-world guy who might not have put the toilet seat down nor taken out the trash. Because in a cyber break up, you’ve lost the perfect man.

Add to those feelings of loss, the feelings of shame that you divulged so many intimate secrets about yourself. To a total stranger, no less. Some people feel more comfortable getting a root canal than talking about their feelings. But for some reason typing feelings feels less threatening, so chances are this was one of your most intimate risks. Although the love wasn’t real, the feelings associated with the break up can be very, very real.

So, what’s the solution? To swear off cyber love forever? No. Meeting a guy online is a great way to find a budding relationship. The protective solution is not to avoid the game but to know the psychological rules. And the rules are simple: Exert boundaries online and meet in the real world before projections run wild. What does that mean? It means that it’s perfectly okay to have a few email exchanges that amount to some cocktail party chat. Safe subjects might include: the weather, sports, your family structure, age & hair color, your college alma-mater or hometown. But steer clear of conversations that involve your past (or present) relationships, your fears, loves, childhood pain, and aspirations for life. This kind of talk is guaranteed to feed the machine of romantic projections.

Then try to meet quickly while you are both still strangers and can sniff mutual pheromones before your heart has been put on the table. And, for darned sake, ladies, do it as safely as possible. He could be an axe murderer! Get all his real-world contact info, check it out, and then text it to your best friend before you meet. Bring your own car and meet in daylight in a familiar place. If there is a counter, sit up at the counter so the staff are aware you are there and this is a meeting with a stranger. No dark tables in the back where the date rape drug can be administered privately!

If that little motherly chat has you too scared to meet in the real world, let me ask you this: If you are leery about having coffee, why would you spend hours late at night chatting online and handing him your heart on a silver platter? Oh yes, the allure of the perfect man. Online love can be intoxicating and addicting. But an online lover will never split the mortgage or sub for a carpool run. Remember that.

Dr. Wendy Walsh is America’s thought leader on relationships, appearing weekly on CNN and Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor. She also hosts Investigation Discovery Network’s “Happily Never After” and authored the best selling book, The 30-Day Love Detox.

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