You Need Help: Falling in Love In One (Digital) Dimension

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you seek advice and we try our very best to give it.

This has traditionally been done by way of individual Formspring accounts, Autostraddle’s Tumblr and a Formspring Friday column, which has all been very fun and insightful. But, because Formspring has a character limit and we’re wildly optimistic w/r/t our time-management skills, we thought we’d go one further and let you use our ASS private messaging to share advice-related feelings, too.

For more info on sending in questions, see the bottom of this post. Let’s get down to bossing people around on the internet! Today we’ve got someone who is falling in love on the internet, as we are wont to do.

Q: What do you think about people who have long distance relationships online with people they’ve never met? Can it be real love if you haven’t met the person in real life?

I’m answering this assuming that you’ve already done the following things:

+ video-chatted
+ talked to one or more of her friends on video or voice chat & vice versa
+ called her from a location other than your room
+ thoroughly vetted her facebook page
+ mailed her something

So, now for the answer! “Real love” is a difficult thing to define, but I think I know what you mean and um — [ready your keyboard-typing fingers to vehemently disagree with me, my long-distance lovers!] — I would have to say “not really.”

Let me explain. I think you can love a friend you’ve never met in real life and you can even love a friend you’ll never meet in real life. Sometimes it’s even easier to build bonds online because you’re less inhibited. There’s actually a really interesting PBS/Frontline documentary called “Digital Nation” you should check out which addresses the fact that with so much of our lives online these days, maybe our cyber-relationships are just as important as our “physical” relationships.

I also think that the quality of your online relationship is pretty good indicator of how well it’d work in the “real world.” I think the odds are absolutely in your favor.

But they’re not guaranteed. Can you develop a genuine, sustainable relationship with someone you’ve not met IRL? In my opinion — no.  I’d say you can’t be SURE that it’s “real love” until you meet in person, see how you jibe romantically and, ideally, MAKE OUT. 

See, over the last five years I’ve probably been through the process of meeting someone online, developing a friendship with them online, and then, many days, weeks, months or even years later; meeting them in person, like a billion times. Not necessarily romantic interests, but friends. From this I’ve learned that there is so much you don’t know about somebody ’til you meet them in real life. I don’t want that to sound sinister, ’cause it’s not — it’s not like people turn out WORSE than you’d imagined or even BETTER. It’s just — MORE.

There seems to be no exact science to predicting who will surprise you and who will be just as you’d imagined.

Ultimately, however, you really know very little about your overall relationship compatibility with a person based on one-on-one chats/phonecalls/video. You and your girlfriend can more or less control the image/story you present to one another (unlike in real life), and that can be really limiting even when it’s not devious or even intentional.

You thoroughly know only one element of them: how they interact with YOU, one-on-one. That’s it! Maybe you know a bit about their internet activities or they’ve told you things about their IRLives but that is so, so, so, so different than actaully witnessing their life.  (This “not real love yet” situation I’m discussing w/r/t online relationships applies to many IRL relationships which begin in tiny bubbles as well, like camp girlfriends or someone in another relationship with whom you can only cavort in private.)

It takes many months sometimes to really understand a person and subsequently understand if you can co-exist in a happy, mutually beneficial, world.

I also think that our increased focus on technology has devalued the importance of physical chemistry. This isn’t just finding the other person attractive, it’s feeling her in your bones before and after you’ve met her. It’s one of the most magical things about being alive — when you just KNOW, when you literally feel those proverbial sparks when you touch her/she touches you. As women we’re not socialized to value sex but the quality of your sex life is often the most important predictor of a relationship’s sustainability. Also sexual activities are a place where you get to know each other, too, and where your relationship develops.

Sex is a big deal. You can’t have sex with a computer.

In closing, if you want to get into a LDR with someone I really think you should meet asap! In the meantime, I suggest doing things like making each other videos of your lives, your friends, your families or even your job/school. I suggest talking to her friends/family. Also it wouldn’t hurt to maybe talk about sex and see where you’re at with that.

Also I don’t know how old you are — I think when I was younger I may have been more likely to take the risk you’re taking than I am now when anything less-than-perfect feels like a waste of time.


You should probably share your wisdom and overall feelings in the comments! There’s a good chance I’m totally wrong or left something out or haven’t been yelled at enough today.


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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3200 articles for us.


      • Nah, you’re not being critical or discouraging towards having an online relationship. It’d be the same approach to answer the questions: “Is a long-distance relationship the same as one where you live in the same city as your sweetie?” or “Is it the same when you live apart than when you live together?”

  1. I think being a bit reserved before meeting in person is a good thing. So much of human communication is non-verbal, physical cues that I think a meatspace meeting is a really good idea for most people. I know some folk who prefer to not do so; I know of a person with borderline who keeps everything online because it limits her disorder not to meet people in person. I respect that but for most, I think getting in each other’s space is recommended.

    • Right on with the part about the non-verbal communication/cues aspect.

      One of my favorite parts of a relationship (and I’m talking friendships and familial ones, too) is being able to just exist together in a physical space. I don’t have much experience with online relationships of any kind, but it seems to me that knowing someone exists via communication/media is a different feeling than physically experiencing their existence or presence.

      So, I think it’s not just a sex thing but a broader physical connection to another human being (and something you can experience without even touching).

      • yes, totally. one of my favorite parts about my gf is that we are totally fine being silent together or being around each other just doing our own thing. but having her there warms up the room/car just the same.

  2. I did this from the opposite way round, that is, I started off a relationship in person and then it went long distance, so it was all online… our online communication was just different to what it was like being physically present. I think there’s a lot I wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t been together first.

    There’s so much you can’t tell from just online, from big stuff like is there chemistry or are we sexually compatible and can we manage to live our two lives side by side… to little-stuff-that-can-be-big like personal quirks and mannerisms.

    Like Riese says it’s a good sign that your existing communication is going well, but I don’t think it’ll be until you meet in real life that you really KNOW. and maybe it’ll take a while til you KNOW. but it’s the best way to get there.

  3. The first girl I realized I had even an inkling of romantic feelings for was actually online. We met through some random forum website, it wasn’t even a dating website of any kind. We started talking about one thing through the forum and that led to chats going into the wee hours of the night and one day I realized that what I was feeling was different than what I had before.
    Was it love? Probably not. But it definitely was something. So I guess I am one that believes very much in what can happen online.

  4. GAH! I agree with you 10000%. I have so many personal feelings about this exact subject but I wont share them here.

    Four for you Riese Bernard, four for you.

  5. I really think this is so well composed. Not too long/not too short. Not too many feelings or examples. I could see it as coming across as “don’t even bother” in some peoples eyes, but I totally don’t see it. More a word of caution for getting a lot of feelings wrapped around something that is going to be stressful from the get go. I myself have been doing the online/meet people eventually thing for quite some time. You are absolutely correct.

    You NEVER KNOW until YOU MEET.

    Even if it’s just the chemistry thing, or the thing I find most often, is attention span. Are they the type to constantly fiddle on the phone, talk to others instead of you? How about you meet up and they just want to flirt with guys in a bar for free drinks and then expect to go home with you after barely speaking a full sentence all night?

    These things happen and it’s amazing how different it can be outside of that little chat box, email, whatever.

    I also like how you draw attention to the persons FRIENDS. I think that is another key point. The best I think is a video with her and her friends in it because that can really help you see the way she is irl around other people, but it’s still a very flat perspective.

    Nice warnings, and an overall good message. I wouldn’t say “Don’t bother” (neither did Riese) but be careful and if anything, if you THINK it may be SOMETHING from the GET Go, lay out some ground rules and be REAL about the situation. Even if it’s awkward if you get it out of the way it’s better than later when the “Hey I had sex with a girl this weekend does that bother you?” comes up and she’s like “WHAT! I thought we were like, dating and exclusive just LDR” and you’re like “But…sweet warm juicy muffin. I need it. It tastes so good.”

    Sorry rant mode shutting off.

  6. I completely agree with you Riese. Some online meets for me have been disappointing/weird/mean.

    But, I also want to say that three of my really awesome and amazing friends that I’ve met in real life, I initially met online. But, I didn’t prolong the meeting in real life part.

    So, I agree that you never know what your going to get until you meet in person. Honestly, the meeting-in-person part is the best part when it turns out to be a really cool person.

    • oh yeah, i mean like i said in the post, i think you can have friends online that you honestly love who you may never meet, even. almost all of my friends right now are people i met online. but romantic love/relationships/etc is a different story.

      • ^Exactly. Very different dynamic.

        Friend = Bud! Hey! Hang out! That’s cool! We like stuff!

        LDR = FEELINGS. We gettin’ married? I miss you! Why didn’t you tell me you were with ***! I want to see you! Hear your voice! Make me a video! Show me your new bra/panty set! Let’s have sexy time on cam together! You got into a car wreck! OMG! I’m coming to Japan with my life savings are you okay?! I wish I knew what it was like to kiss your lips! How sensitive are your nipples? Are we ever going to meet? I wish you lived here! I wish I lived there! Let’s both move to Paris!

        And yes, either way EVEN if it’s weird friend/or LDR it’s still a very cool thing when you meet.



    call me. (ASS chat sing along to Nineteen?)

  8. This is my favorite one of these so far, I think, but mainly I just wanted to pop in to say that the Dr. Katz graphic still makes me really happy every time I see it and always will.

    • Not everyone :( Most of the time I feel way to old to be on this site but y’all are so smhaart and terribly funny. Maybe I should use ASS to ask about being an older lesbian feeling out of touch with the new generation.

      Lesbians: TNG- What the fuck are they talking about?

  9. I think Riese is mostly correct. I do have experience in this as I did fall in love with someone I only knew online and the phone. This was, like, a long while ago before videochatting was a thing. We never met. Partly because we were just too young (high school), in the closet, and not that close to each other. But also, I think, partly because we were scared we wouldn’t feel the same way in real life and, at that point in time, we needed what we had and couldn’t afford to lose it. After years of talking and helping each other, we moved on and, I think, got what we needed. I haven’t talked to her in many, many years.

    I think “real love” is subjective. I think you can certainly fall in love with someone you’ve never met, but I also think you’re filling in many blanks. And if you love them online, you’ll probably love them in person, but it’s no guarantee. I agree with Riese that you only know what they present directly to you and how you interact with them. Sometimes relationships fail because you the other people doesn’t interact well with your friends or family, or you see that they have no drive, etc. These are the sorts of things you won’t know online. I think if someone you’ve never met fills your world with joy and hope and happiness, that’s great. But there may be compatibility issues that may not make it last the long haul. If you’re serious about making something real out of it, I think you should meet sooner rather than later. Don’t they always say on dating sites meet early or otherwise it will just stay online forever? If you’re adults and aren’t dirt poor, there’s no reason you can’t make a meeting happen. This might be a way to gauge how serious she is and how serious you are.

  10. I have been super lucky that the people I have met online, and then went on to meet in real life have been pretty awesome. Livejournal was pretty key in cementing some pretty rad friendships, and I had one long term relationship (six years) with a lovely guy who I’m still bff’s with. Most people I made really good connections with on LJ I’ve met and this has been not only really rad but also meant that we then have mutual experiences that we can reminisce on ya know?

    WRT the actual topic at hand…yes I do think you can fall in love to an extent online. But meeting each others friends and hanging out and just being with each other really, really does help. I met my current girlfriend on a dating website…we clicked pretty much straight away but the distance between us at that time was about 8 hours so there wasn’t a chance of meeting any time soon. We had a couple of bumps, when she met someone communication stopped. That was really hard but when they broke up not long after, she had moved closer to where I live for study (now only 2 hours away), I visited her without expecting anything to happen and BAM. I thought knowing her virtually was awesome but real life it’s just that much better :)

    So in summary, my overall feeling is that Riese is correct. Meet when you a little bit of each other’s lives and then you’ll really be able to gauge what the happ’s is.

  11. I feel like it’s definitely possible to fall into a form of love with someone online without having met them. But I have to agree with magiclovemuffin above me that you’re just filling in the blanks. And while that may be fine while you’re just interacting online, it can definitely present some curiosities when the time to come face to face actually happens.

    I also feel like every point that Riese made in this article is fairly spot on. Naturally, things vary based on the individuals involved, but probably not by much. I think this whole (amazing) article can be summed up in one small excerpt from a recent Real L Word recap:
    “I think you need a full year of holidays, seasons, tragedies, Real L Word premieres, computer crashes and celebrations, to really know a person. And even then, they could turn out to be a serial killer, I saw it on A&E.”

    However, I still say go for it. Just because life has placed you in separate locations doesn’t necessarily mean that you may be able to one day share a really beautiful, life-changing love.

    • “I think you need a full year of holidays, seasons, tragedies, Real L Word premieres, computer crashes and celebrations, to really know a person. And even then, they could turn out to be a serial killer, I saw it on A&E.”


  12. Completely agree with you Riese.
    I’ve been there; done that, it doesn’t work at all for me. A lot of what I want to say is actually subtext, or nonverbal communication. Online, all the other person gets is what you’re consciously communicating to them (via typing, seeing each other on camera etc). But when you actually meet someone and spend time together there are all these clues, like their tone, subtle eye movements etc that you don’t get to notice online. And that’s a significant part of how I express myself… so yeah.

    Also great point about not knowing how you two coexist in a group setting!

  13. I agree with everything. Right on the money. I met a girl once while doing random Rounds on Facebook ( if you don’t know it) and I was like, damn, this must be fate if we met this way and hit it off so well. But you know, it’s just like how it’s different living with someone versus dating someone. It’s just not about the day to day, which is, IMO, what can really make or break you.

  14. In absolute agreement. On time (not going into too much detail here) I met someone online and we seemed perfect for each other. However when we finally did meet, the second I saw her my stomach plunged because in real life I just didn’t feel anything. At all. No spark, no attraction, nothing. Then I had the incredibly awful experience of breaking a very, very kind and fantastic girl’s heart (she obviously didn’t read this article) and it was just the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.

    Be careful ya’ll, and remember even if you don’t get hurt, someone else might.

    • Thank you! I am totally new to this online dating deal… I have been ‘composing’ these emails,to a woman 700+ miles away… I am not going there next weekend. I am wondering how much to say, how much of my life to talk about, trying to be cautious, without being paranoid. But, never thought about either of us getting hurt – as I am starting to have feelings pretty much based on who I think she is…
      Just thanks again… So much to consider.

    • Thank you – I am new to online dating… And very definitely middle – aged. I had enough troubs dealing with who someone really was IRL… I am emailing this woman – 700 + miles away… Not going there anytime soon. Never really thought about ‘either of us’ might get hurt.
      Lots to consider – and agreeing with New Texan too – you yung – uns are wicked schmaht…

  15. Our minds are islands and our shores never touch. All we know is the water between us. (I’m pretty sure I plagiarized that from somewhere.)

    I think our skin is as much a barrier as the internet is, but our skin has more bandwidth. It is easier to be amorous “in the flesh”, sure, but it’s delusional to imagine it’s inherently more authentic than digital love. That’s like saying one kind of art is more powerful than another kind of art. The biggest sex organ, after all, is the brain. Our senses don’t care if we’re experiencing “reality” or a dream or a hallucination.

    Two very expressive novelists, for example, are going to have an easier time being amorous online than two people who communicate solely through fluttering lashes and pursed lips. It really depends on the people involved.

    I think the digital path can be as authentic and revealing as a slew of dinner dates and long walks along the beach. And in all cases, it’s good to be cautious just like the article says. I think a lot of what the article says can be applied to “in the flesh” stuff as well. :) I love you Autostraddle.

  16. Well, I’ve started two of my relationships online. Only one was on an actual dating website, though. They were both pretty successful and lasted 2+ years (although one of us moved to be closer to the other one both times).

    I’m actually engaged to the girl I met online (we live together in Australia now, but we didn’t for the first year) and we didn’t meet physically for two months. I definitely felt something from the very, very, very beginning. Was it love? Maybe not entiiiirely, but it was close.

    I think you really can get to know a lot about a person when you can’t get distracted by all of the little physical things and you actually have to LISTEN to what they are talking about.

    Soooo…. maybe I’m a fluke.

  17. I disagree. Mainly because this article is positing that physical sex is the main indicator, and the core component of a relationship – which is not something I agree with. Maybe it’s from the culture I grew up in, or my years of bemused asexuality, but sex isn’t the important part for me in key relationships. My intimacy comes from elsewhere – trust, connection, being listened to, communication, sharing. Actually I’d put COMMUNICATION COMMUNICATION COMMUNICATION a zillion times on there.

    Also one can have great sexual experiences online – it’s not necessarily about which body parts interact with which! There will be circumstances where that’s not going to be likely or possible (I’m thinking incarceration, disability, conservative cultures, etc) and to make a specific sort of sexual contact be the climax point is very Western-centric and rather limiting.

    I like what someone above said about it being up to how two people communicate with each other, if they go well with words or physical affection or what. Ultimately this is going to depend on the couple, and just because physically you may not necessarily be a match doesn’t mean the love is any less powerful or valid or sacred. Love comes in all forms; let’s not feel like we have to stick to very limited ideas of ‘relationship’.

  18. I’m a little on the fence on this one… I don’t fully discredit the possibility of online love affairs though I personally haven’t tried it out.

    I have friends both hetero and homo that were able to discover their mates virtually and are now sharing a life together.

    Yes, the physical chemistry and intimacy is important but I’d give online dating/relationships some points on not letting libidos get in the way of establishing a deeper connection with someone. Yea, totally agree with the need to really put in extra effort to get to know each others lives and the world either person lives in and stuff.

    I guess it all depends on the maturity and openness of people in finding someone… If you stumble on it and eventually find yourself really growing into something and wanting to take it further IRL then lucky you… But if it’s born of desperately trying to compensate for your RL or lack thereof, then, log the damn off.

  19. I think you can definitely have real feelings of being in love with someone you met on the internet, but that will not necessarily equal a relationship working out between the two of you. There IS a lot that’s missed in online interaction. I’ve been crazy about people I’ve only known over the internet, and then when I met them I found their physical presence and being and their overall vibe kind of off-putting.

  20. Well being late to the party here. I feel like I disagree (as much as it pains me because you are a very well spoken and intelligent writer, which always makes being the person who’s disagreeing hard) . I met my current gf online ( we started out as friends before anything). She and I make it work because we make time for each other, send care packages and make sure to do things like find tumblr question memes to ask each other so we get to know each other better.

    We’re both introverts so for us, writing what we feel is a lot easier. She and I click on our maturity levels, values, political views and other things like our love of tv shows, animals, geek things, etc. However, we also are different in some things and know about them. We’ve had several video chats along with almost calling each other 5 or 6 times a week, skyping every night and make time to have little movie dates ( Thank you Netflix!!!!) almost every other day. It’s just like any relationship I see my friends or others around me having. A huge part of this article that I have an issue with is the sex part (its also something I hear from my friends several times too) .

    Yes, I’m in my twenties and want sex constantly. However, the emphasis placed in this article on sex is something that bothers me. Perhaps it was how I was raised, or my own thought process, but sex is not something that should be a be all, end all for a relationship. For me, I value a girl who is kind to her friends and animals, wants to help the world around her, has a killer sense of humor and laughter rather than a girl who lives close and gives great orgasms but shitty person. Maybe, this is the virgin in me talking ( yes a virgin, and look over there, there’s a unicorn, oh wait, nevermind, it’s Edward Cullen…moving on) sex to me is not a big deal as I’m content to just cuddle and read something together or watch a movie.

    That being said, I get that sex is part of a relationship but to put it above all others really is off putting. Fortunately with my mate/gf we’ve had several deep talks about what we want in bed or not ( thankfully being rp partners who write smut together you learn the other’s kinks) along with our dreams, careers, all the normal things you talk about in a regular relationship. For us, it’s not a matter of oh, well cause you aren’t here this isn’t love. For us, it is love because it is selfless, it is being there for the other and baring the tough things life throws at you, its the silly joke at two in the morning ( sent by text), the little things that are romantic and spontaneous that are sent/gifted to the other because you know that they will love it.

    This being said I think a lot of LDRs don’t work out because sex is placed on such a pedestal(because if you don’t have sex there is something wrong with the relationship) and people aren’t willing to make them work. I have friends in LDRs that have been together for 2 years or longer. I’ve had friends get engaged in LDRs. For me, I’m a firm believer that they can work if you are willing to invest the time and effort. However, both my girl and I are working on getting out to NYC to be closer to each other and move in with each other. Much like all the other successful LDRs I know.

    Again, sorry to be late to the party and the only one who doesn’t agree with you.

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  22. I mostly agree but I feel like you left out asexual people by saying how important sex is. I’m sure it’s important to allosexual people but it’s important to specify that instead of ignoring asexual people’s existence.

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