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The Effect of Virtual Friends on Real Relationships

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Whats wrong with 2000 friends on my Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat? They’re just FRIENDS.

I meet with many people identifying relationship problems between their real-life partners and the virtual world of relationships. The rules for connection and engagement are different between these two worlds, creating mistrust in many relationships.

When we explore what “connections” create safety in relationships, Neurobiology research tells us that emotional safety is one of the most important components of a loving relationship. Creating safety opens the door to partners in a relationship being vulnerable and authentically connected.

Stephen Proges states:

“Immobilization without fear is what we call ‘intimacy’. All our defenses are gone when we hold each other and are near each other. We don’t need words, because our bodies conform and feel safe with each other”. [Stephen Porges Phd]

Neuroception is the bodies way of determining via neural circuits whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or even life threatening. Our bodies begin to code and identify where we feel at risk or even if there’s a threat, beyond our conscious thought to our senses. Our Neuroception system can determine safe, warm, and supportive connections as well as potentially dangerous situations, and the degree of response we need to protect ourselves.

Where there are perceived subtle threats to our relational connections, our nervous system becomes alarmed, and respond as if there is a threat. Our body, words, tone, facial features all become tense and anxious.

Virtual relationship can cause subtle threats to our relationship, causing physical reactions to not feeling safe for many people.

Communication, connection, relationship and their interconnection with neuroscience, specifically neuroception, can begin to explain the challenges that many relationships are experiencing between the virtual and their real life relationships.

Aspects of virtual relationships:

  1. Communication is done online via social networking or texting mostly

  2. No face to face interaction

  3. more comfortable for many because ether is no face to face contact

  4. leads more to chatting rather than meeting

  5. Often constant and instant engagement

  6. In relationships, each or one partner may have many informal ‘virtual friends”

  7. These connection are not transparent always to the other partner in their life

  8. Virtual relationships are the modern ‘pen pal’ relationship

  9. The more people connect virtually, the more potential there is for emotional relationship

  10. Internet relationships have become the modern way for many to meet and move on to the next level of a relationship

  11. Online emotional relationships all start with “Friends” and tend to have a higher level of “communication” as emotions are heightened, leading to an emotional relationship and for some, emotional virtual affairs.

Aspects of in-person relationships

  1. face to face relationship interaction but there is no use of any kind of electronic devices to communicate

  2. Quality of friend over quantity of friends

  3. face to face engagement

  4. physical connection vs chatting

  5. be able to experience real emotions

  6. Face to face relationship with others outside of your intimate ‘real’ life relationship are grounded in boundaries defining whom it is permutable to connect with or not.

Today, virtual relationships with individuals online and outside of their relationship with their partner seem to be more normalized. At the same time, many clients report not feeling safe with their partner’s online connections and report that many of these relationships are ‘secretive’ in nature.

In comparison, extra-relational connections in the real world are less accepted or tolerated within the rules or boundaries of a monogamous relationship. The rules of relational ’connection’ seem to be very different between the virtual and real life. Virtual connection outside of an real life intimate relationship are not questionable, privileged, and often not disclosed.

Those virtual relationships formed online are impacting the neuroception connection and safety for your real life partner.

I often tell my clients; In the modern world, the majority of connections that lead to affairs begin with a cell phone, and also end with a cell phone.

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