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Beginning romantic relationships online: A phenomenological examination of internet couples

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2011
Dissertation
Author: Darryl J Huels
Abstract:
The Internet continues to grow in its popularity. Along with this growth has been an increase in romantic relationships that begin online. While research has been conducted that examines Internet interactions, the demographics of Internet users, and the effects of Internet usage, little has been done in terms of romantic relationships that started over the Internet. The purpose of this dissertation was to answer the question: For those who have developed a romantic relationship online, what meaning do they give to the online aspect of their romantic relationship? This study employed a qualitative methodology using a phenomenological approach to a case study of twelve individuals who met their partners on the Internet. Participants were recruited through referrals from colleagues and via a flyer that was posted in businesses in the Upstate New York area. An unstructured 1-2 hour telephone interview was conducted and audio-taped with each of the participants. All data was then examined using a phenomenological approach to data analysis. Meaning units were identified and then examined for common themes. Ten themes were identified, seven essential themes and three unique themes. A description of what this experience was like for the participants emerged from those themes. The findings indicated that an early lack of any expectation that the online interactions would develop into a relationship, along with other factors, led to earlier self-disclosures of more personal information. Two apparently paradoxical phenomena were discovered to emerge from this. First, the decision to interact without any intention of becoming involved in a relationship led to the emergence of the romantic relationship. Second, partners became so familiar with each other online that their first experience of meeting face-to-face was described as meeting an old friend for the first time. It was found that current theories on relationship development fall short when applied to this phenomenon.

v Table of Contents Acknowledgements iv List of Tables v i ii List of Figures i x CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION 1 Introductio n to the Problem 1 Background of the Study 3 Statement of the Problem 7 Purpose of the Study 8 Rationale 10 Research Questions 1 3 Significance of the Study 1 4 Definition of Terms 1 7 Assumptions and Limitations 1 9 Nature of the Study 2 1 Organizati on of the Remainder of the Study 2 2 CHAPTER 2: REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE 2 3 Introduction 2 3 An Overview of Relationship Development Theory 2 4 The Triangular Theory of Love 29 I nternet Relationships 3 2 The Effects of Internet U se 5 0

vi The Internet and t he Self 5 6 Summary 68 CHAPTER 3: METHODOLOGY 7 0 Research Design 7 1 Population, Sampling Strategy, and Sample 7 6 Data Collection Procedures 79 Instruments / Tools / Interview Protocol 8 1 Data Analyses 89 Anticipated Findings 9 3 Limitations of Metho dology 9 4 Ethical Issues 9 5 Timeline 9 6 CHAPTER 4: DATA COLLECTION AND ANALSIS 9 7 Introduction 9 7 Description of the Sample 9 7 How the Research Methodology Was Applied 10 0 Presentation of the Analyzed Data 10 7 Composite Summary 14 5 Summary 16 0 CHAP TER 5: SUMMARY, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 16 3 Introduction 16 3 Summary of the Results 16 3 Discussion of the Results 16 6

vii Limitations 17 4 Recommendations for Future Research 17 6 Conclusions 1 77 REFERENCES 18 0 APPENDIX ES 19 0 APPENDIX A – INTERVI EW PREPARATION 19 0 APPENDIX B – INTERVIEW QUESTIONS 19 1

viii List of Tables Table 1. Delineated Units of Meaning Illustrated 10 2 Table 2. Examples of Transformed Units of Meaning 10 4 Table 3. Examples of Themes Formed From Similar Units 10 6 Table 4. Themes a s They Were Distributed Across Participants 14 6

ix List of Figures Figure 1. The Three Components of Love 30 Figure 2. The Kinds of Loving as Different Combinations of the Three Components of Love 31 Figure 3. Shape of Triangle as a Function of Kind of Love 17 3

1 CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION Introduction to the Problem Kelly met Matt for the first time over two years ago. They were introduced through a friend of a friend. Their first meeting was in a crowded coffee shop, and though it was difficult communi cating in the midst of the conversations going on around them, they hit it off right away. After a couple of meetings in public places, they decided to go somewhere private so that they could enjoy each other’s company with out the chatter of others. Kelly knew that she was attracted to Matt within a couple of weeks. He was easy to talk to and she felt like she could tell him anything. They shared the same interests , and the way that he talked to her made her feel good. S oon they were meeting daily. After o n ly a month , their relationship began to become intimate. Matt would say something seductive and give her a wink. Kelly would blush and play along. Before she knew what was happening, their relationship became sexual. She had neve r felt this kind of pleasur e or passion before. Kelly and Matt have continued to enjoy their relationship ever since . Someday they hope to meet face - to - face, as the relationship described here is a virtual one that took place online. The “ crowded coffee shop ” was actually a public M SN chat room called Cappuccino Café , and “somewhere private” was a private chat room that they created and only they could enter. People are chatting, learning, debating, playing, and flirting online every second of every day. While the above scenario is fictional, relationships like this do exist (Turkle, 1995). It is becoming more and more common to hear stories from individuals about how they met their

2 significant other over the Internet. Couples meet in chat rooms, newsgroups, web logs ( b logs), and oth er online areas offering social interactions. For many, it is hard to believe that a relationship that developed online could work , or that one could even call it a real relationship. This is reflected in the lyrics of a punk/rap song by Andrew Robert Niel son (2006), better known as MC Lars, which exclaims, “It’s not normal to have an Internet girlfriend. Online relationships are really just pretend. Unplug your heart, upgrade your system. Get, get off the Internet.” Another example can be found on the Silv erside Counseling Center’s (2010 ) website, where the claim is made that “the Internet form of communication doesn’t foster true intimacy.” These are only a couple of examples of the cultural attitude and stigma that have surround ed the phenomenon of meetin g someone online. A study conducted b y Donn and Sherman (2002) found a general negative attitude towards both online dating sites and the people who use them. People who use the Internet to find a romantic partner were often viewed as “hard up” or desperat e. This negative public attitude was fed by early studies that received an enormous amount of media attention warning of the risks of Internet interactions . One of the most highly publicized example s of this was a study conducted by Kraut et al. ( 1998). Th is study suggested that the more one used the Internet, the more likely they were to be lonely and the more likely they were to have fewer social interactions in their daily lives. While the impact and significance of online interactions on social well - bei ng continues to be heavily debated, there have been studies that question the findings of Kraut and his colleagues (Bradley & Poppen, 2003; Hills & Argyle, 2003; McKenna & Bargh, 2000; Teske, 2002) . This debate will be discussed in more detail in the review of the literature.

3 While a negative stigma may continue to exist towards those who use the computer to find a romantic partner, many people do, in fact, meet this way, and oftentimes have a successful and meaningful relationship. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (Madden & Lenhart, 2006) found that 31% of American adults (63 million) “know someone who has used a dating website” and that 15% (30 million) “know someone who has been in a long - term relationship or married someone he or she met online” (p. i). Rather than debate the effectiveness of meet ing someone online, and given the fact that people do i ndeed find partners online, the study presented here sought to describe what that experience was like. In th is study , the experiences of individuals who met their partners on the Internet w ere examine d and describe d from the perspective of those who lived it. It examine d their lived online experience and the process of develop ing their romantic relationships over electronic media, al ong with the transition to a face - to - face relationship. This first chap ter will provide a background of this phenomenon and a statement of the problem. It will also outline the purpose and goals of the research project, the rationale for studying romantic relationships that begin online, the questions that the study sought to explore, and an explanation of why this project is significant. Definitions, assumptions, and limitations will be explained. Finally, the nature and conceptual framework of the research project will be described. Background of the Study With the new mill ennium, the use of personal computers continues to grow in proportions that promise to make it as ubiquitous as automobiles, telephones, and televisions in American society. Between 1984 and 1997, households with computers increased from 8.2% to 36.6% in

4 t he United States (US Census Bureau, 1999) . Based on a more recent survey, the US Census Bureau (2005) estimated that this number increased to 61.8% in 2003. In addition to these households, computers are also available to those who do not hav e one of their own. Communities frequently provide access to computers in schools, libraries, and other public facilities , along with computers that are frequently available to people in their workplaces . A n increase in the number of individuals who use th e Internet has accompanied the growing popularity of computers . At least one source (Central Intelligence Agency, 2005) estimated that 159 million Amer icans used the Interne t in 2002; while another reported that, out of approximately 209.66 million adults, over 131 million (62.9%) used the Internet in 2003 (US Census Bureau, 2005) . This last figure does not include children under 18 - years - old, which may account for a significant portion of Internet users. As a mat ter of fact, a 2004 Nielsen /NetRatings report suggested that 77.6% of children ages 2 - 17 access the Internet (as cited by Greenspan, 2004) . This sam e report al so estimated a higher number of overall users at 74.9%. This suggests that almost three - quarters of the American population are utilizing the Internet. What are people doing when they get online? The average person uses the Internet for a multitude of purp oses , including shopping, banking, gaming, information, news, weather, education, entertainment, e - mail, social contact, and dating (Hills & Argyle, 2003; Selwyn, G orard, & Furlong, 2005) . One study found that the Internet is primarily used for interpersonal communications (Kraut, Mukhopadhyay, Szczypula, Kiesler, & Scherlis, 1999) . That study used W eb surfing as a measure of information and entertainment usage, and e - mail as a measure of interpersonal communication usage. This does not take into account the many other ways that

5 surfi ng the Internet can be used for interpersonal activities, such as chat rooms, newsgroups, on line games, message boards and others. As more and more people use the Internet to engage in social activities, the number of people who meet online and become r omantically involved is growing. One study of individuals who use d the Internet to meet people (McCown, Fischer, Page, & Homant, 2001) found that 6% of their sample developed a romantic relationship with someone they had met online. This finding was supported by another study (Knox, Daniels, Sturdivant, & Zusman, 2001) that found that 7% of their sample became romantically involved with someone they had met on the Internet. Interestingly, only .5% to 1% of the participants were actually looking to meet a partner through their online interactions. Another study (Donn & Sherman, 2002) found that 61.8% of gr aduate students and 42.1% of undergraduate students attested to knowing someone in a committed relationship that began online. If one watches the television for even a short period of time , they are likely to witness one of the many advertisements paid for by eHarmony, an Internet dating service, claiming to be a superior way for couples to meet (eHarmony, 20 10 ) ; a lthough studies supporting their success have been seriously questioned (Houran, Lange, Rentfrow, & Bruckner, 2004) . Match.com (20 10 ) , another popular online dating service , boasts millions of members worldwide, with some 200,000 members per year reporting success stories. Even if these numbers were exaggerated or misrepresented, when considering the multitude of other online dating services , and the fact that many people meet and develop relationships online without using these dating services, the number of romantic relationships that begin online is significant and is growing.

6 As mentioned previously, research has been conducted t hat examined the social and psychological consequences of using the Internet in general, with conflicting results. A highly publicized study by Kraut et al. (1998) determined that greater amounts of time spent on the Internet was associated with higher levels of social isolation and loneliness. Other studies have ei ther found no effect (McKenna & Bargh, 2000) or a positive effect for cert ain people in certain situations (Bradley & Poppen, 2003) . Other scholars have focused on the differences between traditional interactions and online interactions (Biggs, 2000b; McQuillen, 2003; Whitty & Gavin, 2001; Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2002) . Some of thes e differences include the lack of nonverbal cues in computer - mediated communication (CMC), the abi lity to maintain anonymity with CMC, the lack of geographical boundaries with CMC, and the fact that response time is slower and more time - consuming with certain forms of CMC. While research continues to be conducted regarding interpersonal relationships i n general, very little h as been done to examine romantic relationships that begin online. Biggs (2000a) has suggested that the focus has wrongfully been placed on the medium i tself rather than examining the experiences of individual s who use the Internet for flirting and romantic encounters. Instead of debating whether online relationships are goo d or bad, the experiences of people in the se relationships need to be explored and understood more clearly. While most people agree that online interactions and face - to - face interactions possess different characteristics (Riva, 2002; Soukup, 1999; Teske, 2002) , little ha s been done to explore what these mean for those who live it.

7 Statement of the Problem Traditional relationshi ps (i.e. relationships that primarily consist of face - to - face interactions ) normally follow a pattern that begins with physical proximity and physical attraction (Mc Kenna & Bargh, 2000; Murstein, 1988) . For example, according to Knapp (1984) , the first stage of relationship development, initiating, is very short and may only last a matter of seconds. Physical proximity and physical similarities are important in this stage. Awareness of the other’s presence begins this stage, and immediate judgments are made based upon stereotypes and any previous knowledge of the other person. The relationship then moves on to a selective sharing of self , with an exploration of similarities, likes, and d islikes. Then, finally, it progresses to the sharing of intimate parts of the self , with self - disclosure moving gradually from little to more based upon the response of the recipient (Altman & Taylor, 1973; Bonebrake, 2002; Knapp, 1984) . Being physically exposed to someone plays a crucial role, and evidence suggest s that repeated contact and exposure to another person often increases the chances of attraction; this is know n as the mere exposure effect (Horowitz & Bordens, 1995) . Also, individuals usually take time to develop trust before revealing more intimate details about themselves. The relationship that begins online does not follow this progression. It never begins wit h physical p roximity or physical attraction , and i t oftentimes includes a much earlier self - disclosure of intimate details (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, 2002; McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002) . Again, the advantages and disadvantages of these differences have been argued (Bonebrake, 2002; Stanley, 2001; Whitty & Gavin, 2001) but without much in - depth exploration regarding the actual experience of those involved in this fairly new phenomenon.

8 It is generally acc epted that these two forms of relation ship development are different, and many of the factors that make them different have been identified; however, few studies have consider ed what these differences mean to the people who experience them. Little is known about how these differences come to life, what meanings they have in the lives of those who pursue romance online , and how these individuals compare their past experiences in face - to - face relationships with their experience with an online relationship. Cu rrent theories that explain traditional relationship development may not be adequate in explaining relationships that begin over the Internet. Purpose and Goals of the Study A father was conversing with his son, when the boy remarked with self - admiration, “I have dated 48 girls.” His father considered the boy’s age of fourteen and the fact that they lived in an extremely rural area. He responded with surprise, “When did you date that many girls? It’s not possible!” The boy grinned and exclaimed, “On the Int ernet!” The father laughed and said, “That’s not dating! You never even met them.” The boy in the above scenario perceives his dates as real and, as such, they may influence his very being (i.e. emotions, actions, thoughts). It just so happens that the f ather in the above scenario came to work a few weeks later talking about how upset his son was because his current online girlfriend broke up with him. While this appeared ridiculous to the father, it presented as an important reality to the son. Social co nstructivism holds that subjective meanings are developed from our experiences (Creswell, 2003) . Benton and Craib (2001) define d the term constructivism as "a range of approaches that treat what are commonly thought of as

9 independent, real objects as social or cultural constructs " (p. 179). This paradigm maintains the ontological perspective that reality is primarily subjective and directly related to the observer's o r participant's experiences. What is real depends upon the individual who is experiencing it and is constructed via their experiences. Unlike the empiricist perspective, experience does not simply mean the objective observable perception of an object or e vent, but rather, it includes the meaning that we give to the world through the "works of the imagination and the use of language" (Benton & Craib, 2001, pp. 82 - 83) . The p henomenologist is interested in meaning, and desires an eidetic or narrative description of experience (Chessick, 1990; P ri est, 2002; Sadala & Adorno, 2001 ; Scott, 1989) . It is believed that, through extensive descriptions of an experience, the researcher may gain a glimpse of reality , as experienced by the participant s, and what that experience means to them. This study ex am ine d the experience of couples who met online and began the development of a romantic relationship online before meeting face - to - face . It was exploratory in nature and its goal was to seek an eidetic description from twelve individuals on how their roman tic relationship developed, beginning with only online interactions and then gradually moving into a face - to - face experience. It sought to identif y themes that exist ed for these individuals in the context of this particular experience by examining their la nguage and their narratives . Based upon grounded theory (Berg, 2004; Mertens, 2005) , this study attempt ed to use the collected data and its analysis to develop a cl earer understanding, identify new directions that might be consider ed in future research , and possibly begin to formulate a new theory that could better explain this fairly contemporary and unique experience .

10 Each individual in this study was someone who had experienced both types of romantic relations hips , at least one relationship starting face - to - face and one starting online. Because of this, the participants w ere able to compare their experiences . This was done with the hope that an understanding of th e differences between these two path s to a romantic relationship would emerge out of their narratives . Rationale A young student, Nate, comes in to the college’s counseling center once a week. His presenting problem was a breakup in his relationship with hi s girlfriend. In the year that he has been coming in for treatment, he and his girlfriend have broken up and reconciled multiple times. Nate’s girlfriend lives 3 ½ hours away and they only see each other during college breaks and on some long weekends. Eve n still, they argue, fight, breakup, and get back together while being apart. It all happens online. Frequently, Nate will come to his appointment upset, open up his laptop, and show his therapist saved Instant Message conversations he had with his girlfri end the night before. At first the therapist was flustered, but then he learned to use the communications as a therapeutic tool in understanding Nate’s relationship with his girlfriend and in helping to increase Nate’s awareness of the relationship pattern s that they have. Research regarding the Internet has focused on the demographics of Internet use (Hills & Argyle, 2003; Selwyn et al. , 2005) , the differences be tween online and face - to - face interactions (Chan & Cheng, 2004) , and the effects of these differences on the participants (Kraut et al., 1998; Matel & Ball - Rokeach, 2001) . Debates persist regarding the benefits and defici encies of

11 online relationships. Little is know n about the process and experience of romantic relationships that begin online. Internet relationships exist , and a clearer understanding of this p henomenon may provide insight for human service workers faced with clients who interact or bec ome romantically involved online . For example, Gonchar and Adams ( 2000) discuss ed a case r egarding a 16 - year - old boy who they refer to as Brandon. Brandon was failing school and engaging in many high risk behaviors , including drinking while driving and sexual promiscuity . He soon became very interested in the Internet. His parents were original ly happy about this new - found interest because it led to a decrease in his high risk behaviors as he was spending more time at home. However, they eventually found out that he had become intimate with an older man whom he had met online and became sexually involved with that person . Brandon became very successful and popular on the Internet. He came to believe that “he was going nowhere in the real world” while his “online life was rapidly becoming his major source for gratification” (p. 592). He was eventu ally referred for services. With the emergence of the Internet’s popularity, a new mental health problem has developed. The phrase internet addiction was created to identify this problem , and it has become a fairly common part of both the professional and popular vernacular . Internet addiction is being identified as a phenomenon that causes serious disruption in the lives of many individuals at work, in school, and in relationships ( Chou, Condron, & Belland, 2005; Soule, Shell, & Kleen, 2003 ). Many of these addictions center on online interactions, such as chatrooms, instant messaging, interactive gaming, and sexual pursuits (Griffiths, 2001 ; Ng & Wiemer - Hastings,

12 2005; Young, 2004 ) . It can lead to job loss, academic failure, extramarital affairs, and relati onship problems that require the assistance of the human service profession. Even when an Internet relationship is not the reason for seeking counseling or other forms of human services, these relationships are oftentimes an essential ingredient for any c omprehensive understanding of the social factors that may be influencing the individuals that human service workers assist. Sherry Turkle (1995) discusses how online interactions both manifest and shap e an individual’s self - identity. She giv es an example o f a male college student who interacts online in real - time using multiple personas , ranging from a ma cho - type cowboy to a seductive woman. This gentleman believes that the identities expressed online are as much a part of him as the identity expressed in t raditional interactions. He even goes so far as to say that “[Real life] is just one more window” and that “it’s not usually [his] best one” (p. 13). Even if this individual has misconstrued the role a nd significance of these online self - expressions , they remain very real to him. Because of the meaning that this young man gives to these experiences, understanding these experiences and what they mean to the individual be co me an important part of understanding this individual as a whole. In a human services s etting, c hoosing not to examine this online experience would be as neglectful as ignoring any other social factors that may be influencing this individual’s life. This study add s to the knowledge base regarding romantic relationships that begin online. It sought to understand this phenomenon from the perspective of those who experience d it. This is a relatively unexplored area. The methodology that was used allowed for the unveil ing of langu age, meanings, and symbols that describe d the reality of this expe rience by its participants. It shed s light on the differences between this experience and the traditional development of

13 romantic relationships. Hopefully, It will provide insight into the experience of moving fro m an online relationship into a romantic fa ce - to - face relationship. The themes that develop ed can also provide direction for further research. Research Questions A number of questions exist regarding couples who began their romantic relationships via the Internet. Creswell (2007) explains that a qu alitative study usually has o ne central underlying question. He goes on to point out that a phenomenological study will focus on the meaning of an experience or phenomenon. The central question of this study was this : For those who have developed a romanti c relationship online, w hat meaning do they give to the online aspect of their romantic relationship ? In agreement with Creswell, this “implies that all of the individuals [ who developed romantic relationships online] have something in common that provides meaning in their lives” (p. 108). Sub - questions that follow from the central question include the following : 1) What is the process of developing a romantic relationship over the Internet like for those who experience it? 2) How is a romantic relationship that began online different from a traditional relationshi p as defined by those involved? 3) How does this unique form of interaction shape the d evelopment of the relationship? 4) Do the stages of how Internet relationships develop conform to theories of traditional relationships? 5) What is the experience of moving from an online relationship to a face - t o - face relationship like? 6) What a re some common patterns and themes for couples who meet online?

Full document contains 202 pages
Abstract: The Internet continues to grow in its popularity. Along with this growth has been an increase in romantic relationships that begin online. While research has been conducted that examines Internet interactions, the demographics of Internet users, and the effects of Internet usage, little has been done in terms of romantic relationships that started over the Internet. The purpose of this dissertation was to answer the question: For those who have developed a romantic relationship online, what meaning do they give to the online aspect of their romantic relationship? This study employed a qualitative methodology using a phenomenological approach to a case study of twelve individuals who met their partners on the Internet. Participants were recruited through referrals from colleagues and via a flyer that was posted in businesses in the Upstate New York area. An unstructured 1-2 hour telephone interview was conducted and audio-taped with each of the participants. All data was then examined using a phenomenological approach to data analysis. Meaning units were identified and then examined for common themes. Ten themes were identified, seven essential themes and three unique themes. A description of what this experience was like for the participants emerged from those themes. The findings indicated that an early lack of any expectation that the online interactions would develop into a relationship, along with other factors, led to earlier self-disclosures of more personal information. Two apparently paradoxical phenomena were discovered to emerge from this. First, the decision to interact without any intention of becoming involved in a relationship led to the emergence of the romantic relationship. Second, partners became so familiar with each other online that their first experience of meeting face-to-face was described as meeting an old friend for the first time. It was found that current theories on relationship development fall short when applied to this phenomenon.