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15 Feb

Love In The Time Of Internet

My husband and I have been together for over seventeen years. That’s pretty much the entirety of my adult life, and almost half of my whole life so far. Hopefully, it’s only the beginning. Hopefully, we’ll both live long lives and will celebrate the births of grandchildren and maybe even great-grandchildren and those years of our lives that were spent without each other will seem distant and momentary and we will tell people, we have been together forever.

It seems such a rare thing these days, couple staying together forever.  My husband sometimes remarks, when we hear that yet another relationship – a relationship of someone close to us, or someone not close to us, or someone that we only know through People magazine – has foundered on the rocks of infidelity or irreconcilable differences, that it seems that everything, everything these days is stacked against lasting love. What that everything is, he’s not sure, but it worries him, sometimes. What if it comes after us, he asks? What if it sneaks up on us when we’re not looking and consumes us before we even know what’s happened?

It won’t, I say. Because we’re always looking. Because we value what we have too highly to let down our defenses. Because our love is our defense. And so on and mushy so forth. But I understand his concern. We live in an age wherein the opportunities for undermining one’s relationships are more numerous and more varied than ever before. There is more to be distracted by, more to be tempted by, more to cause one to forget – for a moment, for many moments, for far too long – about what really matters.

I’ve seen, in the last few years, too many marriages crash on the rocks of the Internet, too many relationships suffer because there is so much else to do and so many others with whom to do it. I’ve listened to peers complain that their partners don’t want them to write about this or that private matter; I’ve read the e-mails attached to countless submissions to the Basement, cursing the fact that a husband or wife or significant other doesn’t understand their need to share. I’ve seen far too many friends and acquaintances take their sharing elsewhere, away from the person with whom they share their offline life, to someone else, someone online, someone who better gets them and their deepest, innermost thoughts, the ones that they publish online. I’ve watched, and lent a sympathetic ear, and understood – this world, this virtual world in which we finally, finally get to tell our stories, uncensored, often seems so much more vibrant and more real than the world in which we change bedsheets and diapers and argue over who will drop the kids at school and who will make the doctor’s appointment and who will pick up the milk. In this world, we are writers. Artists. Activists. In this world, we are noble, we are fascinating, we are awesome. We get to project our best selves onto a virtual screen and see ourselves – and see others see us – as our best selves, as the selves that don’t change diapers or bedsheets, or that make the changing of diapers and bedsheets funny and interesting and – maybe, if we’re really on our game – poetic.

It is so easy to be seduced by those selves, by the idea of those selves, by the idea of being received and understood primarily on the virtues of those selves. It’s the dream of anyone who is a geek or has ever been a geek, anyone who feels or has ever felt misunderstood; it is the high school dream of having your secret poetry-and-sketch-filled notebooks discovered and seeing everyone realize that you are, underneath your Sex Pistols t-shirt and ironic barrettes and black fingernail polish, really a genius! And so funny! And then they all want to be your friend, or fall in love with you! Or both! The difference, however, in the age of the Internet, is that we put the contents of those notebooks up on Blogger or Twitter or Facebook and wait to be adored and when – if – the adoration comes, whether from one person or one hundred or one thousand or more, we sit back and tell ourselves that we always knew that this could happen, that we always expected this to happen, if we only had the opportunity to show ourselves as we really are. And we forget, some of us, in the thrall of this lived dream, that there are people who have always adored us for who we really are, only they don’t say so on Twitter.

This, I think, is the dangerous thing, the monster, that can creep up on us: this forgetting, this unvaluing or undervaluing – when held against the sparkle and glitter and heat of the virtual world – of our real, ordinary worlds, and the relationships therein.

There are corollary dangers, of course – the dangers attendant to finding ex-lovers on Facebook, the dangers of e-mail flirtations, the dangers of cultivating any virtual relationships that might supplant the one that is the basis of your real-world home, the danger of placing greater value upon one’s life in the virtual world than upon one’s life in the real world, the danger of simply being distracted. Such dangers are not, of course, restricted to interaction in the virtual world, nor are they new: Helen’s desire to pursue a new and more interesting life with Paris launched the Trojan war; Emma Bovary’s attachment to romance novels prompted her to seek romance outside of her marriage; Anna Karenina, of course, followed her unfaithful heart and ended up – broken and broken-hearted – underneath the wheels of a train. And so on. It’s an old, old story. But it’s one that, I think, becomes more common the more that we embrace opportunities to speculate upon and indulge the fantasies of what if? What if my spouse were more dashing, more romantic? What if I had a partner who loved discussing philosophy in the middle of the night as much as some of my Twitter friends? What if I were married to someone who truly understood my obsession with Glee?

The Internet – taken in the larger context of a mass media that assaults us, constantly, with images and stories about how much better our lives could be, if – has, arguably, become the postmodern, poststructuralist, interactive equivalent of Emma Bovary’s romance novels: it tempts us with the possibility that there could be something or someone better out there, that we might be happier with that something or someone else, that everything that we have here, right in front of us, is so much less interesting, so much less sparkly and fascinating and fulfilling than that those other possibilities, and then it invites us and gives us the means to explore those possibilities from the safety and security of our kitchen tables or home offices.

We don’t all do this, of course. And not all relationships that founder these days do so because of social media, and not all relationships that do founder for any reason related to social media are relationships that would have otherwise survived. It just seems, though, that this – this phenomenon, this thing – is so much with us, and that it carries so much potential for harm where harm mightn’t otherwise have occurred and it just makes me so sad every time I hear about another relationship being shattered after battering against the hard, glittery edges of new media. I tell my husband, when he voices his concerns, that these relationships probably would have shattered, anyway – any relationship that is so fragile that it could be disrupted by the Internet, or by what its participants see in magazines or on television or in movies, could not have had long to live, I insist – but is this true? I read another Basement submission or talk to another friend or hear another rumor and my conviction wavers.

I’m secure in my marriage, but still – I’ve set some ground rules. I won’t publish a story against my husband’s express wishes (just as I would expect him to do, were our situations reversed), I don’t seek out exes online, I don’t cultivate intimate relationships with members of the opposite sex, I don’t bitch about him online, I don’t share with others – confessions, secrets, grievances – anything that I wouldn’t share with him. Not because I believe that our marriage would be in mortal danger if I did any of those things, but because I don’t want to take any chances. What I have is too valuable, too precious. It wouldn’t be worth the risk. It just wouldn’t. I want to hold hands with my husband when we are in our very old age and the Internet and blogging and Facebook are so much far-distant retro bullshit and say, we have been together forever

And then we’ll turn to our hologrammatic communication avatars and have them Twitter that directly into the post-electronic hive-mind, and we’ll high-five each other with our wrinkled, iPhone-bent hands.

This post was prompted, in part, by last week’s Basement post about a Facebook-fueled affair. It was not the first such post of its kind, of course, but came in a week wherein it seemed that every magazine and news feed had stories about infidelity and after a weekend during which I sat on a conference panel about memoir-writing and fumbled over questions about how and why I share or don’t share certain stories online and what my husband and family think about all that sharing. Which, you know, prompted some reflection. But am I overthinking this? Am I overexaggerating the dangers? Do you keep your real-life relationships front of mind when you’re deciding what to reveal – or to whom to reveal it – online? When you’re cultivating relationships online? What would you do if your marriage and your Internet came into conflict? Are you certain that your marriage would come first? What do you do – do you do anything – to make sure that it does? Could I have come up with a better topic with which to harsh Valentine’s Day?