Should I meet my friend for the first time in 10 years?
April 22, 2014 3:43 PM   Subscribe

I began an email correspondence 10 years ago with a guy whom I have never met. Now, after reluctantly putting it off for years I would like to meet him but am nervous about how the dynamics may change.

I first began speaking to Matthew when I was 13 (I'm nearly 23 now) - our respective friends were cousins and we all got added to the same online chat thing one night. From there we hit it off and began talking all the time - including the use of webcams, to make sure we were both real! However, because we lived in different parts of the UK and were very young we knew it wasn't really feasible that we would meet.

We saw each other through some difficult times, relationships, talked on the phone a lot, knew all of each others deepest secrets and so on. It has been largely friendly, though he used to joke that I was exactly his type and his girlfriend would occasionally get jealous. He moved to Australia for a year and we continued to keep in touch via email. Fast forward 4 years and he tells me he's moving about an hour away from where I live to go to University, which was a bit of a shock. He asked if I would show him around etc when he got there. I said of course - but when he got here I couldn't quite do it - I was in my late teens now, kept putting it off and even my parents were asking why I couldn't just go and meet him! I couldn't really tell you why exactly - but I felt paralysed about meeting him and eventually he stopped trying. I think I became convinced that on some level he had moved up because of me (but also knew this was slightly crazy). Despite this, though, we always kept in touch.

Now, it's nearly 5 years later and we've both graduated having still not met. We lost touch for two years, but have just found each other again. And I've decided to move abroad in 6 months. I realise I won't see a lot of my friends during this time, including him. And I suddenly decided that I must meet him, face to face, at least once in my life. I suggested this to him and he said he's keen as it's "a long time coming" but I'm still nervous about it.

The thing is I've always regarded him as a sort of soulmate. A distant soulmate, a confidante, probably perfect because of the distance. I'm worried about how meeting could change the dynamics. Or if we suddenly meet and decide we don't like each other, ruining the friendship. So, has anyone had any experience of anything like this? Could anyone offer any tips?!
posted by Kat_Dubs to Human Relations (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You are bound to be a little disappointed, because deciding that someone is your "soulmate" without meeting him means that you're idealizing him a bit.

I doubt you'll hate one another, but you both may be a bit disappointed in some of the human parts of one another. I consider that a good thing. I think everyone should know that the people they love are human beings, with all the attendant foibles and warts.
posted by xingcat at 3:54 PM on April 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

1. people can change a lot in ten years.

2. your acuity has changed (i.e. you have more life experience now, so even if he hasn't changed, you may not feel as impressed).

3. there is a vast diff between email friendship and real world friendship. Vast. Never make assumptions about fondness in one translating into fondness in the other. Even if ten years hadn't gone by. And even if he didn't change. And even if your perceptions are still positive. It's still never EVER a given.

4. Understand that the person you feel you MUST MEET right now isn't a living human being. It's a treasured childhood emotional touchstone. Even if he's twice as nice and smart and handsome and groovy as you imagine, you are still working with an ancient projection here, and he's a living breathing human being who deserves to be dealt with as such (this is why celebs feel antsy about mixing too much with's awkward to interact with people who see you as an image rather than as a person).

So I'd urge quite strongly two measures:

1. resume email friendship before even mentioning a possibility of meeting. Keep it cool. Find out who he is him that respect. Understand that the fantasies of a 13 year old girl aren't worth much in your present currency.

2. when you finally feel like you're talking to a three dimensional current person, and not a projection (which would take a while), arrange a meeting, but don't blow it up into any sort of romantic thing (neither internally nor CERTAINLY not explicitly to him). Because there may be zero chemistry, and you don't want hurt feelings or need to talk things back.

Slow and easy. Keep it cool. You're projecting lots of stuff - including your current neediness - on this guy. It's not fair to him, you, or to you-and-him.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:01 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Knowing beats not knowing, with a stick.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:03 PM on April 22, 2014 [12 favorites]

I've had this go both ways (but with both men and women -- so people who were both potential romantic partners and not, but the romance factor may or may not be the case here). Mostly, it went pretty well -- there's an easy intimacy because you already know each other really well.

But there is some weirdness meeting people physically that you've only known through other means. You're mentally intimate but not physically so (and I just mean that in terms of sharing a physical space with someone else, if that makes sense). And I think trying to reconcile that this is both a person you know and don't know can feel overwhelming and exhausting.

However, I don't think I've ever had a friendship like this outright end after meeting -- at least not in terms of leaving it like we now hated each other. But I would say with some of these relationships, this was the peak and they began to fizzle afterward. Mostly, though, we met up because we were friends and we've stayed friends.

From my reading of the situation, even if you lost touch for a bit, you still probably know him well enough. If it's not too much of a burden on either of you (like no spending thousands of dollars or anything), just do it. It's not as scary as you think it is.
posted by darksong at 4:04 PM on April 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

People used to correspond without ever meeting a lot in times past. You actually see each other via webcam chat etc, so it shouldn't be too strange at all.

You're just experiencing butterflies. If it works, it works!
posted by KokuRyu at 4:05 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the reason you didn't meet him back then is that you wanted to preserve the potential of him -- it was more important to have a "Well, Matthew understands me/would be there for me" backup plan for yourself than to risk meeting him and ruining it.

As everyone else has said, it's important to remember that he's a different person than the person you may be projecting on him.

However, this doesn't mean it will go badly. I've met several people in real life who I was (non-romantic) friends with online first, in some cases for a year or more. In most cases I had a very similar rapport with them in person to what we had online, surprisingly so. (I don't think that's true for everyone, or with every online friend, but it has been for me.)

I'd suggest keeping your first meeting low-stakes -- standard online meeting protocols -- meet up in a public location, don't plan on drinking (ideally), make sure you have independent transportation home, and don't overplan. Think museum, coffee, well-traveled park. NOT a hike in the woods or a ferry to an island (ask me how I learned that one). I don't think it's likely you'll want to escape this meeting, but just knowing you have the option to do so may lower your stress level leading into it.
posted by pie ninja at 4:09 PM on April 22, 2014

I have 2 experiences with meeting long distance friends. I made an oldfashioned style pen pal in the US (I lived in Australia) when I was 15 through a pen pal service. We wrote to each other for 8 years before meeting, he came out to visit and we had an amazing time and wrote to each other for and remained friends for few more years after that before drifting apart as he moved to NY and found a serious relationship and my life got super complicated for a while.

That knowledge that you could be friends with someone a long way away probably made me more open to being friends with my next long distance friend, who I met in a forum online 11 years ago. We got on amazingly, there was a age difference that in my mind cemented the fact we were just friends, we graduated from IMing to skyping to phone calls to visits. He flew out to Australia, I flew out to the US. The first time we met we knew each other so well there was only about a half hour or so of embarrassment before we completely relaxed around each other.

I flew out to the US a second time about 18 months after the last time I saw him and I haven't left, something clicked and we realised we were more than friends and have been happily married for 4 years. Can you get to know someone without ever meeting them face to face, totally. There were almost no surprises (except for how very tall he was) when we met up, he was just like he was on the phone/skype

What everyone has said about projecting is super important to be aware of, I was conscious of this being a problem from my first penpal and was super paranoid about it, also because of an age difference romance was was not something I was comfortable with for the longest time too. This gave us a real chance to get to know each other before we met. .

As someone who took the chance twice, meeting and knowing is better than not meeting and wondering.
posted by wwax at 4:21 PM on April 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've done this. I was probably 12 when we started chatting and we met when I was 25. I was really nervous too, but it was great. We got on exactly as well in person.
posted by pemberkins at 4:24 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

When my best friend and I met after talking online for years, we basically just picked up the conversation from where we'd last left it and carried on. It was literally a seamless transition. I have met loads and loads and loads of people I knew first online. Friends, boyfriends, my husband, it's been that way with all of them except one. That went badly because there was romantic potential there and then when there was no chemistry (on my part) in person, it became awkward.

So I guess my advice based on much experience is: if you hold romantic notions about this person, consider not meeting them. If you do not, go for it!
posted by DarlingBri at 4:25 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really hope you come back and let us know how it went if you DO decide to meet!
posted by stevedawg at 4:29 PM on April 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

So if you do meet, what happens when you get within arms length? Shake hands? Hug? Wave hello? Lean in for a kiss on the cheek only to discover he's standing there frozen?
Might be best to discuss beforehand.
posted by Sophont at 4:33 PM on April 22, 2014

I agree that you should catch up a bit before deciding to meet up. Go to a restaurant or coffee shop or something public and have an "out" if it's weird. (Something like, "I have to work early!" or whatever.)

Also, go into this with ZERO expectations of deep intimacy/soulmate/best friend stuff. Many people are different in person than they are online just due to the fact that it's easier to talk openly online. So for instance don't expect to discuss as much deep and personal stuff in person that you may have talked about online. That takes some warming up.

So, if you go in thinking "Hey, it will be cool to chat with this person!" instead of "WOW this is going to be so awesome, we have so much in common, we're going to click!" it will be much easier.

Finally, butterflies are normal. My husband and I met up with an online friend I had know for about the same time period/age and it was great. My husband and he got along well, and we just chatted over a late dinner while he was passing through my town. It was really nice, but I went into it with low expectations of friendship. Our dynamic is still the same, but as I said, you tend to talk about lighter subjects in person (also my husband was there which makes it more of a light "getting to know you" dynamic anyway.)

Advice too from someone who has lots of long-term online-only friends from being a gammer girl, they're just nervous people too. And they're pretty much the same people you've been talking to. Just think of it as catching up with a friend instead of "OMG I'm meeting them IN PERSON!" and it will go much smoother.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:45 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to figure out -- and be brutally honest with yourself -- whether you are meeting him because you want to be friends or whether you are meeting him because deep down you want to be more. This isn't inherently a big deal, especially not after literal decades of the Internet making this more and more common a situation, but if there's a hidden crush (on either party, but you can only really be concerned with you) then that is going to be an elephant in the room and make everything ten times more awkward than it needs to be.
posted by dekathelon at 5:16 PM on April 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

If both of you share a strong friendship, then meet! Sure, it may be a tiny bit awkward to finally meet in meat space, but you'll both find your footing and be fine. It's natural to be nervous about a meeting like this. That part will wear off and you'll get used to seeing one another in-person and it will eventually seem normal.

I think that the only complicating factor (if you're both straight) is that there may have been some romantic undercurrent to your friendship. Is that what's giving you pause? It's easy to romantically idealize someone who you get to keep as a special person in a world that is comprised of just the two of you. If that's the case, moving your relationship into the real world, outside of the fenced garden you've created, can be a bit tricky. That's no reason to not do it, though. Just be honest with yourself about your deep-down feelings, fantasies, and motivations.
posted by quince at 5:20 PM on April 22, 2014

I've met a handful of people in real life that I had originally met online years before. In some cases it worked out nicely, and in some it didn't. Approaching those meetings with expectations of how that person will look and/or behave had a lot to do with how favorably the interaction went.

For example, the first person I met online, and then later met in real life, came with the expectation of a potential relationship - or at the very least, sex. I, on the other hand, was simply expecting to finally meet a friend of a few years (I was underage/inexperienced). The meeting was terribly awkward, despite our closeness, and the friendship didn't survive afterwards. There was no animosity... just a very prompt fading in communication (on both our sides).

The second person I met online I had known for about 5 years. Originally we were just friends. Our age difference (I was 6 years his senior), his being in a relationship, and his life experience (which greatly exceeded my own despite his younger age) made me feel 'safe' about opening up and we became very close friends over 5 years. He pushed the issue of meeting in real life from the beginning - I was hesitant and feared a repeat of the last meeting I had (see above) so I pushed back against meeting until he was older. When he turned 18 he abruptly ended his relationship and moved to my state for college. His demands to meet became more numerous once he lived 2 hours away. I eventually relented and drove up to see him after a year. His expectations were also for a potential relationship and/or sex and admittedly, I allowed myself to be seduced. But the relationship was always rocky and ended horribly. We tried to remain 'friends', but suffice to just wasn't possible.

The second (and fourth) people I knew online, then met in person, I had known for 6 or 7 years beforehand. We frequented the same chats/role-playing areas and they were both highly supportive of my art. We ended up meeting completely by chance at a convention we had all gone to. We chatted over drinks and I ended up meeting several other people I had met online through them as well. This treasure trove of friends is what compelled me to finally make a cross-country move. I don't regret my decision at all - lots of good things have happened since.

So I say go for it! But go into it with your eyes open. He's not the same person, nor are you. Lots of things have happened. Communication has been on and off again. Approach the meeting as though you're just meeting another friend - no build up, no lofty expectations and no pressure. Acknowledge and accept that if romance becomes part of the equation, the friendship may not survive. I wouldn't meet him unless you're certain you can handle that.
posted by stubbehtail at 5:37 PM on April 22, 2014

This reminded me of a short story by Elizabeth Taylor read by Paul Theroux on the New York fiction podcast in January (that's Elizabeth Taylor the English writer, not actor). The story is "The Letter Writers," from 1958, and it's about a situation with some similarities.
posted by wdenton at 6:18 PM on April 22, 2014

I met up with an online friend after corresponding through lots of long, detailed, personal email conversations. We were both nervous beforehand, but it went great!

N.b. this was a totally platonic situation, but I still say go for it.
posted by capricorn at 6:47 PM on April 22, 2014

I had a really close online friend in Australia. We IMed for 7 years and she was my first site host. We finally met up at a blog con in Chicago when she came to the states to flog her book (lucky me). In ten minutes it was like we were meatspace friends of many years. I have met many people from online since then with mixed results and I will say, trust, but verify. I have also been "catfished" by someone who claimed that he was a kind of playboy millionaire, but I really did like him for him. Too bad about the unnecessary lies.
posted by Lardmitten at 7:05 PM on April 22, 2014

I began an email correspondence 10 years ago with a guy whom I have never met. Now, after reluctantly putting it off for years I would like to meet him but am nervous about how the dynamics may change

you should be nervous. the dynamics very well could change. acknowledge the risk, then i say take it.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:56 PM on April 22, 2014

I've met with longtime internet friends many times, sometimes in situations where I'd nursed secret half-crushes on them for part of that time. Sometimes it's been great and deepened our friendship, sometimes it's shown me that they really are not someone I would get along with if we were local friends, but that hasn't affected the fact that they are fun to chat with long-distance still.

I haven't regretted taking the meeting step any of those times, and I don't think you would either, if you can talk yourself down off the 'perfect soulmate' ledge. You are not, and could not possibly be, meeting your perfect soulmate. And this is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing; if it goes well, you can hang out other times before you leave, or on a return visit, or whatever. This doesn't have to be a big weird deal unless you make it a big weird deal. You are meeting a long-time penpal who you've lost touch with until recently, but now have a lucky chance to rekindle a friendship with. That's it. That's the goal here.
posted by Stacey at 6:27 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've had many opportunities to move long-term, long-distance relationships (both platonic and otherwise) into real-life meat-space.

The one I regret is the one meeting that never happened. 10 years of phone calls and a couple months of planning the visit. Our relationship didn't survive the fall-out.
posted by MuChao at 11:27 AM on April 24, 2014

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