Internet Friends. I'm having a hard time letting go.
August 15, 2007 5:01 AM   Subscribe

I'm at a point in my life where I have to break off some friendships I've made online and am finding it tough.

This is a bit complicated, so bear with me. For years I’ve had ongoing problems with my wife because of my phone and internet habits. I don’t want to get graphic, so I’ll just say that I’ve spent more time and money calling phone sex lines, chatting online, or consuming internet pornography than I’d like to admit. She insisted, recently, that this had to stop once and for all because of what it’s doing to our relationship. I know she’s right, and so I’m committed to cutting things like internet porn, phone sex, or online chatting out of my life. These habits weren’t good for my marriage or for me.

But here’s the thing, and where I could use some help. The hitch is that I’ve actually made a handful of good friends online and even (in a couple of cases) on the phone as well. Some of these PSO or internet friends have helped me through difficult times at home or at work, including supporting me through my current marital troubles or my struggles with mental illness (I have bipolar disorder).

And I’ve had some of these friends call or email me to share good news in their lives, or for a shoulder to cry on after the death of a family member, or when they’ve been dealing with their own health problems, among other reasons. I’ve never met these people face to face and almost certainly never will. And the closest friend that I’ve made this way—well, I wouldn’t recognize her if she walked right down the street in front of me, and yet she’s very dear to me. These are all real people.

At this point I’m struggling with losing these friendships. The context in which I “met” these individuals makes it impossible for me to continue these relationships, even if my interactions with these people are no longer about anything sexual. There’s a part of me that feels weird that I’m having trouble breaking off these “virtual” friendships, as if this is different from breaking up with “real” friends.

How does one mourn the loss of internet (or phone) friends? Is it different from losing friendships developed “in person”? Am I weird for finding this so difficult?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Ever heard of writing letters? Once upon a time there were these people called "pen-pals"...

Surely this is just about the phone and internet, and you're still allowed to communicate with people other than your wife?
posted by Jimbob at 5:08 AM on August 15, 2007

To elaborate with a little less sarcasm; letters are slow. They should take up less of your time. It won't be a case of having every evening taken up chatting "live" with a friend. You write a letter. A few weeks later, you get one back. This has got to be an improvement over your current activities, right?
posted by Jimbob at 5:10 AM on August 15, 2007

why can't you remain friends with your genuine friends? share their letters with your wife, which may help keep you on track.

if the temptation is too great, how about going old-school and becoming pen pals? whether by snail mail or email (which i presume you are not cutting off). snail mail would definitely force you to slow down, but if you have the willpower, sticking to a weekly email should do it.

as for your phone sex friends, well, i don't have any experience with that, but do remember that they charge by the minute, so they can talk about anything you want...these people probably open up to a lot of people because it keeps the caller on the line and the money coming in. which isn't to say that they're not genuine, just maybe not with the purest of intentions. would they call you? write you? if so, you have a real friend, otherwise, say a goodbye, cry over it, and cut ties.

there is no reason to cut off legitimate correspondence with true friends, assuming they support your decision to live a more offline-focused life. perhaps couples counseling will help you sort out what she's comfortable with.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:12 AM on August 15, 2007

I don't know that I would consider it "weird" to mourn these losses, but I would encourage you to detach from these folks.

Your statement that "Some of these PSO or internet friends have helped me through difficult times at home or at work, including supporting me through my current marital troubles or my struggles with mental illness......" is exactly why you need to break these off. Providing mutual support is a key factor in a committed relationship, you and your wife should be providing this for each other...seeking it elsewhere just distances the two of you and leads to a "he/she doesn't understand" way of thinking about the relationship.

Be honest with folks, tell them you need to focus on your marriage, wish them well, and then change your phone numbers and e/mail addresses..
posted by HuronBob at 5:13 AM on August 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

If these were people you were paying for services, they really aren't your friends, they just want to keep you involved in hopes of collecting more money.

If they're genuine friends, consider it like someone kicking drugs... they need to stay away from their old druggy friends and haunts. If they really care about you at all, they'll understand. Second changing phone and email if it turns out to be a problem at all.
posted by DarkForest at 5:17 AM on August 15, 2007

not at all (weird). sounds like you are in a very difficult position and faced with a tough problem. i don't think internet friends are different from those "in person" (although i am pretty useless about making and keeping friends in general).

don't have any idea how you make it easy, except that a "clean break" is probably best. good luck.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:24 AM on August 15, 2007

First, if you still have to pay the PSOs or chat buddies when you talk to them, then no matter how close the conversations I would be highly suspect of the real closeness of your relationships. They may be friends--but you have to pay them to be your friend.

If this is not the case and you have actually transcended the pay-to-talk barrier, have you discussed this issue with your wife? There is a difference between having an internet addiction and keeping in contact with a few good friends. Do you think she would be receptive to you maintaining a twice-a-month or once-a-month contact with them, just to check in? Can you explain the true closeness of those relationships, or would she be entirely unreceptive? Also, JimBob makes a very good point--letters would be an excellent way to maintain contact without the temptation.

For what it's worth, I don't think you are weird for finding this difficult. Until they've have had "internet friends" it's hard for some people to understand they can be as close and deep as any "real-life" relationship. Sometimes even closer, as the perceived anonymity gives some courage to reveal things about themselves they would not otherwise. If you break off contact, I think you need to explain the situation exactly as you put it here, and not draw it out.
posted by schroedinger at 5:26 AM on August 15, 2007

Something I find myself telling people often when it comes to commissioned sales people and insurance agents, and I suppose it applies here too, if money is changing hands, it ain't a friendship. They may be nice as the day is long, but they get paid to smile. Move on with your life. These people will find other friends. There's one born every minute.
posted by ND¢ at 6:18 AM on August 15, 2007

I wasn't going to reply to this question, but HuronBob made a comment I couldn't let pass: "Providing mutual support is a key factor in a committed relationship, you and your wife should be providing this for each other...seeking it elsewhere just distances the two of you and leads to a "he/she doesn't understand" way of thinking about the relationship."

While it is true that you should count on your wife for support, and she on you, I don't think that going to someone else for support is necessarily a bad thing. It seems to me that going to someone else is a problem only if you aren't also going to your wife. That is, we sometimes need and want more than just one shoulder to cry on, different shoulders offer different perspectives and different consolation. This is a good thing. It's only if you avoid talking to your wife in favor of talking to a friend that you may run into trouble. (To be fair HB may have had a similarly qualified idea in mind, instead of the absolute dictum that came across.)

As to the question, it's not weird to mourn the loss of any friendship. In contemporary society we have many ways to acquire and maintain friendships and you shouldn't feel ashamed of valuing your friends highly. I would suggest explaining to your wife that some of these people are truly friends, and that you would like to maintain some level of contact with them. (From what you said it doesn't seem to me that you are still paying some of these people to talk with you. If you are still paying them, they, as others have said, are not your friends.)
posted by oddman at 6:45 AM on August 15, 2007

Since you say this has been a problem between you and your wife for years, and some of your 'virtual friends' have helped you deal emotionally with your marital problems, I think you need to settle where your priorities are. If 'friends for pay' are calling you to share their own life situations with you, then clearly they do see you as a true friend, and not simply a nice paycheck. But how will your wife ever see them as other than implicated in the habits you say you want to break?

It sounds as though your relationship with your wife is what you value or want to value the most, so I would agree with those who say break off these other friendships as cleanly as possible. Less than a clean break will presumably not satisfy your wife and may only extend the pain you are feeling.

People who meet over the internet and over the phone can it seems become close in an environment that however intimate is by definition artificial -- the problems they discuss are selective, for example, and their own dealings tend to omit the day to day grind that afflicts 'real life' or in-person relationships.

A variation of the letter-writing scenario would be to exchange the classic and cliched cards we send to old friends at Christmas or birthdays. A way to keep in touch without the intimacy that seems to threaten your marriage relationship.
posted by Rain Man at 6:59 AM on August 15, 2007

There's something wrong with the way you're thinking about this, and I can't quite figure out what it is from your description. You've decided to give up phone sex, internet porn, and online chatting. The reason is because it's costing you time and money and harming your relationship with your wife.

I can understand cutting out phone sex and internet porn because they are costly and because they violate the tenets of your intimate relationship with your wife. I can understand giving up online chatting because it is taking too much of your time, or because it's sexual in nature and your wife doesn't approve.

But I can't understand dropping a real friend for any of these reasons. A real friend will not take your money to chat with you. A real friend will understand if you stop using AIM; she'll send email or paper letters. A real friend will not threaten your intimacy with your wife, and will respect the boundaries you need to set.

It's not clear to me if these people you're talking about are real friends to you, but you should be able to figure it out if they are. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:06 AM on August 15, 2007

Lose the friends if they are hindering your marriage. Remember that this is not your wife's fault by your own admission. In order to reinstate trust, you have to show her that you are willing to sacrifice. Do you love her? Then prove it to her. She doesn't trust you right now.

Also, I know how easy it is to sucked in to an online life. But it's like meeting people on a plane. It is great on the plane, but then when you get off, there is a real world outside to deal with and you realize that the two worlds for the most part cannot coexist.

When you cut back on the hours you are spending online, you will find that you are more likely to actually start living a real life and finding real friends and having a real relationship with your wife.

You are a good person for trying to make this right. But you are not allowed the luxury of holding this against your wife or considering her a prude when you have given her a pretty crappy marriage so far (by your admission). Don't mean to sound harsh, but think about it. Best of luck.
posted by boots77 at 7:56 AM on August 15, 2007

If I understand your question correctly, you met these friends through your online and chat porn habits. If this is the case, I can understand why your wife would feel uncomfortable with these friendships, and I agree that you should probably end them if you are making your marriage the priority here. As a woman in a committed relationship, I would feel uncomfortable if my SO had these kinds of friendships as well.

Perhaps you could talk to your wife and see if she agrees that you email each of these friends to explain your reasons why you are cutting off contact. Use the text of your question to explain what is going on, and tell these women that you hope they will understand your reasons for breaking off contact. Let them know it's nothing personal against them, but simply that there is no room in your life anymore for friendships with women that started in this way.

Best of luck to you in your marriage. Apart from cutting off video and photo porn, which don't involve real contact with the women involved, then for what it's worth I think you are doing the right thing by ending these activities and the contacts that have grown out of them.
posted by hazyjane at 8:19 AM on August 15, 2007

if money is changing hands, it ain't a friendship.

This goes for bartenders and waitstaff, too.

I share boots77's view that the best way to solve this is to become more interested in your offline life. There are times in my life when I've spent a lot of time online, and times when I've spent much less time online. When I spent a lot of time online, my friendships and relationships there took on a greater degree of importance in my psyche. But as soon as I became more interested in my day-to-day, concrete-world life, the relative importance of the online life lessened. It was still important, but no longer was it my major source of support, entertainment, or friendship. I like it better the second way, and it's definitely better for my real relationships.

Online relationships are like concrete-world relationships: they can be healthy or unhealthy, situationally based or based in real fellow-feeling. They tend to be much easier and less complicated than real relationships, which is one of the main attractions for people who may have some difficulties with intimacy or other relationship issues, as it seems may be the case with you and your wife. She's calling on you now to look at how you handle intimacy and how willing you are to work on your relationship skills and your marriage. The online relationships may be muddling this for you. For a long time, they may have given you a sense of intimacy, appreciation, and support without demanding of you the very real compromises and acceptances of a fully dimensional relationship in the "real world." That's very seductive for people who have some fear of intimacy with others, and can find it, few strings attached, online.

So I'd urge you to look at that. See what needs your online relationships have been fulfilling, and decide how best to meet them in real life. It will certainly require work, but it sounds as though you are willing to do it and you recognize that your marriage hangs in the balance. The online relationships are an obstacle to your healthy marriage, because while you focus on them and considering what you think you had there a 'loss,' you are investing your emotional energy, once again, in something outside your primary relationship.

Get interested in life. Take up a new sport or exercise routine, go to readings or dances or groups, start planning some travel, learn a language. Make some new, real-life friends. Catch up with old, real-life friends that maybe you've been neglecting - e-mail or phone them, instead. Give your online friendships a rest. I'd wager that the more you build an integrated life that focuses most energy around your physical presence in daily reality, you won't feel that there's that much of a loss at all.
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on August 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

If you met these friends through sexual activity on the internet, regardless of whether they have turned out to be platonic, you should not continue with them. Even though these people have turned into good friends and a support network for you, given the situation you have described, I think revitalizing your marriage and at the same time continuing to have contact with those friends is not going to work.

Effectively, you cheated on your wife with these people. She is well within her rights to feel that as long as you maintain contact with them you are not fully committed to your marriage.

It does sound like you need a support network, and through online or in RL, you should develop a strong network of friends. Having a bipolar disorder is really hard, and both you and your wife need a community to support you as individuals and as a couple.
posted by zia at 9:29 AM on August 15, 2007

One thing you must do, if you decide you need to end a particular relationship, is to be very definite about it. Explain why (i.e. "After thinking long and hard and examining my life, I have decided I must end our relationship for the good of my marriage"), and cut it off completely.

For the kind of friendships you mention above, where the friend has helped you in your life and you can honestly say that this friendship will not detract from your marriage, explain that you are going through a rough time, that you value the friendship, but that you need to keep your boundaries clear for the good of your marriage, so you can continue on with just email, but you can't AIM, etc. (whatever you feel you need to do to lessen the negative impact on your life). Your friend will respect this, and hopefully your wife will understand once she sees how you have committed to making your marriage a priority.
posted by misha at 10:43 AM on August 15, 2007

How does one mourn the loss of internet (or phone) friends?

They were a real part of your life, and if you've decided they shouldn't be part of your life anymore, they should be mourned. Trying to drop the internet friends and avoid the mourning process would be like trying to pull out a sliver and avoid the pain afterwards. You can't. But after a while, the hurt will go away, and you'll feel better.

Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Write them in a journal. It takes the edge off. Cry if you feel like it. Go on walks. Talk to your wife. Write letters to your old friends and then rip up the letters. Cry some more.

And then go on living.
posted by eleyna at 6:21 PM on August 16, 2007

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