I know several married couples, who met online, through dating websites. Many of them feel reluctant to disclose the ‘online’ circumstances of their encounter. This secrecy and their body language speak about their feeling of shame. Somehow they are afraid that others might perceive their relationship as a ‘less’ serious or somehow incomplete just because it has started in a virtual world.
As a therapist practicing online therapy through videoconferencing, I can relate to their experience. I also meet my clients online, and they usually find me researching on the Internet, reading what I disclosed about myself on my website or in a blog post.
There is one typical joke I have heard more than once in discussions about practicing psychotherapy online with other counsellors, and it usually involves a therapist working on Skype and wearing pyjamas, or slippers not wearing anything at all… And there is some truth in it, and sometimes I take my shoes off and conduct a session in my favourite comfortable slippers.
Now, is a therapist in slippers a good therapist?
Answering the usual question about my professional activity during social gatherings, I often get the same reaction: “So, you are working online?” - with sometimes a slight note of contempt.
Since I started offering therapy online, several years ago, I have had as my clients many expatriates from various backgrounds.
In their stories, as well as in my own, I have witnessed how technology has dramatically changed the experience of expatriation. Now we can connect, even if only virtually, with our significant others, several times a day if we wish so. I clearly remember how, some twenty years ago, when I first left my home country and moved abroad, I didn’t have a mobile phone or an Internet access. At the time my mother didn’t have even a landline, so for almost two years I was sending her post cards, or called other relatives or friends, hoping to find her there. I felt isolated, and my world was drastically divided into two opposite parts: ‘back there’, – my home country Russia, and ‘right here’ – my new country of choice, Italy. This duality of the world as I perceived it then gave me an opportunity to dive into the new culture and to master its language, but isolated me almost completely from what was going on back home.
The modern nomads rarely cut links so radically nowadays: they can easily keep connections with the ‘old home’ through social media, Skype and smartphones.
Today so many of us are managing at least one distance relationship: a family member who left the country, an expatriated friend, a partner who is temporarily working abroad, or our friends and family left behind when we moved. We are becoming skilled in shaping these relationships, and I experienced myself many moments of real connection with important people in my life online. Have you ever tried to celebrate something important with a glass of wine alongside a friend through Skype? Did you ever have dinner with your laptop on the table, so that your parents from the screen could somehow ‘participate’ in the meal? If so, then you will surely understand how heart-warming and meaningful these moments can be.
No wonder that, for those who have been leaving far from home for a while, to have a ‘real’ online relationship seem natural.
We learned how to adapt technology to our social needs and these new skills allow us to feel less isolated.
For a ‘traditional’ therapist to step out into this new world of changing boundaries can result in a challenging experience: after all, since its beginnings, psychoanalysis had dealt with an embodied client lying on a solid couch. Losing these attributes can naturally seem uncomfortable and scary.
The physical and the psychological distance are two very different concepts. Some people can feel entangled in a relationship, even with some one very close from a physical point of view.
In my experience the same happens with distance relationships: I often feel extremely close to a client who is sitting at his computer on the other side of the Earth.
In the bubble of this virtual ‘face-to-face’ I often experience a deep connection with some of my clients. The fact that we are able to see only each other’s face gives to the whole experience an even more intense quality.
I guess, as for any online relationship, trust can take time to develop. We need first to co-create a particular space, - this famous bubble, - that will eventually grow to become a safe, transitional space between worlds. This is especially relevant for those who travel and navigate between worlds and landscapes. In this relational bubble, together a therapist and a client, we model a distance relationship, which can become warm and caring.
Every time I experience this feeling of warmth and connectedness, something heals in me and, I hope, in my client as well. In the process we learn how to create a meaningful relationship with another human that we never met ‘in reality’. Every time we manage to break through the physical distance and the differences in our cultural backgrounds, our accents and our life stories, we become better at building and caring for significant relationships outside in the ‘real’ world.