Evolving Our relationships: Relationships in the Online Era

Evolving Our Relationships: Relationships in the Online Era

Paula Vexlir
July 27, 2023
July 12, 2023

This blog post was written by Paula Vexlir, Counselor at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

“It’s a jungle out there”

Have you ever heard of ghosting, gaslighting, catfishing, cookie-jarring, pocketing, breadcrumbing, or love-bombing? Well, we could go on and on. Lately, all these newly created words are becoming a part of our daily lives. 

Kate, for example, is, once again, staring at the text she sent her “situationship” three hours ago. The screen shows that the message has been delivered and read.

She can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t replied. Was it something she said? She can´t stop herself from intuitively opening the chat over and over again and reading all the past messages to herself.

There were no indicators that he didn’t like her or that she had done something horrible to him without realizing it. What happened?

At night she would set her phone on her nightstand, facing down. But when she couldn’t sleep, she would turn to check it, and when the screen read “no new notifications,” she convinced herself it was a mistake, so she would open the app and close it again and again and again.

‘Maybe he's just busy’ – she tells her friends, who have had to listen to the same story and theories for what felt like an unfair amount of time.

‘So busy that he can’t take 2 minutes to type a 5-word apology/response?’ – They answered, as usual.

She knew they were right. This wasn’t a mistake or some complicated but eventually rewarding slow-burn romance. She had been ghosted.

Ghosting: when someone cuts off all communication completely and suddenly without giving any kind of explanation. For some people, it can be truly devastating to be on the receiving end of this tactic, especially after a long talking period.

Carl was also waiting to hear back from his boyfriend. Well, maybe that’s not the right word. He wasn’t exactly Carl’s boyfriend; the situation was more complicated than that. Kevin didn’t really like tags, and the correct terminology had not yet been defined. So we’ll call it a “situationship.”

Anyways, Kevin wasn´t the most frequent texter. Or caller. He didn’t excel at showing up when he said he would and wasn’t very reliable either.

Carl was mostly fine with this behavior, or at least he tried to be because he really loved Kevin, but sometimes he longed for something more. He had always been a relationship guy.

The few times he had expressed these feelings to Kevin, he hadn’t taken it so well; but Kevin also didn’t want to lose Carl. The next few days, he’d be incredibly thoughtful and sweet. But it only made things more complicated and more confusing for Carl. And each time this vicious cycle continued, the gestures and gifts would slowly lose meaning until the situationship felt completely empty to Carl.

He didn't seem to be able to break it off for whatever reason.

Breadcrumbing or benching: purposely leading a person on by showing them the minimum amount of affection so they don’t leave, but never enough to feel fulfilled. (This will never qualify as a ‘real’ or ‘meaningful’ relationship.) It is a form of “keeping someone on the bench” ready to call them in at any given moment but never doing so. This form of manipulation provides the victim with just the right amount of affection

Let’s Name It as It Is

Back to the beginning, we can continue creating new words for all these behaviors: ghosting, benching, catfishing, gaslighting, and a lot more. Lately, there are many different terms for this kind of fallout or miscommunication (and there seem to be new ones every day!)

But, what it all comes down to is simple mistreatment.

These are not attitudes you have toward someone you genuinely care about, right?

If you find yourself on the receiving end of any of these, you shouldn’t focus on finding the right name for it but instead identifying the mistreatment. Because only then will you be able to decide if you want to endure it, call this person out, or maybe even cut them from your life.

Kate, for example, realized that her anxiety levels were increasing, her sleep patterns were terrible, and she couldn’t stop trying to figure out what could have happened. They used to text quite frequently, so after a few days of silence (and also seeing him active on social media) she accepted that he wasn’t into her. But that didn’t mean her mind stopped wondering what could've gone wrong. She went down a spiral of anxiety, but it took her a while to realize that what triggered her anxiety was this “ghosting” incident.

Kate is a brilliant young lady, so the fact that she didn’t realize what caused her anxiety is not an isolated incident. We are getting so used to listening about ghosting (or even receiving or doing it) that it is pretty complicated to acknowledge what this really means.

Imagine you were having a coffee with someone and suddenly stopped speaking, listening, or even looking at them. Does this sound like something you would feel comfortable doing? Of course not, but the virtual space allows us to behave differently.

The Online Space and Our Relationships & Manners

The online space between dating/chatting apps and social media allows different ways of relating to each other. We are all new here. There are no models, so we create the rules as we go. But unfortunately, we are not excelling at treating each other kindly and respectfully. Considering all these new words explaining all this poor behavior gives us an idea of what is happening.

Let’s explore Carl’s experience before going deeper into that. His situation is not so “virtual-scene” related since people have experienced this in the past. Maybe the difference is that nowadays, it is easier to like a status or comment on a story; with tiny gestures, you can make someone feel you are still there. Gestures that also don’t take much time, energy, or effort on your end.

Carl ended up questioning his needs. Was he too needy? Was he asking for too much? He tried remembering past relationships, trying to understand what was going on and mainly why he was feeling so empty now, while Kevin kept saying that this was a great thing they had going on.

Carl's self-esteem started to show the consequences. He has always been confident and emotionally aware, but now he was completely lost. He could sense something was off but couldn’t explain what it was. And together with his confidence coming down, he started to show up in a different way, and his friends were the ones that pointed it out. Again, just like Kate, it took him a lot of work to recognize this significant change's root cause.

That is why it is so crucial for us to start calling these behaviors mistreatment instead of creating more and more names. Name-crafting can be fun, and while it’s not exactly damaging, acknowledging what is going on is way more helpful. These are all ways of mistreating each other and forgetting that, on the other end, someone else has their own heart, feelings, hopes, and expectations, even though they are not necessarily obvious.

Anxiety on the Rise

These days, we can find a rise in the anxiety that people are experiencing while dating; how many of us are taking endless hours trying to understand these “new-era” dilemmas? Our mind needs to make sense of the situation to be able to grieve those ideas, expectations, and fantasies that will never become real. Even if it wasn’t a long-term relationship, we must process the loss when someone disappears.

The first way to go about processing is to acknowledge the fact that we can’t be responsible for someone’s poor behavior. If you have been mistreated, it’s never your responsibility. Maybe you texted too much, maybe too little, but still, you never deserve this.

This leads to something that is as important: if they are behaving like this, you’re most likely better off. Think about the type of relationships you want in your life and revisit their actions. Do those match how you expect to be treated?

Usually, we need to come to terms with our losses. While we can mourn without understanding the reasons behind them, it's always easier (though it may seem strange to use the word “easy” when discussing the grieving process) once we gain insight into what happened. However, asking for reasons is not always the best approach in these cases. If you feel you need them, feel free to ask for them, but please consider that what they see as flaws might even be considered some of your best qualities by someone else.  

In the end, the typical “it’s not you, it’s me” rings true. It’s a cliché for a reason!

Closure Is Essential

It can be painful but learning that whatever was going on is now over and hearing it in a considerate manner from the other person, is crucial to getting proper and healthier closure.

Sometimes we are on the other end without even realizing it. Life gets messy, you are talking with too many people at the same time, and you have a few deadlines from work. Whatever the causes, it can happen. So let’s not forget that even though it is not the most fun situation, breaking things off doesn't have to be dramatic or bitter. We can accept that it didn’t work out, that this is simply not the right place or time, and choose to deal with the inevitable conversation in a kind way out of respect for the person on the other side.

Allowing ourselves to dedicate a few minutes and show some kindness towards each other will not only create a better experience for everyone but will also come full circle as we are treated gently and respectfully.


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Paula Vexlir
Paula Vexlir
Paula Vexlir is a Registered Clinical Psychologist. With interest in innovation, she started supporting people living worldwide 20 years ago, and was one of the first to start with online therapy (yes, before the pandemic!). She specializes in helping individuals navigate their struggles with relationships, anxiety, stress management, grief, parenting, and most human challenges. Paula loves doing research and creating content that can help people lead better lives.