Monday, December 16, 2013

Emotional Affairs, Familiarity, and the Internet

Quite a departure for todays' post: it's more sociological than (neuro)psychological. Though, to be sure, there is an element of the latter, otherwise it wouldn't fit the theme!

love couples photo:  couples-2.jpgA few years ago, a phenomenon called the Emotional Affair caught my eye. Why the qualification of a word in otherwise normal use? Well, unlike a garden-variety affair, which involves having a physical relationship outside of marriage or equivalent committed relationship, an emotional affair is sex-free. The connection is based solely on an emotional intimacy. The love between the two people blooms and grows without much if any physical contact, and is never consummated. Apparently, the incidence of such affairs, sometimes conducted over long distances via e-mail and/or phone and/or texting, is on the rise. How do we know this? Since no one thought to take a survey of such "unconsummated affairs" in the 19th century, we have no idea if they were more common than the novels and plays of the day let on. It is kind of strange to hear that, in this extremely permissive day and age, EAs occur more frequently than before. Don't people just do what they like, hang the consequences? No, some try to compromise: intimacy without cheating (or so it seems). And it is easier than ever to access that intimacy discreetly, thanks to modern technology. A special friend, on a phone or laptop, can be there day and night, ready for a chat.
But the internet is more than e-mail, isn't it? It's a doorway to search engines, which in turn allow us to look up old flames, old crushes, even old lovers. I have no stats on hand, and have no idea if any exist, but I'm willing to bet that the majority of EAs occur between people who knew each other more than 10 years before. In other words, familiarity had already been established with the object of interest, perhaps very well established.
This fascinates me. We have no shortage of potential partners out there, available through face-to-face encounters or online ones, yet so many of us seem drawn to prior relationships. I wonder if this connects with the brain's fundamental tendencies - in (illicit) romance of all things. (I knew I'd bring up the brain sooner or later.)
Whether we are aware of it or not, one of the most stressful things about meeting another human being is reading intentions. Sometimes, depending on us, or on them, we can size them up in an instant. Usually, it takes far longer to get past good manners, conventions, etc. In order to sort out all those signals, the brain has evolved a plethora of mechanisms for handling them - from analysis of expressions to detection of subliminal cues. Culture helps us a lot, as well. (Which may explain the popularity of movie love stories, for example.) How much easier if a person comes "pre-tested"!
Imagine a woman who has been married for 15 years. She feels a bit bored, and starts daydreaming about an old boyfriend she really clicked with 25 years ago. In previous eras, she would have had a major challenge finding his whereabouts unless he had an unusual name, or his family still lived nearby. Nowadays, that old flame could be a few mouse clicks away. If he's happy to hear from her, the e-mails will shuttle back and forth, drawing on nostalgia, loneliness, facility of communication, and the sense of doing "nothing morally wrong." Of course, it can get very complicated very quickly. Emotional connections are sometimes more powerful than purely sexual ones. Familiarity and nostalgia can fan the flames even higher. After all, we think on some level, I know he's a good guy. He would never lead me astray. (As if only strangers are potentially weak or wicked!)
As I have mentioned in previous posts, the human brain owes much of its complexity to social behavior and - according to my theory - our challengingly diverse diet. One of the most precious things about the environment, any environment full of friends and foes, human or edible, is familiarity. If we know Joe is a member of our tribe, we relax a little when we recognize him approaching; when we see a berry we know to be sweet, safe, and easy to eat, we relax and reach for it. Unknowns require more decision. They involve more risk.
The world is full of unknowns for the curious, adventurous, sometimes impulsive Omnivore Brain. Navigating the unknowns is a perilous but highly exciting journey.
More in future posts about how we pass on our results to others, helping them avoid some of our mistakes!

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