Epistolary romance, digital style

E-mail has changed how we start relationships, how we keep them going -- and how we wreck them.

By Jenn Shreve

Published March 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Chris and I had been seeing each other casually for about six months when we both showed up at the same bar with a group of mutual friends. Because we worked together, our relationship had been somewhat of a secret, but we'd always maintained a public friendship. That night, however, Chris (not his real name) decided to be a jerk. He pretended not to know me. I was furious. But I make a habit of avoiding nasty public confrontations. So when I got home, I headed straight to my computer and logged on, ready to tell him off with a precisely worded, dagger-to-the-heart e-mail.

But before I could unleash the anger and hurt that had been welling up inside me all evening, a tell-tale bleep indicated that I had mail. The bastard had beaten me to the punch: He apologized, explained his actions and asked forgiveness. What could I do? Instead of the fiery diatribe I'd planned, I wrote back a simple note to say he'd hurt me, but all was forgiven. And that was that.

Face-to-face we'd have ripped each other to emotional shreds, but the distance of e-mail -- in both time and space -- enabled us to assess our feelings and communicate them clearly and politely. In the long run, it drew us closer.

I decided then and there that, as far as relationships went, e-mail was just great.

Several years have passed since that exchange -- and with them, numerous romantic dramas played out not in the bedroom or over dinner or on a city street, but between two in boxes. I've been asked out and issued rejections over e-mail. I've carried on a long-distance relationship where e-mail was our choice method for staying in touch. I've flirted with acquaintances and spent hours upset when someone I cared about didn't promptly e-mail me back. Yes, I've even dabbled in e-mail sex. It has just seemed the way things are done in these digital times.

We've all read, and perhaps rolled our eyes at, the articles about people who met their true love in a chat room! But lowly, everyday e-mail has transformed the day-to-day workings of romance in a more profound way than any glib news feature about "cyber-matchmaking" has yet mapped out.

Today, a former lover's request to clarify my current feelings is sitting in my in box. I'm debating whether to answer it or call him up, which seems more appropriate for such a personal discussion.

But who am I fooling? I can't do anything about it now. My e-mail server is out to lunch; hundreds of miles away, my ex-boyfriend sits frustratedly wondering why I'm not responding. The thought of picking up the phone leaves me uncomfortable, frightened. So many things have become easier to type than say; I wonder if that means I've become callous. I'm not so sure about my earlier judgment: E-mail doesn't seem so great after all. For every instance in which it brings people together, there's another where it keeps us at a cold distance.

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I recently met a guy at a party. There was an undercurrent of flirtation to our casual small talk. Eventually the topic of dating came up, like a thermometer inserted into the conversation to check if the temperature was right for taking things further. We agreed that, when it comes to asking someone out the first time, it's far easier to e-mail someone than phone them. Sure enough, a couple days later an e-mail arrived, asking if I'd like to go out for drinks. He could just as easily have made the suggestion at the party; why hadn't he?

One reason, of course, is humiliation.

"It's very clear that without the face-to-face feedback, it's a whole lot easier to risk getting rejected," says Esther Gwinnell, author of "Online Seductions: Falling in Love With Strangers on the Internet." "The distance insulates you to some degree. It's a lot harder to personalize it: He's turning me down because he thinks I'm too fat. He's turning me down because he thinks I have bad skin or whatever your personal phobia is about your appearance."

Adam Lewin, a Washington, D.C., professional, calls it the "intermediate step between 'This has been an interesting conversation' and 'Let's do coffee.' In the real world, there's no step between that. Here at least, if someone e-mails you back and it's longer than one line, then you know at least they took the time to do that."

Drue Miller introduced herself to her boyfriend over e-mail: She sent him a note to say she liked his Web site. When they met in person, over coffee, he asked her out. Miller shot him down.

"I just wasn't in the right mind for a relationship," she says. "As soon as we got back to our desks, he wrote me this big apology. I could feel the embarrassment coming through. It was very, very sweet. After we got over that, it became a lot easier to talk to him over mail. We'd gotten that out of the way," explains Miller, whose article "How to Love a Geek Girl" has become a cult favorite online. Several months later, they did have that date, and now they live together.

If e-mail is bringing people together at all, it's doing so by helping them arrange such first dates. But the same reasons that make it easier for people to risk rejection via e-mail also make it easier for them to get rejected.

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I'd been friends with Mike (not his real name) for several months when he e-mailed me what was, essentially, a declaration of his affection. I was flattered and touched. I was also relieved. I'd been aware of his feelings, but because neither of us had articulated them, they'd remained in the form of unspoken tension. With e-mail, he'd had his say without the inherent risk of witnessing my response first-hand. When I e-mailed him to thank him for his note and say that unfortunately I could not return his feelings, I knew he would have time to read and digest this before we'd meet face to face.

But rejection is often communicated without ever saying a word -- through the averting of eyes, tone of voice, lack of responsiveness. Likewise, we are developing ways to communicate our lack of interest over e-mail without typing it out.

"There's this someone I met, who I thought was cool, so I started to e-mail," Lewin tells me. "Whenever I e-mail her for something, I get one line in response, and I take that as 'No.' I take that as an 'I'm not interested.'"

I've often simply deleted e-mails instead of responding to the request for a rendezvous, praying that the sender would not be the persistent sort. I've often wondered if this were a cop-out, but it's really no different from the dozens of non-verbal hints we send through various other media.

Since you're not in the room together, rejecting someone you don't know well is easier via e-mail. For the same reason, e-mail can be an incredibly cruel medium for ending a more developed relationship.

Getting dumped by e-mail was the "lowest thing that ever happened to me," says Tom Lupoff, a 29-year-old from Berkeley, Calif. "I had a full-fledged relationship, and she ended it with e-mail and it was sick." Lupoff had met the woman via e-mail, but they'd been dating for two months. He felt that things were going well, "Then she just dumped me with e-mail from her mother's house. I never got a response back. I felt like, you owe me a phone call! It had gone too far."

Although e-mail can deliver hard truths in a more palatable form, it is by nature an impersonal medium. Voice inflections and body language disappear, and with them, we lose a degree of sensitivity. The more intimate the relationship, the more inadequate e-mail can feel.

"When you're talking to someone face to face, you judge instantaneously with feedback on how they're taking what you're saying. You adjust what you're saying constantly to deal with their feedback," Gwinnell explains.

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E-mail eliminates that give and take. The absence of constant feedback makes it easy to bare one's soul without fear of instantaneous rejection, but difficult to gauge another's full personality. The result is a strong sense of intimacy created in a vacuum. When the vacuum seal is released, when e-mail correspondents finally meet up in person, the closeness built over time can evaporate awfully quickly -- as Jill Steinberger, an online marketing professional in San Francisco, learned.

Steinberger became very close via e-mail with a guy she'd only met for a week at a conference. They'd hit it off, but lived on opposite ends of the country -- he in Olympia, Wash., she in Madison, Wisc. So she was surprised, but pleased, when a letter arrived from him in the mail.

After a couple months of letter-writing, "We started e-mailing, and that got to be an everyday thing," Steinberger explains. "Then we finally started talking over the phone. He invited me to come to his graduation."

Feeling confident that she knew this guy fairly well, she flew to Washington and they drove across the country together to his hometown on the East Coast. During that trip she discovered aspects of his personality she hadn't anticipated during their six months of e-mailing.

"He had some sexual problems. Maybe he was abused as a child. I don't know," she says. He also had an ex-girlfriend who kept showing up, "and his cat had some kind of disease and he was totally nervous about his cat, really neurotic."

They haven't spoken or e-mailed since the trip.

Lewin, the Washington, D.C., professional, tells a similar story. "When I was a graduate student in Seattle, there was a time when this woman and I were really just kind of lonely. This was someone I had a couple classes with that I really didn't find that attractive. But when she went overseas for a semester, we both started to flirt incredibly over e-mail. I was a recluse in graduate school, and I'd look forward to taking a break and writing her an e-mail every day. When she came back we had zero interest in each other."

But Lewin was not upset by the lack of chemistry. "A cyber-relationship is exactly that -- it's cyber. It has nothing to do with reality whatsoever. It's all a game of projection. You can be as suave as you want to because you have hours and hours to think about exactly how to word something."

Of course, all human interaction involves some self-editing -- whether it's the way you style your hair, plastic surgery or what you choose to say and hide in conversation. Getting to know someone primarily over e-mail simply leaves more room for such self-invention.

If two people are aware that the attraction they feel for each other online may not carry over into real life, no harm is done. But if you believe you've met your soul mate and find the chemistry was all in your imagination, the disappointment can be pretty awful.

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Once a relationship is established offline, e-mail isn't likely to be much more than an intimate bonus.

"[E-mail]'s really more of a way to enhance a relationship. It's a nice little bells and whistles option," says Dave Leitner, a San Francisco resident whose girlfriend lives three hours away. "It adds a nice little touch. A lot of times when I get off the phone with her, I'll hop online and send her an e-mail, something for her to find in the morning, a little love note or something."

"It's the adult equivalent of leaving love notes in someone's locker," says Lewin of the role e-mail has played in his relationships. "When you open up that in box, it's a nice little, 'Hey, thinking of you, hope you had a great day.' It just makes my day. When you're in a relationship, so much of it is knowing there's somebody out there who cares how your day is going."

Gwinnell, the "Online Seductions" author, says e-mail can add some small but real luster to an existing relationship. "If you're checking your e-mail 10 to 15 times a day, which is not uncommon, and you might drop a note to each other 10 or 15 times a day, the things you think about to tell the other person can be very intimate or charming. They can be, 'Oh I looked out my window and there's a double rainbow,' which three hours later, when you get home from work, you're not going to remember."

But whispering sweet nothings to your significant other over e-mail and resolving problems are two different matters. While quarrels might spill over into in boxes, e-mail makes a particularly bad arena for fighting.

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"I remember kind of having a spat of sorts with one boyfriend and we kept getting into these arguments after five or six exchanges between us, saying, this is not working, this is clearly not the medium for this. I remember stopping at that point," Drue Miller says.

"The one thing that I like about fighting in e-mail vs. fighting face to face is it gave me time to sit and think and compose my words very carefully, and it filtered out a lot of the histrionics," Miller says. "The flip side of that is that it's easy to be more devastating and really nitpick."

Gwinnell actually recommends the Internet as a battleground for some couples. "If you have two people whose interpersonal arguments tend to escalate into shouting matches, they would be a good couple to be doing this online." But, she concedes, "You can certainly get some really angry flame-style interactions on e-mail."

For Leitner, the medium is just too impersonal for handling conflict. "If I have an argument or if I have some kind of problem, I need to see the person face to face or at least have some kind of real-time interaction with them, so I can hear in their voice what their reaction is to what I just said."

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Once upon a time, when telephones started popping up in homes across the world, stationery and pens were set aside to collect dust. A man no longer had to perspire nervously before a young lady whose company he desired: He could pick up a phone and get it over with, with less risk to his self-esteem. Telephones removed physical barriers, enabling real-time conversations to occur at a distance. We take for granted now what a revolution in romantic relations that must have been.

With e-mail we've returned to the written word, but combined it with the immediacy of the phone call. The thrill at having your affections returned, the self-doubt that comes with rejection, the tension that arises when what you want conflicts with your partner's desires -- all these remain the same. Yet e-mail's combination of physical distance and immediacy creates new situations in courtship and relationships that wouldn't exist had this technology never been developed.

During a recent visit, my mother remarked on what an independent young woman she thought I'd become: "In my day, we'd waste entire weekends waiting for a boy to call. But not you."

I grinned and agreed -- all the while thinking of how I set Eudora to alert me about new mail every 10 minutes.

Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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