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 say much about their feeling of shame. Somehow they are afraid that others might perceive their relationship as ‘less’ serious or somehow incomplete just because it has started in a virtual world.
As a therapist practicing online therapy through videoconferences, I can relate to their experience. I also meet my clients online, after they have found me on the Internet, reading what I disclose 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 and slippers, or not wearing anything at all… There is some truth in it, and sometimes I take my shoes off and conduct a session in my favourite comfortable slippers.
Answering the usual question about my professional activity during social gatherings, I often get the same reaction: “So, you are working online?” - Sometimes with a note of slight contempt.
Since I started offering therapy online, several years ago, I have had many expatriates from various backgrounds as my clients.
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 Internet access. At the time my mother didn’t even have a landline phone, 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, as 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 long-distance relationship: a family member who left the country, an expat friend, a partner who is temporarily working abroad, or our friends and family left behind when we move. We are becoming skilled in shaping these relationships, and I myself have experienced 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 could somehow ‘participate’ from afar? If so, then you can surely understand how heart-warming and meaningful these moments can be.
No wonder that, for those who have been living far from home for a while, having a ‘real’ online relationship seems natural.
We learned how to adapt technology for our social needs and these new skills allow us to feel less isolated.
For a ‘traditional’ therapist, stepping out into this new world of changing boundaries can result in a challenging experience: after all, since its beginnings, psychoanalysis had dealt with a real-life client lying on an actual couch. Losing these attributes can naturally seem uncomfortable and scary.
Physical and the psychological distance are two very different concepts. Some people can feel entangled in a relationship, even with someone very far from a physical point of view.
In my experience the same happens with long-distance relationships: I often feel extremely close to a client who is sitting at their computer at the other side of the Earth.
In this virtual ‘face-to-face’ bubble, I often experience a deep connection with some of my clients. The fact that we are able to only see each other’s face gives to the whole experience an even more intense quality.
I guess, as with any online relationship, trust needs 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, as therapist and client, we model a long-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 being 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.
Anastasia Piatakhina Giré is an integrative psychotherapist practicing in Madrid, and also worldwide through Skype.
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