In the last few years, the number of relationships that start on the Internet has skyrocketed. No statistics are available about which ones work out and which ones end in disaster, but you can be sure the relationships that work are based upon mutual honesty. The ones that don’t, aren’t. The ones we hear about are the horror stories.

In face-to-face encounters, people can see what the other person looks like and see how they interact in a one-on-one conversation. Even so, there are still stories about people meeting in person in a bar or social setting where one of them turns out to be dishonest. These people stretch the truth about who they really are, where they work, what kind of car they drive, and how much money they make.

In a world where people feel disconnected, the Internet gives them a false sense of security, a safe platform into the unknown. Women and men who are too shy to go out and meet someone, or unable because of money, time, or personal issues, now find social interaction on the Internet. Because they are not in a position where they feel like they can be rejected, they open themselves up body and soul.

The absence of fear of rejection transforms even the mildest person into a bold adventurer. They openly discuss sensitive subjects with strangers who may live states away, or even in foreign countries — subjects they would otherwise be unable or unwilling to talk about. People who ordinarily feel restricted by their person life choices are able to live out their wildest fantasies on the Internet. To some, the Internet seems to be the perfect answer to their trapped, dull, going-nowhere lives.

The reality is that the Internet allows people to attract others by misrepresenting themselves about their basic characteristics. People can represent themselves as women when they are men, single when they are married, tall when they are short, attractive when they are unattractive.

Since some are willing to deal with the possibility that people at the other computer may be misrepresenting themselves, they believe an Internet relationship is harmless. However, when a trusting person shares too much personal information with a dishonest person, the Internet relationship can cross over into a dark side. Murder, rape, torture, suicide, divorce, and theft can result. People who make the mistake of trusting another on the Internet can find themselves in a horrible situation. Lured into an Internet relationship by the prospect of finding the answer to all their problems, people are ruining their lives and the lives of people around them.

When someone ends up in a nightmare situation that got started on the Internet, the entire family is affected. Yet, the additional casualties of bad Internet relationships are rarely even considered when these stories make the news. The real victims are the children of the people who step over the line on the Internet. They are the children who stood by helplessly watching a parent not only ruin his or her own life and future, but theirs, too.

There is no telling how many children have been moved miles and miles so that their single parents can meet the person of their Internet dreams. There are children who have watched one parent start an Internet relationship only to have the other parent find out and hit the roof. While the impact of a normal affair between two people is hard enough on a child, imagine how devastating it is for a child to see parents breaking up because one of them is angry with the other one who is typing messages to a person no one has ever seen.

People need education about the positive and negative aspects of Internet relationships. People need to know what can happen when Internet users are not cautious about their interactions. Parents, both single and married, need to consider the health and well being of their children instead of their own selfish wants and to do so before they are knee-deep in an Internet relationship.

If people who have met on the Internet decide to move their relationship to the next step, e.g., meeting face-to-face, they need to meet in a safe place and if possible, bring a friend along for safety and feedback. Married couples need to talk about how they feel about their spouse interacting with people on the Internet. Couples should take time interacting together with people on the Internet. If their relationship is not going well, a couple should agree to work it out in front of a therapist or by themselves rather than venting their frustrations to someone on the Internet.

In any interaction between two people, especially when emotions are involved, there is the “selling factor.” Someone is selling and someone is buying. One may convince the other that what they are selling is just what they need, must have and will make them happy. Or, someone can sell another that they are not the person who can make them happy. Either way, a sale gets made because what happens in real life also happens in any Internet relationship. If you are the person doing the buying, then the best piece of advice anyone can give you is, “Buyer Beware!” The product you are about to buy might cost you your home, money, family or life.

© 1998, Dr. Roger A. Rhoades

Roger A. Rhoades, D.Min., is a licensed professional counselor, a therapist for more than a decade who is nationally known for his considerable skills in the field. He has worked with all ages and races, worked in psychiatric hospitals, worked in drug & alcohol rehab settings. Dr. Rhoades has extensive training in marriage and family therapy and is considered an authority on relationships.

You might have seen Dr. Rhoades’ appearances on national television shows such as The Montel Williams Show, The Rolanda Watts Show, and Biggers and Summers. Most recently a regular on the Jenny Jones Show, he is America’s most popular talk show counselor.