The shocking revelation over Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo’s virtual relationship with a girlfriend he believed to be dead, and later realized never existed, led many to label him as “gullible.” In hindsight, considering just the facts, it’s easy to come to that conclusion. But when the psychological principles that led to T’eo’s betrayal are better understood, there are many lessons in this example that apply to the rest of us. I'd be remiss to not add that details are still emerging as to whether T'eo had any involvement in the "hoax" but it's worth diving into the fact that in our mobile world, for many folks, virtual relationships have replaced real, human relationships.
The fact is that in some ways, virtual relationships can be more powerful, in the short term, than real relationships, because of the mind’s ability to use fantasy. Fantasizing can create psychological, physical and chemical realities that are extremely powerful.
For example, relationships built on fantasy often seem, at first, to be more gratifying than real relationships, because there are fewer negative realities to deal with. Virtual relationships are also emotionally gratifying, because people are able to deny real problems and disillusionment by focusing on the positive things that they like about the person or the fantasy. Virtual relationships are therefore very tempting for people who are relationally immature, or have difficulty sustaining a real relationship, because virtual relationships are not subject to any of the problems associated with reality. It truly is Disneyland over and over again.
Ultimately, problems with virtual relationships arise when those involved either bring in real problems, like "I want more from you," or they hit the limit that non face to face relationships have. Relationships, at their deepest level, are also physical. By that I do not mean sexual, but face to face. The power of being in the physical presence of another person delivers real benefits. Physical means being physically present with another person, maintaining eye contact, body language, and face to face interaction. The physicality of a real relationship -- one that encompasses mind, body and soul -- ultimately makes it more fulfilling and powerfulthan any virtual relationship ever could be. Physical presence provides chemical, relational, psychological and physiological effects that virtual relationships cannot. Our brains change in the presence of another person and their behavior. Consequently, at some point, for a virtual relationship to become real, those involved must establish a physical relationship. In T’eo’s case, that never came to be -- and the story ended like so many others do: in a vapor of fantasy.
Dr. Henry Cloud is a clinical psychologist, leadership consultant and author of the book "Boundaries for Leaders" to be released by HarperCollins in April 2013. Follow Dr. Cloud on Facebook and Twitter.