How to Start a Real Relationship Online
It’s a frustrating time to try and foster connections of any kind, but dating is especially complicated. Particularly in places where it’s getting colder outside, the best spaces for getting to know someone new are digital ones.
Many people in long-distance relationships (myself included) are slightly more accustomed to online relationships—because, in many cases, the internet is where they began.
Long-distance relationships are a complex state of affairs, especially with the world as it is, but they can absolutely be fulfilling and rewarding. I’m non-monogamous, and my two longest romantic relationships are with people who live far away from me, each of whom I met on social media. I haven’t been able to be together in person with either partner I love in roughly nine months, but they and I still manage to maintain our bond and love for each other, as so many long-distance couples are also doing right now. Doesn’t that sound nice?
If you’re considering opening your mind to the possibility of dating someone you come across on the internet (or if you’re just trying to maintain the relationship you’ve got), here’s some advice about make meeting and being with someone from a distance work.
What to know before getting into something
What do you want from this connection? Taking stock of our desires and expectations helps us form clearer understandings of how they may interact with those of the people we’re interested in. That allows for smoother (if not simpler) navigation of romance and all the possible conflicts therein. While we can’t always be perfectly honest with ourselves or see how our desires might change with total clarity, we can do our best to parse out what it is we want.
What is it you’re looking for in meeting someone online? What do you expect from this relationship? Do you hope for monogamy? Are you content to be into each other at a distance, or do you expect a partner to eventually be closer to you physically? It’s important to not only be aware of what the two of you each want, but also what’s realistically possible (especially during the pandemic, when most kinds of travel are likely to put you and others at risk).
What you get online isn’t totally who someone is—and that’s OK. The impression you’re getting from social media or a dating profile isn’t necessarily representative of a person exactly as they are. That doesn’t mean they’re intentionally obfuscating their imperfections, but maybe that they’re expressing themselves as they feel most comfortable. Just keep in mind that idealizing them based on that isn’t fair and isn’t in either of your best interests. “You get to see some of who they are in the picture they give you, but not all of it,” said Carolyn Yates, a consultant and sex writer who has had long-distance online-based relationships that have resulted in everything from sexy friendship to divorce. “It’s like you can see them on a webcam, but you can’t see how (figuratively) messy their room is past the camera.” Don’t lose sight of a person you’re with as an actual person, even and especially if you’re stoked about them.
You need to communicate clearly about your feelings, expectations, and even communicating itself. That doesn’t mean you need to talk all the time. It does mean you need to talk about how often you want to talk, and a whole lot of other things, too. If you both have interrogated your feelings about what you want from this romance and can be honest about your expectations, needs, and wants, it makes everything run a lot more smoothly.
Meredith Russo, a novelist based in Brooklyn, met her current partner, who lives in Wisconsin, via her Discord server. When entering a long-distance relationship with someone she’s met online (which she has done a few times). Russo, 33, lays out her boundaries and expectations as early as possible. “I’m not moving out of New York City, and l’m not giving monogamy unless our distance changes and we’re close enough to be in each other’s physical company on a regular basis,” said Russo. Whatever your own terms are, it’s essential to advocate what works for you early on so you can both be on the same page.
How to meet someone online
Be it changing your location preferences on one of the dating apps, striking up a conversation in the chats of servers like Discord, or just a good old-fashioned DM slide: There are as many methods of meeting someone on the internet as there are ex-girlfriends of mine at a Mitski concert.
My personal preference has always been towards that most classic of lesbian dating habitats—social media—not only for the simplicity of its use, but for the bounty of love it has brought into my life. “As much as dating apps are a common way to find partners of all descriptions, social media allows for an indirect level of familiarity as the connection forms,” said Yates. And I think that’s true, at least for me! Every time I’ve ended up in a long-distance, online-based romance, the connection has always been sparked over Twitter, Instagram, or (back in the day, before it was purged of horny,) Tumblr.
Two years ago, I met my partner Jessica over Instagram after she found some meme I made about being a bottom. Our chemistry was instant. We spent that night liking each other’s selfies en masse, bonding over our shared FEMME4FEMME tattoos, and otherwise flirting for three hours straight. Despite living on opposite ends of the West Coast, we’ve been together ever since, only visiting each other every few months (until the pandemic, that is).
In meeting Jes on Instagram, I got to see what mutual acquaintances we had and how she interacted with the community around her. Her posts also gave me an understanding of what she finds funny (bottoming memes) and how she sees herself (via, of course, astrology posts). After four months interacting both directly in a one-on-one way and on an app based around promoting art and thirst traps, our interactions on and off social media had given me a clearer understanding of what she was about.
Others VICE spoke to about long-distance online relationships had similar experiences in getting to know their partners via social media. Erin had been Twitter mutuals with Gwen for a while before the two actually started talking and things went from friendly to flirty. (Both of their last names have been omitted for their privacy.) Since Erin lived in Michigan and Gwen was in Oregon, they were hesitant to take it any further, but as the two spent more time talking and playing video games online together, their feelings only intensified.
“I felt like we were already doing Girlfriend Things together,” said Erin, who is 25. “I just wanted the title—and the ability to confess my crush.” One day in the summer of 2019, after Erin helped Gwen beat the notoriously hard game Dark Souls for the first time, they let their feelings be known: “I really like you,” Erin said. “I know we talked about [not wanting to do] long distance, but I really like what we have right now, and it doesn’t need to be more. i just want to call it something special.” Gwen said she was equally into it, and they’ve been partners ever since.
How online relationships can—and do—work
Sometimes the unique circumstances of online long-distance dating fit a person’s specific romantic and sexual needs. Kate Sloan is a 28-year old sex writer based out of Toronto who met her partner, Matt, three years ago after Matt slid into her DMs flirting over one of her blog posts. Matt, whose last name has been omitted for their privacy, mentioned that if she were ever in New York and wanted to grab coffee, they’d love to take her out. When Sloan did travel to New York a while later, the two met up and hit it off immediately.
While neither had intended to spark a long-distance romance, both agreed the chemistry was palpable and that they wanted to continue seeing each other in some capacity. For the first few years of their relationship, they developed a routine of nightly phone calls and a monthly weekend visit. While the pandemic has meant adjustments to that routine with regard to regular visits, the bulk of their arrangement has suited Sloan’s personal needs.
“I’m very introverted, so, in some ways, I actually like getting to spend most of my time apart from my partner,” said Sloan. “It lets me take much-needed alone time during the day, so I’m fueled up and ready to chat by the time we get on the phone around 9 p.m.”
Russo, explaining her experiences with her partner in Wisconsin and those she’s dated online otherwise, said that distanced romances can help her acclimate herself to new partners. “Trauma is a big factor in my ability to feel receptive,” she said. “When I have time to get used to someone before they enter my physical presence, I’m less likely to be startled or frightened by them, which makes intimacy easier.”
How to figuratively close the distance
Watch TV shows and movies together. Get to know each other better by sharing each of your favorite films and shows. Setting viewing dates to watch a series as it airs can be a great way to have weekly quality time with each other. Zoom, Netflix Party, and Hulu Watch Party are great for this.
Play video games together. The interactivity of video games can keep your quality time from becoming too sedate. For those who aren’t sure where to start, there are plenty of games that are newbie-friendly, like Animal Crossing, Fall Guys, and Among Us.
Do domestic tasks while chatting. Yes, it’s fine to just video chat from bed, but it also can feel nice to integrate time with your partner into your daily tasks. Try having your partner on the phone or video while you two are each preparing dinner, then sitting down to eat together.
Invite friends to hang out with you on a video chat. Weird as it sounds, right now is the perfect time to integrate someone into your life from a distance because, if you’re being safe, you’re likely not seeing many of your friends in person, or at least not regularly in groups. Include your partner in your weekly Zoom watch party with friends. Invite them to play Dead by Daylight or Smash Bros. with the homies. Welcome them to your community Discord server. It’ll be nice to have them feel included in the rest of your life.
Get off together. Send each other nudes and smutty texts! Mutually masturbate over video chat! Try a vibrator, butt plug, or fucking machine that can be remote-controlled over Wi-Fi! Or just enjoy some dirty talk on the phone: Sloan said she has come to really enjoy phone sex, particularly because she lives with a chronic pain condition. “It’s a way of accessing intimacy without needing to exhaust myself with all the preparations and stressors that can come along with in-person sex,” she said.
On (literally) closing the distance
What happens if either of your wants and needs change and you feel the need to see your partner in person? I can tell you: Going the better part of a year without seeing two women I love has been rough for me. My immunocompromised status limits my ability to go most places, let alone travel by plane, train, or bus—and as a bottom, I can’t drive, spiritually or legally.
Long-distance can lead you to make some really drastic choices. “If you haven’t seen someone and are now finally seeing them, or if you just ended a visit together and miss them a lot—which sucks, I get it!—it can be hard to make decisions that really consider who you are as individuals and together and whether you’re making the right call,” said Yates.
Try not to get carried away, and keep pandemic safety at the top of your mind no matter what. Though I do have plans to see both my partners in the next couple months, it means not only planning out when works best for each of us, but both of us isolating for a fortnight and them driving to me with minimal stops, to prevent spreading COVID to me, themselves, and others.
Whereas, in my early 20s, I’d up and move to Portland for someone I’d met once or get engaged to a Canadian I met on FetLife after a few travel dates, now I can have a weeklong date with someone in Seattle, know they are spectacular and that we have impeccable chemistry, and not completely uproot my life or make drastic choices about my future.
Sloan emphasized that, while the current chaos of the world makes planning difficult, it’s still valuable to think about what your “endgame” is. Are you OK to indefinitely be at a distance, or do you think you’ll eventually want to live closer, or even with each other? For Sloan and her partner, the answer became clear after the two spent a couple months together at the beginning of the pandemic because of COVID-related travel restrictions—and they decided to choose both. “I knew this was the person I wanted to marry, and I wanted that so strongly that the odd circumstances didn’t even bother me.” said Sloan. Though they’re still living in different countries now, the two were wed in a small ceremony in Madison Square Park this November.
In general, you don’t need a reason to want to start a relationship with someone far away. Regardless of your situation, sometimes you find a person, you both feel a genuine connection, and you can just tell their company would enrich your life. That can all happen online with someone who doesn’t live near you, with the same sort of chemistry as a more proximal partnership. When it works, it just works—and it’s more than worth it.
Chingy Nea is writer, comedian, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based in Oakland and Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.
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