When we’re on Facebook, BBM’ing, Internet dating or sms’ing, we can be whoever our fantasy wants us to be and the people we meet online can become our fantasy relationship.

We can be taller, slimmer, more interesting, more intelligent and more attractive. We can be selective about the information we give out and leave out the details that don’t serve our purposes, such as that we are married or in a relationship.

The same goes for the person we have meet online or meet in person and are now BBM’ing or sms’ing. All too soon we start living out our ideal fantasy relationship. This relationship is far more satisfying than the one we are in, which requires face-to-face engagement, paying the bills, washing the dishes and shopping for groceries.

Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Judith Ancer who gives workshops on social media says counselors are seeing a rise in affairs as a result of social media. She explains that it’s not that people didn’t flirt or have fantasies and affairs before the advent of social media. Of course they did. Social media can also not be blamed for broken marriages and relationships or for fueling a sense of dissatisfaction in marriages and relationships. Dissatisfaction has always been there to a lesser or greater degree. After all, we’re human and real, face-to-face relationships are never perfect.

“But what the social media has provided is a smorgasbord of options that are both seductive and immediate,” she explains. The immediacy is just too temping and it allows people to act out their fantasies at an accelerated pace.

“Online, people tend to fairly immediately translate their feelings into words or photographs and start living out their daydreams. There’s an impulsivity and exhibitionism about pressing ‘send’ and acting as if the social media is private space,” says Ancer.

Within a few message and photo exchanges people feel close to each other. As a result is that there is plenty of boundary dissolving or apparent boundary dissolving because it is at a distance.

“Freud in his time wrote about repression as a major pathology in people’s expression of their sense of self and their relationships,” explains Ancer. “The Internet breaks through this and is a giant step along the timeline of self-expression and relationships, which includes the sexual revolution and democracy. Many people today do and say what they like, with too little shame and perhaps too little sense of consequence whereas in the past there was too much shame and too much sense of consequence.”

Online affairs are a case in point, and can become very erotic and sexual.

This can ramp up people’s dissatisfaction with their real life and their real relationship, which cannot match up to its remote counterpart.

Ancer discusses the case where high school sweethearts meet up again on Facebook after not having seen each other for some time. They both have created their own lives, but suddenly they can be their 17-year-old selves again and relive their unresolved fantasy of how life could have turned out.

“The intensity and idealisation of the online relationship takes energy out of the relationship you are supposed to be in,” says Ancer.

When people who are in marriages or relationships get involved online it is often evidence of dissatisfaction with themselves, explains Johannesburg-based emotional coach and author Stephanie Vermeulen.

“They believe the person with whom they have reconnected or whom they have just met will solve all their problems and make life interesting and exciting. They also believe their online romance is the answer to all the problems in their existing ‘real life’ relationship. There may well be problems in the real life relationship and the online relationship can land up weakening it further.”

Or, as some people who have chosen to meet their online love face to face have discovered, the person is very different face to face, sometimes in a positive way, sometimes not. Seeing a person’s reaction to you face to face is very different to receiving a response from them online. Meeting a person in the flesh is very different to meeting them online. Many people find the chemistry they thought they shared just isn’t there.

“The fantasy of being in love is far more powerful than actually knowing a person,” Vermeulen explains. “If you are communicating with someone via Facebook or Internet dating or sms’ing them, you fall in love with your own fantasy of who this person is and what they are going to be in your life. A common fantasy is about how much the person adores you and will fulfill al your dreams and complete you. Online there is so much potential to fuel the fantasy because you are not party to their bad habits or bad behaviour, and they are naturally putting their best online foot forward.”

The problems with this, adds Vermeulen, is that the fantasy diverts you from looking at your own life and from fulfilling yourself.

Vermeulen recounts a case where two people were Skyping. The man lives in the United States, and the woman lives in Joburg: “They Skyped for several months and the woman kept telling me how wonderful and attentive he was, until they met. Within a few days the romance was over because the woman discovered how selfish he was in real life. She said that he was solely interested in his needs and that he spent the whole time talking about himself.

“People can be intensely focused on you for the couple of minutes or the hour when they are communicating with you online,” says Vermeulen. “This gives the impression of undivided attention and caring. It also gives the impression that you know this person well because you have shared so closely and so frequently online.”

Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

Vermeulen speaks of two other people, both of whom are divorced, who met online and who have subsequently met several times face to face. A year down the line the relationships is looking really promising, but they live on different continents and will need to face the ‘who moves where’ down the line.

Clinical psychologist Pierre Brouard from the Centre for the Study of AIDS at the University of Pretoria says the ability to meet people from all over the world as a result of social media has its obvious dangers but it is also a very positive and interesting vehicle for social engagement. As is its role in helping couples stay connected when they live apart because of work or if one or both of them frequently travels.

“It’s tempting to get into a moral panic about the Internet and its role in intimate and marital relationships,” says Brouard. “Social media will lead to things we don’t yet know but an interesting side to it is that it leads to a questioning of what we define as ‘unfaithfulness’. In the past it was predominantly defined by physical unfaithfulness but does flirting or making new connections via BBM, sms, Facebook or other forms of social media constitute unfaithfulness? Where is the dividing line where you have stepped over the faithful barrier and how far do we allow ourself or our partner to explore other friendships before it becomes a threat to the primary relationship?”

These are questions we need to ask ourselves and discuss with our partner or spouse. Brouard says we are all socialised to believe our partner is 100% ours for life but this is also a fantasy.

So what do we do about it if our partner, husband or wife starts behaving strangely around social media? They uncharacteristically start taking their cellphone everywhere they go, including to the bathroom. They start hiding it or they click onto another page whenever you approach them when they are on their computer.

“Most times the partner finds out because no one is vigilant 100% of the time. If this happens you need to talk to your partner, and the two of you might need to go for counseling,” says Vermeulen.

She cites the case of a woman whose husband kept hiding his phone. She eventually found it and read the messages between him and another woman, clearly indicating an affair. She told him she had found the messages and they thrashed it out, and went for counseling but ultimately got divorced. “In this situation the online affair was symptomatic of a relationship that was already in deep trouble,” says Vermeulen.

The problem is that all the unresolved issues of his marriage were then taken into the new relationship, which was destined not to be as exciting if and when it became real.

Many psychologists say it takes two years before your fantasy of the other person subsides and you start seeing who they are, as opposed to wanting to see your ideal partner.

Brouard says: “You can try and find that perfect person who can make you feel wonderful and fill the emptiness you might feel, but they don’t exist because we have to do the work ourselves. Love partners, husbands and wives can help you and support you, but they cannot do the work for you.”

Vermeulen says: “Fantasies lead to false expectations that the person will complete your world, whereas a good relationship is actually a down-to-earth thing; it is about a strong friendship, support system and understanding of each other.”