The Impact of Internet Technologies on Primary and Secondary Romantic Relationship Development

By Pauley, Perry M.; Emmers-Sommer, Tara M. | Communication Studies, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Internet Technologies on Primary and Secondary Romantic Relationship Development


Pauley, Perry M., Emmers-Sommer, Tara M., Communication Studies


This study examined the impact that changes in Internet-based technologies have on romantic relationships developed exclusively online. Thirty-six participants completed the 44-item Online Relationships Questionnaire. Participants were then divided into three categories based on self-reported media preference: asynchronous text, synchronous text, and rich media. No significant differences existed on measures of relational confidence or intimacy based solely on media selection. Participants utilizing the Internet to maintain a secondary romantic relationship reported higher levels of relational certainty and greater expectations of future interaction with their online partner than participants involved exclusively in online relationships (i.e., the online relationship was the participant's only romantic relationship).

Keywords: Communication Technology; Computer-Mediated Communication; Infidelity; Online Relationship Development; Uncertainty Reduction

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is redefining how people engage in relationships of all types. Considering the pervasiveness of email, Internet chat programs, electronic bulletin boards, and Internet video- and teleconferencing, it is apparent that CMC is common.

Perhaps most interesting has been the development of online relationships (e.g., Anderson & Emmers-Sommer, 2006; Walther, Loh, & Granka, 2005). Despite negative perceptions, several studies indicate that online relationships are common. Stafford, Kline, and Dimmick (1999) reported that 61% of respondents who used the Internet at home maintained some interpersonal relationship via CMC. Parks and Floyd (1996) found that two thirds ofnewsgroup users maintained a personal relationship with someone they had corresponded with online. Parks and Roberts (1998) reported that 94% of respondents indicated they had formed and maintained a relationship with someone via CMC. Anderson and Emmers-Sommer (2006) found that individuals satisfactorily maintained online, romantic relationships void of non-online contact.

Despite the popularity of online dating services, it has been noted that online relationships are possibly the least understood and studied relationship type (Bonebrake, 2002). Of interest is how online romantic relationships are developed. Further, given many individuals develop online relationships that are sometimes secondary to their primary relationship, it is of interest if the pathways of development vary according to whether the relationship is primary (i.e., the online relationship is the individual's only romantic relationship) or secondary (i.e., the individual is also involved in a face-to-face [FtF] romantic relationship) and according to which medium is used (i.e., synchronous text, asynchronous text, or rich media).

The Advent of "Real" Online Relationships

One argument is that CMC does not provide enough cues for partners to develop a relationship (e.g., Tidwell & Walther, 2002). Critics pointed to the obvious lack of nonverbal cues, vocal cues, physical proximity, and physical attractiveness (see Riva, 2002). Yet, individuals can develop relationships online (e.g., Anderson & EmmersSommer 2006; Walther et al., 2005).

Tidwell and Walther (2002) explored the possibility that uncertainty-reduction and information-seeking behaviors propel computer-mediated relationships to increased intimacy. Although these factors did increase intimacy in laboratory encounters with strangers, these behaviors might only be effective in initial interactions. Studies have demonstrated that as online relationships develop, partners reported using non-Internet-based channels to interact (e.g., Parks & Roberts, 1998).

Technology could change the way individuals interact with one another online. Instant-message programs are now common applications used by millions. Individuals also use chat software, thus possibly changing the complexity of online relationships. …

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