The Problem With Synthetic Relationships

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Photo by marinapriest @ Morguefile.com

Well, if there were anything better to come back from hiatus for, I can’t think of it. It is a topic that I have wanted to write about for some time but never felt the impetus to write an article. But, after exploring the topic further and hearing some things floating about the cultural ether, I believe this needs to be addressed.

Let’s talk about virtual girlfriends, or perhaps more appropriately “synthetic relationships”.  It’s a phenomenon most associated with Japanese culture, but has global implications, given that we now have more access to Japanese culture than ever before thanks to the internet.

Due to my status as outside of that culture, I can only speculate on the cultural factors that resulted in this rising trend. But what we can discuss is their impact.

This is connected to a genre of video games that are popular in Japan known as “dating simulators”, which play as a “Choose-your-own-adventure” game where you court and romance a character.

One Step Too Far

On the surface, this is pretty innocuous, I would not take someone to task for playing a dating simulator. The problem comes when the user departs from reality and instead places primacy on their virtual partners. It’s a very fine line between indulging in a common fantasy and taking it beyond that realm into delusion.

The line has slowly become more blurred over time. The town of Atami once catered to men with virtual girlfriends from the game “Love Plus”. During this time, users could scan barcodes to have their digital girlfriends appear. Think of it as the relationship form of Pokemon Go.

Meals and rooms for two would be reserved, for the player and his digital girlfriend. If you want to go even further, there are companies that are working on simulating the sexual aspects as well.

My Make Believe Love

The appeal of a digital girlfriend is quite straightforward. She will never argue with you, she will love you no matter what you do, is visually idealized, and does not require any effort on your part to remain happy in the relationship since she doesn’t really feel anything in the first place.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of declining marriage rates, birthrates, and an aging population. I can’t imagine this being very good for any of those factors.

The reason I am talking about this though, is because I have seen people looking in at the situation and saying “Hey, this doesn’t look bad. I could get in on this.” This sentiment troubles me and with good reason.

The argument I had been previously presented with online was that it could be beneficial. In cases where someone has no flesh and blood human connection, having a robot to talk to would assuage that loneliness, helping both the mood and sociability.

I do not subscribe to this notion. As previously mentioned, this interaction is highly idealized. It is free from the conflicts of an actual relationship, the commitment and reciprocity that a real relationship requires, and all the icky bits that make it challenging to engage in real life. It is almost Disney-like in its idealization.

The person participating is trapped within Plato’s cavern, left in a state of emotional stagnation. They do not receive the social skills needed to interact with other people and do not need to risk exposing themselves to others emotionally. That lack of vulnerability means that their digital partner cannot hurt them.

But without that exposure, the relationship becomes one where the player projects their own desires onto a being that cannot actually reciprocate them. They only provide the illusion of doing so. Not only that, but the emotional dependence upon the digital partner means slowly losing the ability to cope without it. What is the player going to do when, for whatever reason, the device that facilitates this exchange fails?

On the Edge of Alone

Now I’m going to talk a bit about the reality of my situation. I have written previous articles about my struggles dating. This fall has been a string of lousy first dates, nothing that really hits home in terms of relationships. Many times I’ve gotten down on myself, ascribing myself to a fate of being “forever alone”. Historically, I’ve managed to pick up relatively quickly after a setback. But the crescendo of doom gets louder with each failed date. I question my desirability, my appeal. It ties to my depression, ideas about myself that lead to self-sabotage.

The reason I began dating despite my depression was because I have gotten to a fairly good place academically and professionally. In many other circumstances, I have come quite far.

Yet when it comes to dating, depression seems to rear its ugly head once more. Since it can no longer target my academic standing, nor my career prospects, it takes aim at my ability to form intimate relationships.

I hear its words when something happens, “She didn’t want a second date because there is something wrong with you.” “Maybe women just don’t like you.” “Have you considered that maybe, just maybe, that this is just the way things are for you?”

I am fortunate to have friends, especially female friends, who can dispute this notion. Around me are voices of reason, including my therapist’s, who have encouraged me not to give up.

A Sign Of Vulnerability

I am bringing all of this up because this set of circumstances makes me a prime target for this kind of set up. Other people without the knowledge that I have can fall prey to this.

In objective terms, I’ve done quite well for myself, scoring more dates than even my neurotypical friends. I’ve never considered myself a Casanova by any stretch of the imagination but it was sobering to actually look at the numbers and observe “Hey, I’m doing better than I thought I was.”

So, imagine someone who has similar issues but is far less successful. Maybe instead of the fifteen women that I’ve dated, the man in question has only dated three. To him, because the number is so small, his assumption that he will never find “the one” means more because the occurrence of getting a date takes longer for him.

He may have imposed an arbitrary time limit or relationship limit (I’ve been guilty of doing this before), adding unnecessary pressure to his circumstance. He may have misogynistic prejudices that he has not adequately dealt with.

Perhaps he has not internalized the good moments of a relationship very well. Even in my poorest relationships, I have always found nuggets of joy that I can pull out and say to myself “I genuinely enjoyed that moment. Sure, it was a small moment in an otherwise not so good relationship, but it was still a good moment.” Instead, our hypothetical man sees everything that happened in a bad relationship as inherently bad with no regard to nuance.

Maybe he’s too focused on sex or he has some distortions about how relationships work.  Someone hasn’t come up to him and told him, “Things don’t work like this.” My process of conceptualizing a healthy, adult relationship has been long, arduous, and notoriously painful. Usually it comes when I do something that I’m not supposed to and figure it out after the fact. But let’s suppose our hypothetical man does not necessarily learn from his mistakes and moves on, instead he opts to perseverate over his lost ex. He spends a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy thinking about “the one who got away”, so much so that he closes himself off to the possibility of finding someone who could potentially be a better match.

(As a side note, this is also why I reject the notion of a “soulmate”. While there’s an appeal to imagining a person who is tailor-made for you, it also limits you if things go wrong.)

He may also seek a simple answer to the question “Why didn’t it work?” What I have found is that asking for a simple answer to something as complex as a human relationship is an exercise in futility. If you ask someone with a specific agenda to sell you (emphasis on the word “sell”), they’ll often appeal to this impulse. As such, it is far more productive to simply ask yourself “What can I do better next time?” instead. But our hypothetical man doesn’t know that.

He also does not have a similar pattern to mine where he is able to attract a potential partner almost immediately after a breakup or failed date. Previously, this was my saving grace and I suspect that I would have gone through the process once more had I not voluntarily decided to take a break from dating until spring so as to take the pressure off.

These are not unlikely scenarios, as I have noticed many men struggling with all of these. There is an audience for these synthetic relationships, and in this current cultural climate that number is growing.

One thing I’ve learned is that a hell of a lot of people are lonely, and it’s not just men either. Japan serves as a canary in the coal mine, a dire warning that we would do well not to ignore.

I am writing this as a plea to anyone who is contemplating going down this path. The road to a fulfilling human relationship is long and rocky. It means that you will fall down many, many times and you will have to muster the strength to pick yourself up and try again. It will take longer than you will ever want to take, requiring an enormous amount of patience.

It means that you will have to grow beyond who you are now, which for many people can be frightening. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be an opportunity for you to go beyond your comfort zone and try to be better version of yourself.

It also means accepting someone else’s human imperfections. But to me, those imperfections are themselves beautiful. To me, learning about someone’s flaws is a process of humanization that I appreciate.

As I said before, even the poorest relationships I’ve been in have had little pieces of genuine happiness that I enjoyed. In my mind, I believe that I will find someone with whom I can share moments like that again and more. I say this because every time I’ve been in a relationship I’ve gotten a bit closer, grown a bit more, and understood more about what I want both out of myself and my partner.

In the end, I think I’ll make it. A few years from now I will be able to look back at this post with my wife by my side and say to her, “Look how far I’ve come. I used to be so worried, but then we found each other.”

But if I dip myself into the pool of virtual relationships with a digital girlfriend, I only ensure that I remain alone. I enter into a self-imposed exile from reality, and with it the potential of love with a real person.

There is someone in reality for you, and if you’re willing to brave that journey you can find them. But you’ll never find them by devoting your life to a synthetic relationship.

3 thoughts on “The Problem With Synthetic Relationships

  1. I get your drift and have both seen and read reports of Japan’s Robot Dating culture. Yet, even in our natural world there are a plethora of ‘synthetic’ relationships in that they may not be of natural origin but are nonetheless real, serving a true and, at times, a beneficial goal. For example, ‘arranged’ – and I do not mean forced – marriages while synthetic in origin often produce benefits for the parties involved, including their families.

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    • This isn’t synthetic in the sense that people arrange them for others. It’s synthetic in the sense that one of them is not a real person.

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      • I understand that the relationship is not arranged. But, even if one partner is not ‘real’ in the sense of a living person, the relationship is, of itself, real for the human participant.. In that sense, just and ‘arranged’ relationship in the human world may (may not) have benefits such a relationship with an ‘artificial’ partner may (or may not) bring benefits to the human participant.

        Whether it be a dating game or some other game, the human participant does form a sense of belonging with the character/s involved in the ‘game’. For them, the character is real.

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