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Auntie SparkNotes: I Don’t Know How to Act with My Online Friend

Dear Auntie Sparknotes,
I’ve had an online friend, “Axel”, for about 3 months. We’ve gotten along excellently, and we’re quite alike, right down to the mutual WWII obsession. About a month ago, I noticed I had feelings for him, which I dismissed as purely platonic and tried to repress, mainly because he is 16 and I’m worried about the age difference. However, I’ve recently realized that I have a huge crush on him, and to make matters worse, he got back with his girlfriend recently. Since she seems like a really nice person and he obviously loves her very much, I’ve been doing my absolute best to support his relationship. I thought I’d be alright since I wasn’t planning to tell him how I felt for a long time, and now I won’t have to tell him at all.

The problem is that, during about the 1-month mark in our friendship, Axel started calling me “hun,” which I had no problem with, and so I started calling him “love.” I didn’t think too much of it, just as pet names among friends, but now I’m worried that if I refer to him as “love,” he’ll see me as trying to hurt his relationship. So, basically I’m not sure whether it’s ok to be more playful with him anymore, or if I should be more polite, and, if not distant, less willing to share my thoughts and feelings. Although I still feel really happy when I’m talking to him, I’ve also started feeling intense loneliness.

Also, although I told Axel I was 14 when we met, I am actually 13, and I’m going to have my 14th birthday soon. Since we’re likely going to meet up in the distant future (at least 3 years), I don’t really want to keep something like that a secret from him, but I don’t want to hurt him at the same time.

I just really want for him to be happy, and I’m worried that I could be getting in the way of that. Should I tell Axel the truth about my age, and potentially hurt him? And should I try to resume the old tone of our communication, or am I being too unwilling to adapt?

I’ll be honest, Sparkler: My first thought, and I know it’s not an especially helpful one, is that this is a heck of a lot of angst to be piling on top of a three month-old friendship with someone you know exclusively from online—and that depending on how you look at it, this is either a good thing or a terrible thing.

Because here’s the deal: unless Axel attaches a disproportionate amount of significance to his internet friendships, you just aren’t in a position to truly affect his life one way or another, whether it’s to facilitate his happiness or get in its way. So as long as you stay within the broadly-defined bounds of good taste (i.e. no sexting or hardcore flirting), you can treat him like you would any friend, including the part where you trust him to let you know if he’s uncomfortable with the tone of your exchanges. Ditto admitting the truth about your age. He might be peeved about the deception—people don’t like being lied to, generally—but again, he’s a 16-year-old guy with a life and a girlfriend, and you’re an internet buddy he’s known for all of three months. It’s just not likely to matter to him all that much that you’re a little younger than you said, especially if you come clean this early on. (Really, your best argument for telling him is that you feel lousy about the lie, and being honest would take that weight off.)

So on one hand, that’s good news, in that it means you can stop fretting about the minutiae of your communications or whether you’re undermining his other relationships by being too open, playful, or friendly.

The bad news is, you are fretting, and which suggests that you’re maaaaybe attaching more significance to this friendship than it necessarily deserves. It’s not that internet relationships can’t be important, fun, and rewarding; they can, and they are! But they also operate on a different level than the ones you have offline—and it’s important to remember that, and it’s particularly important not to confuse the superficial sense of closeness you get when sharing your thoughts and feelings from behind the safe remove of your computer screen with the genuine, messy, vulnerable business of an intimate relationship.

For you, this means that you can stop worrying about getting in the way of Axel’s happiness. Just be yourself, behave appropriately, and enjoy the friendship on its merits—and of course, dial it back if he starts showing signs that dialing back is something you should do. (For example, if he stops using pet names with you, then that’s a good indicator that you should stop using pet names with him.) But also, don’t delude yourself about its merits to the point where you’re looking to an online relationship as the cure for your loneliness, because on that front, the internet will always leave you disappointed. You can’t satisfy your need for human connection and engagement exclusively through a digital window; you need at least a couple of things in your life that you can literally reach out and touch, whether it’s a close friend or a fulfilling hobby or a volunteer opportunity where you get a tangible sense of connection to something bigger than yourself. And since you no longer have to fret about your internet friendship, this would be the perfect time to take stock of your offline life and make sure it’s got at least as much good stuff in it as your online one.

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