Love Online

Fast-paced, intense and anonymous. Welcome to the world of online relationships

Email, instant messaging, chat rooms and message boards - they're all out there awaiting the Web-savvy woman. And they are changing the way we interact. In fact, the advent of the Internet hasn't only created a massive shift in relationships, it's sped them up and intensified them beyond realistic proportions. But online love has a different profile to real-time love - and it can posLL a totally different set of problems.

Online love is available

You can log on anytime and find someone to talk to. There are thousands of people online, and while you could never meet them all in real life, on the Web you can meet 30 different men in an average evening.

Online love is anonymous

Because Web contact is largely nameless, it feels very safe. You can be honest about what you're saying because you will probably never meet your correspondent. Or, you and others on the Web can be dishonest and spin a fantasy, conceal your worst side and elaborate only on your positive characteristics.

Online love is speedy

Online relationships can happen incredibly fast. You don't experience the negative body language or warning signals that may occur when you meet face to face. Whereas in a real-time hour you'd have one drink, in an online one you're swapping details of your sex lives.

Online love is seductive

If you're feeling vulnerable, you've got no one in your life or things aren't going well with your relationship, your online mate seems more appealing. He becomes a seductive fantasy - and that's where the problems begin.

You send him a picture and never hear from him again. Or, you meet only to discover that your online Adonis is a couch potato. He tells you he loves you - but you find out he's married. Or, you back off because you're married - and he throws a wobbly and starts harassing you.

And, worse case scenario, sometimes cyber romeos can be malicious and dangerous. Even though we're careful to meet in public places and notify other people where we are at all times, online relationships can go wrong through no fault of one's own.

So, how can you guarantee that an online relationship will be a success? You can't - just as you can't promise the success of real-time relationships. What you can do, however, is build safeguards.

Online love is available - so be selective

Be aware that what you see is what you get. If a website advertises online sex - you know what type of people you'll meet there.

At the start of any relationship, use a pseudonym and leave public profiles blank. Never give out personal details early in the relationship. If at any point you feel wary, trust your gut instincts and hold back.

Online love is anonymous - so check it out

Once a relationship is underway, do a little research, as you would if you'd met someone in a bar. Ask questions, press for details and note any attempts to steer the conversation away from certain subjects.

If you get to a point where you're feeling a genuine rapport, then exchange photos. He should be prepared to give a current one with no excuses. If there's no physical attraction, it's best to find out sooner rather than later.

Next, arrange to talk over the telephone. Again, if the request is met by excuses, be wary as there could be someone lurking in the background, like a wife. Of course, he may be on the brink of separation - wanting to be with you, but not quite yet able. If this is the case, he should tell you. And vice versa, you should be up front about your romantic situation.

Online love is speedy - so slow it down

As with a real-time relationship, if online love's going to last, it'll survive a wait. Be patient and avoid eight-hour emailing sessions, especially at the beginning.

If he moves too quickly, slow him down. If he says he loves you within days, it's more likely he loves the fantasy of you, or he's desperate. If he becomes sexual before you're ready, tell him to stop. If he won't, then walk away.

Online love is seductive - so subject it to a hefty dose of reality

It's easy to experience strong feelings as an online relationship develops, but this intensity does not guarantee compatibility. Don't become too focused on him and your relationship. Make sure you have a life outside of your time online.

Also, plan to meet up fairly soon after the two of you have recognised there's a bond. Of course, follow the safety rules. But, bring your relationship into reality in order to stop building up a fantasy to the point where no mortal being can fulfil it.

Finally, be aware that when your online love hits real time, there's a very good chance it'll fail. Online, your relationship may be wonderful with endless emails and out-of-this-world chats, but because this is only half the story, it may not be the basis for a lasting partnership.

So, if he rejects you or you don't like him, don't take it personally. Remember that, in a whole new era of online relationships, the rules have changed. And all of us are learning to love in a slightly different way.