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Is an online romance just like the real thing?

When it comes to virtual relationships, where does fantasy end and real life begin? Dr. Gail Saltz advises a woman who has fallen in love online with a married man who refuses to leave his comatose wife.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. A few months ago, I met a man online. He lives in New York and I live in Boston. After a few weeks, he told me his story. He has a 15-year-old son and is still married to an incapacitated wife. She had been in an accident 12 years ago and is in a coma. She cannot walk, talk or eat. He feels bad about divorcing her, even though I told him he could and should continue to support her financially. She lives with her mother and his son.

I know he loves me and is 100 percent honest with me, but he is not sure if he can divorce her, especially because of his son. He loves his son and is afraid even to let anyone know about our relationship. We talk, chat online and have phone sex. Since the accident, he hasn’t been in a serious relationship at all.

He is busy working at a new business with late hours. When not working, he has to see his son and has no time left for us to meet. We once met for 24 hours when he drove to see me. I love him but have little hope and am getting bothered by fact he is paying more attention to his lifeless wife, out of pity, than to me. I am confused. What should I do?

A. You need to listen to what this man is really saying to you. He is sending a clear message, but you don’t want to hear it. His message is that he will not leave his wife to be with you.

This man is telling you he is in a tragic situation because he is committed to his incapacitated wife and his teenage son. He is also working long hours and spending his free time with his son.

There is no indication that he wants to spend his life with you. He keeps his relationship with you hidden from others, and it sounds as though you met only once in person.

Some people believe they can fall and remain in love online. It is possible to have extremely strong feelings from an online relationship, but to know if you are really a compatible, functional and loving couple, you must spend time together in real life. An online relationship is, at best, a fantasy that might or (more likely) might not survive in reality.

I am not a fan of online relationships (though I have heard from a readers its working for them), especially those that remain online when one party wants to move it into the real world. You don’t even know if he is telling you the truth. Unless you have actually seen the comatose wife, looked up police reports or news stories about the accident, or received some kind of proof other than his word, there is no evidence he is being honest with you about his situation at all.

But let’s believe he is. This is a married man who is in a sad and difficult situation. He is unwilling to get divorced. He is, however, willing to dally online with somebody a few hundred miles away, reaching out for some company given his lonely circumstance. You are not in this man’s circle of acquaintances. You are easy to hide away. You are not his colleague, his wife or his girlfriend. You are not his anything.

So it makes absolutely no sense to hold out for this guy. He has sent you loud messages that he is unavailable to you. It is not a matter of right or wrong, or what he should or shouldn’t do.

It sounds as though he is a man with a strong conscience and, now that he has gotten sucked into this online association with you, is having trouble telling you its over. A man who (admirably) feels the responsibility of “in sickness and in health” to his comatose wife is not the kind of man who can easily say he wants to bow out of his online involvement with you after he indicated he loved you. For all you know, he went online because he specifically wanted a fantasy relationship and not a real one, and now he finds himself too polite and caring to hurt you.

And if he did leave his wife, think of the guilt involved for both of you. That would be a difficult to surmount impediment for you, for him and for his son.

As for you, I wonder why are you so caught up with somebody who is so truly unavailable. You live in a big city with many single men. What is it that makes it so hard for you to get involved with someone local who is really available to you? That is the topic you should be exploring.

You need to heed this man’s message and stop hoping that he will ever be the one for you.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Online relationships are breeding grounds for fantasy. If one party resists moving a relationship into the real world, for whatever reason, it will never progress.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .