The rise of online-only relationships

Online dating. The internet, for all its faults, has allowed us to redefine modern romance. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Sociologists have said that these arrangements work for people who are fundamentally different especially in their living and spending habits.
  • A recent study by American sociologist Charles Strohm found that Americans in virtual relationships perceive them as emotionally supportive as the physical ones.

Some relationships are starting through a screen and simply staying there out of choice. So what is fuelling this trend and who is doing it?

When you speak to 33-year–old Annabel Mukeni, you realise that the woman you saw getting taken home by a random man at the club last night.

The woman who had been drinking, flirting with men at the pool table all night could very well be someone's long-term girlfriend.

Annabel has been in what she terms as a serious relationship for seven years.

The amount of time that she has physically spent with her boyfriend is less than two months collectively.

She met her boyfriend on an online dating app as she worked in Dar es Salaam. Her beau lives in the Tanzania City, her in Nairobi; but they agreed to have a largely online relationship.


She sees him three times a year for a couple of days each time. "He provides for me by the way," Annabel confers.

"What is the difference between this and a long-distance relationship?" I ask her.

"We are okay with the distance. We are not trying to see each other more. Even if he lived in Mombasa, I would still like to see him three times a year. Most of our relationship is on the phone. Even the sex," she reveals.

In between these visits, Annabel who works in finance does whatever she likes.

When we meet for this interview, she is in the company of another man who she met on Facebook and who she has on occasion had sex with.

In between their visits, she tries not to think about what her online boyfriend might be doing or with whom he might be doing it.

"I don't want to stress myself out," she says. "We love each other. We are with each other," she stresses.


Perhaps because she can read the cynicism on my face, she speaks about the strong connection she has with her boyfriend.

"This is the longest and the most intense relationship I have ever had. I have bared my soul to him; we have deep conversations and show each other affection."

What about the future? Annabel hopes that her relationship remains as is.

She has thought about having a baby by him in the foreseeable future but the living arrangements are working just fine for them.

A different type of chase. Two or three decades ago, things were much more different.

Peter Njane, 43, puts the past into perspective. When he was 22 he met a girl. She was 20, and he wanted her.

It was ages before mobile phones and snap chat. He wooed her for years. Walking her from church, lingering around their home until he could see her through the holes in the live fence.

The last day he saw her, he cycled in the simmering sun on a bicycle and paid a little boy the last five shillings he had only for her to emerge from a hut very pregnant.


He had not been given the full brief. She had gotten married! He is still miffed by the whole affair.

That script has today changed. Dating sites, speed dating, reality shows, social media, and gaming apps are just some of the ways that today's young are meeting.

Case in point: A Kenyan, 25-year-old Joyce Akinyi, is starring in the current season of 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days - an American reality show where individuals pair up and marry within 90 days.

Closer home, "Tujuane" a show, which airs on K24 TV, where people are set up on dates, has been running for more than 10 seasons.

It's estimated that one in five of us are meeting our partners online., a local dating site, has over 43,000 members and at least 1,000 singles looking to sign up every month.

The internet, for all its faults, has allowed us to redefine modern romance. But this is hardly new.


What is new though is that there is a rising number who prefer to have the relationship running entirely virtually, perhaps with a little touch and go here and there.

According to a study from the charity Internet Matters, 20 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds say they would be happy to have an online-only relationship with someone they would never meet.

Of those who are already in relationships, 10 per cent say they "speak" online exclusively.

So what type of woman might desire to be in such a relationship? A woman who is tech-savvy and loves the promise of freedom, particularly physical freedom.

"An independent woman who fears to lose her freedom might find such an arrangement attractive, or one who is not keen on the traditional form of marriage," says Ezekiel Kobia, a Nairobi-based counselling psychologist.

When you hear of online love, the first thing that pops into one's mind is someone escaping the emotional vulnerability that comes with physical relationships.

This is true for some people like Kare, 28, who got into a virtual relationship with another woman for a year when she was exploring her sexuality.

"I had been struggling with my sexuality for years. I was able to share my feelings and thoughts, my everyday life and even these dark feelings and thoughts in my mind with her. The relationship for me was as real as they get and when it ended at the end of last year, I was devastated," she says.


Others claim that it's not an escape. That it's a substitute that works just as well as the traditional relationship. Just how well does it work?

How fulfilling is virtual intimacy? This type of dating arrangement where a man and woman see each other only twice a year, out of choice, is similar to LAT (Living Apart Together), a relationship trend that is popular in the West where two people who are married or in a long-term relationship choose to live under different roofs and even raise children this way.

Sociologists have said that these arrangements work for people who are fundamentally different especially in their living and spending habits.

This arrangements, they say, can be as solid as the regular, joined at the hip ones.

A recent study by American sociologist Charles Strohm found that Americans in virtual relationships perceive them as emotionally supportive as the physical ones.

Is this true for the Kenyan woman? Does she need to see and hold her man or can those messages on WhatsApp suffice? How fulfilling is sporadic physical intimacy?


Kobia, the psychologist, thinks that a person that opts for a virtual relationship where a regular one is possible is just being lazy.

"If you are seeing him once every six months, of course there will be no friction. You will not be fighting about annoying quirks or whose turn it is to take out the trash. Of course it will be easy. A real relationship has friction sometimes lots of it.

"A good relationship isn't one where there isn't any friction. It's where a relationship is functioning despite the fighting," he says.

"I have seen many women in these arrangements and they tell me that it works for as long as a man has money to spend. Physical sex is overrated. Phone or online sex can be more fulfilling as a woman will be reliant on her skill and not his," Maurice Matheka, a relationship and sexual psychology expert, says.

To him, it's ideal for people looking to give less both emotionally and financially — seeing as texting and messaging online is cheaper than going on weekend get-aways and buying each other meals.

But it comes at a cost. Physical intimacy is sacrificed. It explains why millennials are said to be having less sex.


A recent British study found that one in three 18 to 29 had no sex in 2018. That's a whole year with no human touch for a group that should be on their sexual peak.

Dating apps, the risk-averseness of millennials and an increase in home entertainment (Wifi, Netflix, gaming), were the major reasons given for this turn of events.

These hands-off relationships do come with risks though.

Every few weeks on social media, we have photos and videos of women leaked by men they met and dated online to embarrass them because the relationship went sour.

You could also lose money. Case in point: 30-year-old Terry, a school teacher, met a man who swindled her on a Facebook page hosting Christian singles.


They had intense, six-month long virtual relationship during which he would send her little amounts of money.

He told her he lived in Tanzania. On the day he was traveling into the country to meet her for the first time, he claimed to be having problems at the border and ended up swindling her close to Sh100,000.

Also, what happens when individuals have to spend long periods together, or when they are forced to get from behind the gadgets, like when a child comes into the picture? A child can't be raised on the phone.

"I do not regret that we have a child, but I feel very resentful of him," shares Maggie Waithira, 30.

Maggie, a graphic designer, had been in a long-term online relationship until they decided to meet. That's when she fell pregnant, to what she defends as an 'accident'.

"Our daughter is six months old and the man has only seen her a handful of times. We fight a lot on the phone now. I feel like just communicating with him is not enough. He should be doing his part," she says.

So would she move in with him? "I am not sure I want to live with him. I like having my own space."

She seems to have come to terms with the fact that you can't have your cake and eat it.