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Dear Dr Mark,

Throughout my years online, I have made important friends. Recently, I wanted to tell my sister about an interesting conversation I had with one of these people when I suddenly froze up. I was embarrassed to be discussing someone I’ve never met. I felt ashamed to have shared secrets with this person, to have talked about personal family issues with him. My parents recently separated and I talked about this to a much older man who was divorcing his own wife. I never talked about it with anyone IRL.

I feel bad for having friends that my sister doesn’t know. I feel guilty that I don’t talk about personal things with her. I never have deep philosophical exchanges with my family. I don’t even know their religious views or their opinions about any serious or inflammatory topics, but I know all this about many of my online friends. They know important things about me that my own family doesn’t.

I’m disenchanted with reality and often retreat into fantasies– my family have suggested that I see a professional to check if I have Asperger’s Syndrome and I can see why. I just can’t interact in any meaningful way with them. I feel terribly guilty about this because its seems like I’m cutting out my family while I share so much more online. Why can’t I talk to people I’ve known my whole life? It’s even hard for me to do Skype where I have to look people in the face and I’m very uncomfortable touching others, even my dog.

You’re bringing up some interesting things here that may well be related. You feel guilty about a way you have found to connect with others that works for you. Telling your family about this would bring them into your world, but embarrassment and shame holds you back. Perhaps you sense that they will feel disappointed or betrayed..

Yet you also yearn to bring these pieces of your life together, you “wanted” to tell your sister about your online conversation. You want to know and be known by your family. Something makes this feel so strained and complicated, so you’ve held back.

Then, there is a more global issue. In-person, face-to-face contact feels quite uncomfortable to you. If you have a hard time looking at others, touching them, even touching your pet, it makes sense that you’d find real-life relationships most difficult. You’re troubled by this and it seems that you want to understand it better and do something about it.

I give you lots of credit for using online relationships to make meaningful connections. It’s totally understandable that you would need help dealing with your parents’ marital issues and you found someone with perspective to offer. I’m assuming you have enough experience with online socializing to make decisions about whom to trust and how to protect yourself. While the risks of online relating are often trumpeted, many people have learned to manage it.

If you felt more confident and less ashamed about this legitimate coping strategy, you could discuss it with some members of your family. They might be uncomfortable with it, for many people, the idea of psychologically intimate online relationships is alien and upsetting, though most gamers take this for granted. There’s a cultural disconnect between the two views that can be very difficult to bridge. In the best-case scenario, family members love you and understand that this works for you, and they are able to overcome their suspicions. This might become a jumping-off point for sharing your desire to be closer to them.

Obviously, family histories can be complex, so there are probably reasons why you’ve kept them out of your life. You may have known them to be judgmental, critical, or demanding. It can be hard to overcome these legacies and some people never do it. In my experience, it takes serious determination on both sides to improve family relations that have become sour or distant over time. You need to find out whether your family members share this desire and whether there is some neutral ground where you can meet (online?) to experiment with more communication. Progress in this undertaking can be tremendously satisfying, but you may also have to accept that some relationships simply cannot be repaired.

Part of this has to do with growing up, which, by the way, can take place at any age or not at all. As children, we think of our parents as omnipotent. What they think about things matters a great deal, both consciously and unconsciously. These are formative relationships that have the potential to shape who and how we are. As we grow up, we start to see that parents and other family members are just people with many faults and foibles. This disillusionment can be disheartening, but it can also allow a more equal kind of relationship where you care what your family members think, but you won’t necessarily be devastated by their opinions and reactions. A more equal relationship can also give you the satisfaction of influencing them, especially when it comes to the uses and benefits of modern technology.

Your exquisite sensitivity around face-to-face communication and touching is clearly troublesome to you. At the very least, these issues place significant constraints on your social life. It’s one thing to choose to dissociate yourself from reality and quite another to be forced into it because the alternative feels so unpleasant. While online relating has become an effective work around, you’re clearly troubled about missing out on other ways of connecting. It takes a lot of courage to face these problems and learn strategies to deal with them.

I don’t know whether you have Asperger’s Syndrome, but I do know that professionals capable of making this diagnosis can be very helpful with the issues you describe. I think your family’s suggestion is a good one, and it may prove to be one route to improving your situation.

I always feel more hopeful for people who can see they have a problem and want to try to change. I think the future will bring more satisfying online relationships, closer family ties, and progress on your real-life concerns.

Dr. Mark Kline wonders if teaching a teenager how to drive would make a good video game (Adult Panic Auto?). Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to askdrmark@escapistmag.com. Your identity will remain confidential.

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