One thing that we’re somewhat surprised about is the number of people who we communicate with whose spouse has had an online affair. No physical connection whatsoever.
And when we say no physical connection, we mean that the affair relationship is carried out completely over the Internet. They almost never meet in person – though they often plan to meet at some point.
What’s apparent also with these online affairs is that the cheater can easily rationalize the relationship as being one of friendship or “harmless” flirting as opposed to an affair since they aren’t actually coming in contact with the other person.
However, since these relationships usually contain all the elements that are found in “normal” emotional and physical affairs – secrecy, deception, confidential sharing of feelings, etc. – there is no question that they should be considered cheating and can be every bit as dangerous to a marriage as other types of infidelity.
When it comes right down to it, any kind of behavior with sexual overtones that is kept secret from the spouse feels like an affair to the spouse if/when they find out about it. And even if the spouse doesn’t know about it, keeping this kind of secret usually creates distance between the couple and interferes with the degree of closeness in the relationship.
So what classifies as an online affair?
Well, obviously it’s the connection with a person on Facebook or some other site that culminates in secret communications. But it’s also the porn sites, “have an affair” sites, dating sites, chat rooms and forums where this type of activity can play out. And don’t forget about email!
Below are some statistics about online affairs from a DivorceMag survey.
- Only 46% of men believe that online affairs are adultery.
- 80% think it’s OK to talk with a stranger identified as the opposite sex. 75% thinks it’s OK to visit an adult site.
- One-third of divorce litigation is caused by online affairs.
- Approximately 70% of time on-line is spent in chat rooms or sending e-mail; of these interactions, the vast majority are romantic in nature.
- Because of the anonymity, affordability, and accessibility of Internet sexual resources, the computer can accelerate the transition from “at risk” to “addicted,” as well as the progression of sex addiction in those with a history of prior sexual compulsivity.
- 8-10 percent of Internet users become hooked on cyber sex.
- Spouses who get hooked on Internet porn are a growing complaint among spouses filing for divorce, according to a survey of 350 divorce attorneys. “If there’s dissatisfaction in the existing relationship, the Internet is an easy way for people to scratch the itch,” said lawyer J. Lindsey Short, Jr., president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, which conducted the study.
- 57% of people have used the Internet to flirt.
- 38% of people have engaged in explicit online sexual conversation and 50% of people have made phone contact with someone they chatted with online.
How they start: A Typical Scenario of the Progression of Online Affairs
One of our favorite authors, the late Peggy Vaughan (Monogamy Myth) created a piece where she describes the typical scenario of how online affairs progress and her reflections about the scenario.
It’s obvious from her reflections that online affairs are every bit as addictive, hurtful and painful as emotional or physical affairs and need to be dealt with and recovered from in similar fashion.
- You spend more and more time Online.
Online interactions provide an “escape” from the realities of day-to-day living.
The fantasy world online can make the real world seem dull and boring.
The sheer numbers of people create unlimited potential for “newness.”
- You meet someone interesting Online.
You share confidences: hopes, fears, fantasies.
The intense sharing brings you closer and closer together.
You fantasize about being more than online friends.
You become infatuated with your “friend” and want more and more interaction.
You feel like you’re “in love.”
- Your primary partner suspects/knows about your online friend.
You deny or rationalize about your online activity.
Your partner becomes more and more suspicious and threatened.
You ignore or deny the impact this is having on your partner.
Your partner learns more and is devastated by the situation.
You tell yourself that since there’s no actual sex involved, it shouldn’t matter.
You grow closer to your online friend and more distant from your partner.
- You want to meet your online friend in person.
You feel like “soul-mates” or that you were “meant for each other.”
You consider “risking it all” to see your online friend.
You either meet and engage in sex or you don’t and feel like “star-crossed lovers.”
- Your life has been changed in ways you never intended.
Your online relationship ends—and your “real” one may end as well.
Reflections on this scenario:
The above scenario is so common as to allow for some general observations. First, any new connection is going to be exciting, but it may not be the particular person who makes the difference.
The excitement has more to do with the “kind” of relationship than to the specific feelings about a “real” person. In any new relationship (whether or not it begins online), people present the best sides of themselves; it’s not reflective of the whole person functioning in the real world.
Whatever loss you feel when the “Online Affair” ends is the loss of a “fantasy,” not the real thing. All too often we think of “love” only as the initial “heady feelings of love.” Falling in love (or “new love”) produces some of the most intense feelings you will ever experience, but it doesn’t last.
While it may be a fantastic experience, much of the intensity of the feeling is inherent in its newness and novelty. Once a “fantasy” love takes on all the real-life responsibilities of a long-term relationship, the feelings either make the transition into the next, deeper stage of love, or they wither. So comparing the feelings in a new relationship with the feelings of a long-term marriage is like comparing apples and oranges.
As for the impact on the primary relationship, it’s common to rationalize an online affair as being OK because it’s “not really an affair.” But it often has the potential for being as devastating to the partner as a sexual affair. (In fact, most people whose partners have a sexual affair find that they recover from the fact that their partner had sex with someone else before they recover from the fact that they were deceived.)
We like to think that deception is only involved when there’s outright lying involved. But a more accurate definition of a lack of honesty in a relationship is “withholding relevant information.” Anything that is deliberately hidden from a partner (whether it’s the fact of being involved in an online affair or the specifics of the online interactions) creates an emotional distance that presents a serious problem that is difficult to overcome.
So while people may disagree about the “definition” of an affair, there’s no mistaking the impact of “Online Affairs” on the partner who is feeling hurt and threatened. When these hurt feelings are ignored or dismissed as unreasonable, it shows a “lack of caring” that is far more of a threat to the relationship than the “affairs” themselves.
Online Affairs often lead to the diminishing or destruction of primary relationships—although this was not the original intention. And in hindsight, many people who wind up having affairs recognize that they could have/should have known what they were getting into, but they simply blocked it out. A common lament is, “I didn’t intend to have an affair.”
When it comes to Online Affairs, it’s not just a question of whether it’s “wrong,” but whether it’s “smart.” In looking for something “better in life” or a way to “get more out of life,” people often wind up with less. It’s important to find some other avenue for igniting the positive “alive” feelings that are a big part of the enticement of Online Affairs. Their appeal can serve as a signal to rethink all aspects of our life and determine what can be done to feel more “alive” that is rooted in reality (instead of fantasy) – and that does not come with such a high price.