I am noticing in my practice, more and more, that both men and women are coming in to sessions with the fear that their partner is cheating on them-online. According to the American Psychological Association, infidelity is defined as “taking sexual energy-of any variety that will compromise integrity-outside of a committed relationship, and pretending it will not affect the person, their partner, or their relationship, as long as it remains hidden in both partners.” This notion of convincing oneself that the behavior is not really a problem, as long as it goes undiscovered or as long as there is no actual physical contact, is why “internet affairs” or “internet infidelity” is so easy to accomplish and so rampant in many relationships.
Think about the Internet as a society or culture that is separate and different from “real life.” In real life there is an inherent understanding and socially agreed upon set of rules regarding interpersonal behavior. There are lines that don’t get crossed, and if they are crossed, it’s recognized that there will be inevitable consequences. These boundaries and rules for relationships don’t exist on the Internet. People who cheat on-line can probably convince themselves that what they are doing isn’t “real,” and therefore, there won’t be any real consequences, either. They can rationalize that they aren’t really having an affair, their partner won’t really be hurt, and their relationship won’t really be jeopardized.
Research has shown that the key ingredients that set the stage for an Internet affair include anonymity, escape, and convenience. An adulterer who claims to be bored in their marriage, or living with a partner who is not willing to be sexually adventurous, can create an avatar on-line, pretending to be anyone they want. Being anonymous means they can share emotionally and sexually intimate thoughts and feelings without the risk of ridicule, rejection or having to actually be intimate. They can temporarily escape their own issues of low self-esteem, garner attention from others in chat rooms, and potentially escape having to deal with whatever is really making them unhappy. With over 40 million sexually explicit Websites, chat rooms and other forms of online sexual activities, the lure and accessibility, combined with an addictive “high” that people get, makes cheating easier than ever before.
As clinicians working with couples, it’s important to include Internet infidelity in our assessments, and to recognize the impact that cyber-sex, emotional affairs, and cheating on-line can have on relationships. Two thirds of couples confronted with the revelation of an Internet affair will wind up divorcing. For the person who has been cheated on, feelings of betrayal, a profound breach of trust, a questioning of one’s worth and sexual attractiveness, intense anger, shame, and insecurity can be as intensely felt as if their partner had an actual physical affair. For the person who has cheated, feelings of guilt and shame, an inability to feel sexual arousal in relational sex, pathological lying, even job loss and financial stress can all be experienced during the affair and once it is discovered by their partner. In terms of treatment, never make light of an Internet affair, and the toll it takes on a relationship. Assess for a sexual addiction and recommend a 12-step program if necessary. Offer support to both people in the relationship, advocate for complete transparency regarding computer use, passwords, access to text messages and e-mails so trust can slowly be re-built. Work towards reducing time spent on the computer, and encourage the installation of software that blocks programs and websites connected to pornography, or any chat room that encourages infidelity.
Have you worked with clients who’ve been unfaithful to their partner(s) via the Internet? Please share your experience, tips and suggestions here.