Henry (not his real name), 46, a father of two, recently separated from his wife of 14 years. He says that they’d been having “general communication” and “in a rut” problems and had just started couples therapy when he found out she’d been carrying on rather intensely with a college friend.
Henry and his wife live in New York, but the college friend is on the west coast. As far as Henry knows, his wife and the friend never re-met. Theirs was an electronic, emotional affair, initiated on Facebook and conducted online and via text message, as Henry discovered last fall when he saw thousands of texts on their unusually massive cell phone bill. “I don’t think she realized how bad it was until I showed her the bill with 1400 texts in one month. [He was] the first person she talked to – texted – in the morning and the last at night. If she saw something interesting, she told him,” says Henry. “It was immediate and constant and incredibly hurtful. He was a ghostly presence in our home, unseen by me. Granted, our relationship was unfulfilling when he showed up, so she was easy prey.”
Though neither Facebook nor Steve Jobs wrecked Henry’s home, technology’s power – and its limitations – can feel irresistible. “I will admit that there’s something about IM and social media and texting that forces us to flirt,” says Regina Lynn, a writer, blogger, and expert on the convergence of sex and technology. “We can’t help it. With such a small space to fill, it just begs us to toss off the clever innuendos and one-liners.” And, of course, the Internet and all the other techno-gizmos have opened up a kabillion more ways to stray, most of them a bazillion times easier than they used to be, back when cheating required actually showing up. (Electro-philandering is prevalent enough to have spawned infelicitous neologisms such as “chexting” – thanks, Tiger Woods and Jesse James – and a cottage industry of guides and apps that help you cover your cyber-tracks.) And couples everywhere – perhaps especially those with young children, for whom “showing up” would be the hard part – have found themselves struggling with what these new temptations mean: Where do we draw the line in our relationship? Chatting? Flirting? Texting? Sexting? An assignation with an avatar? “Our emotional lives have not yet caught up with what technology can do,” says Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D., a psychologist in San Diego and author of Infidelity on the Internet.
When it comes to the reasons behind cheating, much of the feelings and issues are the same as they ever were: boredom, frustration, loneliness, escape. But with the advent of the Internet, “it’s the opportunity to cheat that’s expanded exponentially,” says Neil Bernstein, Ph.D., a family therapist in Washington, DC.
And it’s expanding still. In a University of Florida 2003 study, far more married men than women used chat rooms (of the “Married but Horny” variety), but now – with the advent of “social” media – not only is it easier for affairs to start innocently, but the gender dynamics of techno-cheating may have shifted as well. “Facebook is really exploding” as a factor in divorce, says Allison Ansell Ryan, a family lawyer in Ocean, NJ. “I see it more with women. It’s not some random chat room with faceless and nameless strangers. It’s usually someone you know – in a place where everyone’s life looks a little more glamorous than it is in humdrum reality with kids and other responsibilities. It’s a bit of a fantasy world, and you have this intimate emotional connection right at your fingertips.” (Of course, it’s not all emotional: Ryan had one case in which the now ex-wife, a stay-at-home-mother, was secretly running a sex webcam from her bedroom.)
There may also be something about the no-turning-back feeling of early parenthood that prompts one to wonder about the road not taken. Who among us hasn’t Googled (or beer-Googled) the one who got away? When the kids are in bed and it’s just you and your iPad, any (or every) night can be your 15th reunion after one too many rum and Cokes – and you can hide that post-grad ten pounds with iPhoto, not Spanx. “It was only after becoming a parent that I began searching for my ex’s name along with his wife’s and kid’s – she, of course, was his next girlfriend after me – to see if there was a blog or photo or something,” says Karen, a married mother of two young children in Washington, DC. “Somehow it only seems to be late at night after I’ve fed the baby for the last time and am exhausted yet compelled to stay up.”
New fathers, feeling left out, are also prone to cheat when the baby comes, says Debbie Then, a psychologist and author of Women Who Stay With Men Who Stray. (Retreating to look at porn – or more – rather than taking the matter up with one’s spouse is like “having an adult tantrum,” she adds.)
There are other ways that the strains of pregnancy and children plus the right-there-ness of technology can add up to trouble. Paige (not her real name), 29, of East Liverpool, Ohio, reconnected on MySpace with her one-who-got-away during a nerve-wracking pregnancy. A previous miscarriage left her husband chilly and withdrawn, but her old flame offered comfort and support. Things quickly escalated into constant daily texting – “He knew before my husband did that I was afraid I was going to lose my job,” she says. Eventually there were secret meetings, but it all crashed down when she announced that she would leave her husband, and the old flame panicked and cut bait. Paige is currently trying to repair her marriage, but the round-the-clock contact she’s lost has left her particularly bereft. “I think if we hadn’t had that level of communication I wouldn’t have a hole inside me right now. It’s hard to go from talking to someone that much to absolutely nothing.”
For Rachel (not her real name), 31, of Los Angeles, pregnancy and new motherhood brought on the intense (and “irrational,” she realizes) fear that no one would ever look at or desire her sexually again, despite even her husband’s protestations to the contrary. “I’ve never felt more distant from my husband,” she adds. “We don’t see each other, and when we do, it’s like, ‘Can you fill this bottle?’” So – while she never would have sought out a real-life affair – she found herself on AshleyMadison.com, a dating site specifically for married people. At first, it was experimental girlfriend-still-got-it flirting, but now a special someone has emerged. He’s married, in a different state. Will they ever meet? Rachel isn’t sure, but she is aware of the slippery slope she’s on – and the fact that the fantasy flirtation could be an end in itself. “I don’t want to do something dangerous or reckless just because I’m not feeling confident one day. I don’t want to lose my marriage and especially don’t want to put my child through anything. But there is something very exciting and scintillating about having this person who’s never even seen me – I’m sure we’re even more desirable to each other that way. He never sees me with a baby attached to me twenty hours a day. He just thinks I’m fantastic and sexy and wonderful.”
“”There is something very exciting about having this person who never sees me with a baby attached to me twenty hours a day thinking I’m sexy and wonderful.” “ Yes, Rachel says, she thinks that what she’s doing is cheating – and knows her husband would, too. But some would-be cheaters, perhaps self-servingly, do not. In the Florida chat room study, 83 percent of participants said they did not consider themselves to be cheating; the rest called their e-assignations a “weak” and justifiable form of infidelity: virtual cheating, cheating lite. Indeed, it’s easy to rationalize online-only contact as harmless – the notion being that without meeting, it’s not cheating.
Of course what’s “okay” varies from couple to couple and partner to partner: one partner’s ChatRoulette-ing is another’s cheating. But experts agree that even if nothing happens face to face, intimacy plus secrecy usually equals betrayal. But it’s not that you have to share every last thought or ‘fess up to being Foursquare friends with that guy from junior year: “Privacy is very different from secrecy,” says Debbie Then. Secrecy is stuff you can’t tell your partner – and that’s where alarms should go off.
“You’re crossing the line when you are not comfortable discussing your actions with your partner,” says Maheu. “If you’re keeping secrets about any exchanges with others, something is wrong.”
Research suggests that spouses generally feel as hurt by online-only infidelity as they would by its motel-room counterpart. For many – as with Henry – it’s the emotional intimacy that hurts just as much as, if not more than, the prospect of a wham-bam roll in the hay. “It’s very threatening to think that any kind of intimacies have been shared with someone who’s not you,” says Maheu.
Beyond the breach of trust, she adds, is the fact that in bits-and-bytes affairs, you’re presenting your “best,” courtship-ready self (what Chris Rock called “the ambassador of you”), leaving the humdrum, workday, kids-job-house self to your partner. “Relationships work best when they can blend and balance both ‘selves,’ she says. “But when you separate the ‘best’ one out into the virtual world, your partner gets stuck with only the dregs.”
Also especially hurtful: the sense that their affair is being conducted in your living room. Elle (not her real name), 45, a mother of three in Toronto, recently found out her husband had been a sex addict since before they were married; he often set up his hookups, via Adult Friend Finder or Craigslist, from his laptop in the family room. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m reading a story to a 5-year-old and you’re arranging a hookup in the grocery store parking lot,” she says.
Elle and her husband – now repentant and in treatment – are trying to work it all out; so is Paige, though she never confessed. Such marriages can indeed be saved, say experts, but quite a few stars must align, including some serious maturity and mutual effort. “If the spouse who was cheated on can get past the anger enough to work on his or her part of the marital problems, and the cheater realizes what he or she has to lose in the marriage – and admits guilt and makes changes – the marriage may survive,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Long Beach, CA and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.
In some (rare) cases – perhaps especially when a virtual affair has served primarily as fantasy fodder – the cheater may be able to successfully channel that reignited sexual energy back into their marriage (while, of course, terminating the affair). That’s a possible happy-ish ending that Rachel is discussing with her therapist. Of her cyber-philandering, she says, “It’s helping my self-esteem and making me feel more reconnected to the person I was before having the baby. In some bizarre way it might turn out to help, because it really is helping me come out of this mommy funk.”
Maheu and others insist on the importance of discussing expectations and setting guidelines before problems start – before marriage is ideal, but it’s never too late. After all, while technology can bring temptation into a strained marriage, it can also open up new sexual frontiers. When the kids are in bed and it’s just you and your iBook, there’s a limitless fantasy world you can explore – together.