Intimate love — 15 February 2010
Do your Internet connections constitute acts of infidelity?

The mere excessive use of the computer by a partner had previously brought many couples to therapy. Today, the type of computer use has greatly increased the concerns of spouses who feel betrayed. How can people assess whether their Internet behavior constitutes infidelity?

Research confirms that some people use the Internet for both emotional and sexual connections with others who they have never seen or met in person.

Dr. Greenfield’s research with 18,000 Internet users found that 41% reported having developed intense emotional intimacy while online. Cooper and Sportolari found that their subjects did not rely on physical attractiveness or sexual appeal, but were drawn to someone based on his/her self-description and interactive style.

The dictionary definition of infidelity is “unfaithfulness in married persons; adultery.” Researchers Henline and Lamke found that today’s infidelity also includes: “cybersex, sexual chatting, online dating/plans to meet, emotional involvement with online contact, sexual interactions/flirting, betraying confidences of one’s partner, and keeping secrets from one’s partner.” Cooper and Schnarch report that a wide variety of internet users access the internet for sexual purposes, “which include (but are not limited to) viewing pornography, placing personal ads, engaging in cybersex, educating oneself about sex, and developing sexual interpersonal relationships.”

Katherine Hertlein and Fred Piercy defined Internet Infidelity as “a romantic or sexual contact facilitated by Internet use that is seen by at least one partner as an unacceptable breach of their marital contract or faithfulness.” This definition underscores that what constitutes infidelity is not a normative, universal standard, but the partner’s view of a violation of marital commitment.

After initially accusing the spouse of moral ineptitude, indecent conduct, betraying sacred vows, immorality, character deficit, harm to children and shameful behavior, the deeper issues of personal hurt soon surface.

Offended partners often deal with four primary issues: betrayal, isolation/exclusion, secrecy and poor communication and intimacy within the marriage.

The sense of betrayal is not only about the sexual or emotional contact with another, but also about abandoning hope in the viability of rehabilitating the committed relationship. The redirection of one’s need fulfillment to another person is often construed as discarding the spouse in search of a better substitute.

A mate’s seeking emotional solace and/or sexual pleasure with another is a very painful discovery. The isolation that precedes this discovery has already eroded the partner’s self-esteem and desirability and may have caused deep hurt of rejection. Being excluded from a mate’s open hearted emotional sharing is a further blow to the spouse.

The secrecy associated with a partner’s “other” life punctuates the marital split. The distance creates deep loneliness, self-doubts, fears and helplessness. The dejected mate is often lost and bewildered about how to restore the marriage to its original state of unity.

Poor communication skills may be a bi-product or a cause of lost trust and connection between mates. When partners do not feel heard and accepted, they cease listening, distance themselves from each other, avoid intimacy and may seek understanding and affirmation from a new individual.

• If you hide your Internet exchanges – you may do so out of shame or guilt indicating that your behavior is conflicting with your values.
• If you feel intensely drawn to your computer to connect with someone, it may be a compulsion or addiction that deprives your mate of your attention.
• If you think you found a supportive Internet person, realize that you are dealing with a projected image unlikely to be a suitable substitute for your committed partner.
• If you are sexually dissatisfied at home- it is your partner who could best help you. Seeking cheap thrills only intensifies your long-term misery.
• If you feel distant, unheard, unloved, unsafe or unsatisfied, say: “I miss being close to you.” “I crave talking to you the way we did when we met.” “We can restore our passion.” Loving invitations are helpful in restoring intimacy.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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