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Cyber-Affairs Joan D. Atwood PhD a a Graduate Programs in Marriage and Family Therapy , Hofstra University , Hempstead, NY, USA Published online: 03 Oct 2008.

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Cyber-Affairs: “What’s the Big Deal?”

Therapeutic Considerations

Joan D. Atwood

SUMMARY. It can be estimated that 50-60% of married men and 45-55% of married women engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their marriage and almost half come to therapy because of it. On-line infidelity accounts for a growing trend in reasons given for divorce according to the President of the American Academy of Matri- monial Lawyers and it is believed that it has been greatly underesti- mated. Because of the unfamiliarity and newness of this type of infidelity, mental health professionals are often unfamiliar with the dy- namics associated with the concept of cyber-affairs and “virtual cheat- ing.” Many in fact do not consider the behavior as infidelity.

It is the purpose of this paper to explore this phenomenon, the cyber-affair, and examine the factors influencing it, the unique problems associated with this type of affair, along with a discussion of the thera- peutic considerations. [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: <docdelivery@ haworthpress.com> Website: <http://www.HaworthPress.com> ©2005 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

Joan D. Atwood, PhD, is Director, Graduate Programs in Marriage and Family Ther- apy, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY.

[Haworth co-indexing entry note]: “Cyber-Affairs: ‘What’s the Big Deal?’ Therapeutic Considerations.” Atwood, Joan D. Co-published simultaneously in Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy (The Haworth Press) Vol. 4, No. 2/3, 2005, pp. 117-134; and: Handbook of the Clinical Treatment of Infidelity (ed: Fred P. Piercy, Katherine M. Hertlein, and Joseph L. Wetchler) The Haworth Press, Inc., 2005, pp. 117-134. Single or multiple copies of this article are available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service [1-800-HAWORTH, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (EST). E-mail address: docdelivery@haworthpress.com].

Available online at http://www.haworthpress.com/web/JCRT  2005 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1300/J398v04n02_11 117

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KEYWORDS. Infidelity, cyber-affairs, virtual cheating, cyber-flirting, cyber-sex

DEFINITION OF INTERNET INFIDELITY

In 2000, The New York Times reported that about one in four regular Internet users, or 21 million Americans, visited one of the more than 60,000 sex sites on the web at least once a month (Egan, 2000). It is not unreasonable to suspect that many of these individuals were in a couple relationship and that many of them engaged in chat-room activities (Schneider, 2001). It is difficult to define the cyber-affair just as it is dif- ficult to define infidelity in the non-cyber world (Atwood & Seifer, 1997). Internet infidelity in this paper is described as an infidelity that consists of taking energy of any sort (thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) outside of the committed relationship in such a way that it damages in- teractions between the couple and negatively impacts the intimacy in the relationship. This is based on the assumption that anything that is deliberately hidden from a partner can create an emotional distance that could present a serious problem in the relationship (Shaw, 1997).

Lusterman (1998) defines infidelity as the breach of trust. He states that one significant element of the mutual trust in a marriage is the un- spoken vow that the couple will remain sexually exclusive. Another is that there is a certain level of emotional intimacy that is reserved for the couple, not to be shared with others. Pittman and Pittman-Wagers (1995) agree and state that secrecy is a primary factor in the definition of infidelity. Infidelity then depends a great deal on the couple’s under- standing of the contract they have with one another and additionally when they define that contract as being threatened.

Internet infidelity is different from other traditional infidelities in that it appears to be anonymous and relatively safe, as it can be pursued in the privacy of one’s own home or office. One’s identity can be com- pletely obscured or misrepresented. It can also be pursued any time, day or night with not much effort, seemingly not interfering with the indi- vidual’s day to day living. Thus, some of the “signs” that a person is en- gaging in Internet infidelity would be: going to the computer in the middle of the night when everyone is sleeping, an escalation of time spent on the computer, demand for privacy, lying about computer activ- ities, lack of interest in communicating with spouse, sexually or other- wise, unavailability to children because of computer activities, sudden additional time spent at work, etc.

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When two people interact over the Internet, the conversation gener- ally offers unconditional support and comfort. This electronic bond can offer the fantasy of the excitement, romance, and passion that may be missing in the current relationship. Instead of dealing with how to con- front the issues of conflict in the marriage, the individuals use the cyber-relationship as an easy escape from the “real” issues. The Internet infidelity can become a means of coping with unresolved issues or un- expressed anger toward a partner as an outside person electronically of- fers understanding and comfort for hurt feelings (Young, O’Mara, & Buchanan, 1999).

TYPES OF INTERNET INFIDELITY

Like traditional infidelity, there are various types of cyber-relation- ships. Cooper, Putnam, Planchon and Bois (1999) divided cyber-sex us- ers into three categories: recreational users, “at risk” users, and sexually compulsive users. Recreational users accessed on-line sexual connec- tions out of curiosity; sexually compulsive users spent at least 11 hours per week online engaged in cyber-sex activities; at risk persons were persons who had no prior history of sexual on-line activity yet when af- forded the opportunity and the time spend substantial time and energy on-line engaged in cyber-sex activities. Internet infidelity is based pri- marily on the extent of the interaction and the emotional commitment of the Surfer (the spouse committing the Internet infidelity) gives to the Internet and his or her cyber-friends. The continuum of involvement ex- tends from simple curiosity, which is characteristic of most adults, to obsessive involvement, more characteristic of sex or relationship addicts.

When the subtle power, instant gratification and almost universal wish to be found interesting, attractive, and desirable come together, the unsuspecting user may find him or herself in a rapidly accelerating rela- tionship with a momentum and life of its own.

The Cyber-Flirt (Chatting in Cyber-Space)

The Cyber-Flirt is a surfer who logs on to the Internet to chat with cyber-friends. The interactions can be on-line chats taking place in chat rooms, newsgroups, or IM’s (instant messages). This type of interaction can become a problem for the couple when the Surfer goes on to the Internet to chat with the cyber-friends instead of spending time with his

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or her spouse or if the Cyber-Flirt begins telling marital problems to the cyber-friend.

The Cyber-Flirt is similar to Pittman and Pittman-Wagers’ (1995) “Accidental Infidelity.” These affairs are not expected, familiar, or pre- dictable. Their participants did not seek each other out. They happened unexpectedly, by chance, even carelessly, with no real consideration of the consequence (Pittman & Pittman-Wagers, 1995, p. 301).

The danger is that the “harmless” on-line flirting interactions appear to become far more intense more quickly. Direct and explicit comments regarding sexual behavior can create a hyper stimulating effect and eas- ily cross the line between innocent flirting and overt sexual interaction.

The progression between flirting and sexuality can become acceler- ated and the typical warning signals that alert one to infidelity can go unrecognized in cyber-space. Flirting suggests a limit or boundary em- bedded within. In cyber-space these usual markers are absent. The non- verbal signs of discomfort, smiles, and/or laughter are not available. Instead, an amorphous, uncharted, psychosocial vacuum exists which offers no resistance to the imaginative sexual impulses. In these cases, flirting can rapidly escalate to overt sexual interaction with little aware- ness on the parts of either member of the couple (Greenfield & Cooper, 1994, p. 1) and can thus threaten the couple’s relationship.

Cyber-Sex

In this case, cyber-sex is defined when the surfer goes on the Internet to achieve sexual satisfaction, rather than gaining sexual satisfaction from his or her partner. The continuum of involvement extends from having casual cyber-sex with users in sex chat rooms and sexual web- sites to intimate sexual relations with one particular user. In addition, Schnarch (1997) believes that sex on the Internet is more like having an affair than having an ongoing relationship. “People often do things with less important partners, or when they are anonymous, that they cannot self-validate with a familiar significant spouse” (p. 18). Some seek out- lets for their eroticism on-line in ways that they cannot validate and maintain in their primary relationship. They seek gratification thinking they are not jeopardizing their relationship.

The Cyber-Affair

The Cyber-Affair is defined as when one partner shares an emotional connection with one participating cyber-friend on the Internet. They use

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a great deal of their time thinking about each other and writing to each other. In this case, the cyber-couple is deeply involved. They may even take the relationship a step further and talk on the phone. This may or may not involve cyber-sex. Often it does. If the couple lives relatively close to each other, they may decide to meet. Even if they are geographi- cally far apart, they may decide to meet. As Lusterman (1998) points out, an affair takes place over time. It may be very emotionally intense, and it may or may not involve sexual intercourse. “In a committed rela- tionship if there is a secret sexual and/or romantic involvement outside of the relationship, it’s experienced as an infidelity” (Lusterman, 1998, p. 18). Pittman and Pittman-Wagers (1995) state that romantic experi- ence tends to occur at point of transition in people’s lives, and it can serve the purpose of distracting them from having to change and adapt to new circumstances or a new stage of development. “Romance is an escape from too much reality; it is running away into fantasyland. It re- sembles a manic episode” (Pittman & Pittman-Wagers, 1995, p. 304).

FACTORS INFLUENCING INTERNET INFIDELITY

Listed below are six potential factors that are related or set the stage for Internet infidelity.

Cyber-Infidelity Is Anonymous

The anonymity associated with electronic communication allows the surfer to feel more open and free in talking with other users. The privacy of the cyber-space allows the surfer to share intimate feelings often re- served for a significant other. This may open the door to potential cyber- affair. Anonymity allows the surfer a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the on-line experience. The person who is shy, obese, bald, etc., is transformed into Prince Charming in this electronic anonymous world. The surfer can create his or her own social conventions and define his or her own ground rules for social and sexual interaction. It allows the surfer to secretly engage in erotic chats with little or no fear of being caught by his or her spouse (Cooper, 2002).

The Cyber-Surfer Projects an Ideal Mate

When reading a typed message, there is a strong tendency to pro- ject–sometimes unconsciously–one’s own expectations, wishes, anxi-

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eties and/or fears into what the person wrote. There is a high possibility of the surfer distorting the person’s intended meaning. It is possible that perhaps all computer transference involves a blending of the user’s mind with the “cyber-space” created by the machine. Cyber-space is in- deed a psychological space, an extension of the user’s intrapsychic world. Computers create a transitional space–an intermediate zone be- tween self and other–where identifications, partial identifications, inter- nalization and introjects interact with each other. This can explain how users react to other people they encounter in cyber-space. Communicat- ing only by typed text in e-mail, chat rooms and newsgroups results in a highly ambiguous environment. The other person is not seen or heard– they are a shadowy figure, a screen or backdrop onto which any variety of transference reactions can be launched (Suler, 1998).

Cyber-Infidelity Often Attracts Those with Intimacy Issues

There are situations whereby persons may seek out romantic partners but be emotionally unable to handle the pressures of relationships once formed. These types of individuals may have problems with intimacy and/or fear vulnerability. Internet infidelity indicates that a surfer might be developed enough emotionally to find a partner but perhaps not de- veloped enough to be intimate and open in the relationship with that partner.

He or she might be partially separated, incompletely individuated or mostly undifferentiated. Separation begins with the realization that one is a separate person from mother and eventually from all others. Individuation develops as a child or adult finally assumes and places value on their own individual characteristics. (Shaw, 1997, p. 31)

Schnarch (1991) states in The Sexual Crucible that motivation with- out differentiation leads to more affairs than “marital reconstruction” (p. 371). Basically, it is difficult for marriage to compete with the Internet. He states that the level of differentiation is an important deter- minant of the likelihood of it emerging in Internet infidelity. The impact of the infidelity is usually multisystemic, offering the surfer:

(1) defiance of feeling controlled and dominated by the spouse; (2) gratification of the desire to punish, deprive, hurt or get one up on the spouse; (3) avoidance of intimacy in the marriage while

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appearing to seek (or find) it on the Internet, and (4) use of the affair as a strategic buffer in the marriage and vice versa. (Schnarch, 1991, p. 367)

He believes that at low levels of differentiation, monogamy results from “reciprocal extortion of sexual exclusivity” (p. 372). This lose-lose contact fertilizes common unresolved autonomy issues that bloom into control fights and rebellious affairs. In highly differentiated couples, “the monogamy is based on two unilateral commitments for which partners owe each other nothing (except perhaps respect). The covenant is not made to the partner but rather to oneself, with the partner as witness and secondary beneficiary” (Schnarch, 1991, p. 372).

Cyber-Infidelity Regulates Anxiety

In any relationship, anxiety may arise as the individuals attempt to bal- ance their need for closeness with their need for autonomy (Bowen, 1978). The greater the fusion of the couple, the more difficult the task of finding a stable balance satisfying to both. The resulting anxiety over reg- ulating closeness and distance can result in triangulation. Triangulation involves a situation where emotional energy is invested in a third person, place, or thing. This investment of energy could involve work, golf, a child, an affair, or the Internet. The Internet may provide companionship, sexual fulfillment, tenderness and/or adventure. In this sort of triangula- tion, there is a tacit or covert agreement (sometimes even overt) by the couple to manage their anxiety by means of the Internet (Bowen, 1978).

The main attraction of the Internet is the whole notion of emotional contact without risk, exposure, or being known. This is accomplished be- cause the cyber-affair offers romantic contact while keeping “the partner from becoming a pivotal figure in one’s life” (Schnarch, 1997, p. 17). Shaw (1997) believes that it is possible that the cyber-affair is resultant from the couple’s underdeveloped relational skills. Their poor survival patterns help them avoid confronting their loneliness and other issues in the relationship because they can consciously withdraw from each other at any time. The call of the Internet so as to avoid confronting disappoint- ment and conflict can be irresistible.

Cyber-Infidelity Becomes a Source of Communication

The Internet can decrease the chance of the surfer to share meaning with his or her spouse. It can prevent clear, direct, person-centered com-

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munication. Instead of communicating feelings to one’s spouse, the surfer tends to transfer his or her emotions on to the user(s) in cyber- space. Internet infidelity can be a result of the couple’s inability to com- municate feelings or needs to one another. It also can indicate that the couple does not have the verbal skills to solve problems together, or be able to accommodate to one another’s needs or interests.

Cyber-Infidelity Addiction

Young (1999) defines Internet addiction as an impulse-control disor- der, which does not involve an intoxicant. She found that serious rela- tionship problems were reported by fifty-three percent of the cyber- addicts surveyed. Addicts gradually spend less time with the people in their lives in exchange for solitary time in front of the computer. Mar- riages appear to be the most affected as Internet use interferes with the marital and family responsibilities and obligations. In these cases, indi- viduals may form online relationships, which over time can replace time spent with the spouse and/or children. The addicted spouse tends to so- cially isolate him or herself and may refuse to engage in typical events once enjoyed by the couple such as going out to dinner, traveling, or seeing a movie. Instead, they prefer on-line companions (Young, 1999). The ability to carry out romantic and sexual relationships on-line further then deteriorates the stability of the real life couple. As the spouse exerts more pressure on the surfer to interact, the surfer may continue to emo- tionally and socially withdraw from the marriage, exerting more effort to maintain the recently discovered on-line “lovers.”

THERAPEUTIC CONSIDERATIONS

Couples who come for therapy with the issue of Internet infidelity are experiencing problems in their relationship. They have attempted many solutions, which have been unsuccessful. Once the infidelity is out in the open, couples tend to feel ambivalent, harboring both negative and positive feelings toward the person, thing, or situation. They also tend to experience combinations of devastation, hurt, betrayal, loss of self-es- teem, mistrust, suspicion, fear, anger, distrust, and blame. At times ex- treme responses may occur such as physical abuse or suicide attempts. In some cases, the spouse begins to doubt his or her judgement and even sanity, as a strange form of “gaslighting” occurs where the non-surfer spouse may question the validity of his or her complaints, feeling that,

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“after all the cyber-relationship is not really real.” The term “Gaslight- ing” has been coined as a metaphor for the “head games” which oc- curred in the classic movie Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the film, the husband systematically attempts to drive his wife mad by having the gaslights flicker and convincing his wife that she is imagining these events. It is only after the intervention of a Scot- land Yard detective that her perceptions are validated and she realizes the full implications of her husband’s plot to deceive her. What some- times occurs when an affair is uncovered is that the accused attempts to convince his or her spouse that s/he has imagined many of the incidents and/or misinterpreted the evidence. There is not only an attempt to con- ceal with regard to gaslighting but an attempt to falsify information as well (Maheu & Subotnik, 2001).

It is at this point that the gaslighting begins to become destructive, as more and more evidence of the affair is met with more assertions of the spouse’s “wild imagination.” One might recall that Sullivan and Swick (1968) defined reality as that which can be consensually validated. In the case of a denied affair, the only person who could possibly validate one’s perceptions will not confirm what the individual “knows” s/he heard or saw. As a matter of fact, s/he is, at times, told that s/he is “hear- ing things” or imagining them, reinforcing the notion s/he might actu- ally be “losing his or her mind.” Often in the initial stages of the Internet infidelity, the non-surfer spouse may become suspicious of the surfer’s time spent on the Internet and the resulting dismissal of other areas of his or her life. Frequently the surfer becomes edgy, short with the chil- dren, and generally seems preoccupied. This may cause the non-surfer spouse to become suspicious of his or her suspicions and discount them, only to experience them again when the surfer spouse withdraws or spends time on the computer. The non-surfer spouse often feels like s/he is on an emotional rollercoaster.

Evaluation

According to Cooper et al. (1999), the therapist needs to first deter- mine to what extent is the surfer’s interaction on the Internet. Access, affordability and anonymity provided by the Internet could transform simpler, more common relational difficulties into more complex and serious troubles (Cooper et al., 1999). Once the assessment of the indi- vidual’s or couple’s on-line activities is accomplished, detailed infor- mation about the meanings and effects of the activities could be

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explored. The therapist could examine how many hours are spent on- line, what the level of direct activity is on the Internet, what type of infi- delity, and how severe it is. It is also helpful to examine the intrapsychic roots of their behavior as well as current life circumstances that main- tain it. Cooper, Putnam, Planchon, and Boies (1999) found that the amount of time spent on-line in sexual activities was highly correlated with the degree to which life problems were reported (see also Maheu & Subotnik, 2001b).

In addition, it would be helpful if the therapist explored also the inti- mate and sexual part of the couple’s relationship (Schneider, 2002, as cited in Cooper, 2002). In many cases, the surfer spouse has substi- tuted cyber-sex for sex with his or her partner. Many spouses report that the surfer spouse had withdrawn his sexuality, intimacy and atten- tion from the family. It is important to also explore gender differences in terms of the meanings and reasons given by the couple for Cyber- Infidelity. It is probably true that more men visit pornography sites; whereas more women visit chat rooms. Women tend to be more rela- tional in their interactions and thus would pursue Cyber-Relationships more so than Cyber-Sex, although one may easily lead to the other (Maheu & Subotnik, 2001; Young, 2001).

Crisis Intervention

Infidelity often presents itself in the midst of crisis, with the partici- pants experiencing emotions that seem overwhelming and out of control. The first step then is providing an emergency response. “Until the infidel- ity is revealed, the marriage and the therapy are merely subterfuge” (Pittman & Pittman-Wagers, 1995, p. 308). It is helpful if the therapist can provide a calm, safe setting in which the surfer and the spouse can sit down facing each other and examine what has occurred. The therapist conveys confidence that the couple will be able to accomplish this. The therapist also communicates to the couple that people can and do work through infidelity and that it does not necessarily signal the end of the re- lationship. In so doing, the couple can see that there are options and that drastic measures may not be necessary. “Optimism about infidelity re- quires the therapist to get everyone to focus on the behavior, which is controllable, rather than the emotions, which seem overwhelming and out of control” (Pittman & Pittman-Wagers, 1995, p. 311).

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Loss of Self-Esteem

Cyber-infidelity chips away at the partner’s self-esteem (Spring, 1996). S/he simply cannot compete with the “perfect” fantasy person. In therapy one wife wondered, “When he closes his eyes when we make love, what is he thinking or visualizing? Is he picturing his cyber-sex goddess or is he thinking about me in my chubby body?” She reported that these thoughts limited her abilities to respond sexually to him.

Facing the Trauma of the Act: It IS a “Big Deal!”

Many surfer spouses do not feel that cyber-infidelity is a “big deal.” In fact, the surfer spouse may deny that cyber-infidelity is an affair. S/he may feel that there was no “real” body contact that took place and that they did not actually engage in sex with the person. The spouses, on the other hand, often feel traumatized and along with feeling hurt and angry often worry about escalation of the cyber-sex into “real” contact and do consider the act as adultery and “cheating.” There is some basis to their fears as Cooper et al. (1999) and Cooper et al. (2000) point out, access- ing sex on the Internet has the potential to escalate preexisting sex ad- diction as well as to create new disorders.

It is crucially important for therapists not to underestimate the ad- verse consequences of the cyber-sex behavior. Some common mistakes made by therapists in these situations are to (1) encourage the partner to be more accepting of the surfer spouses’ activities, (2) to label the surfer spouse as having sexual disinterest, (3) to believe that the behavior is not “really” sex, and/or (4) not to assess the meaning of the behavior for both spouses.

Loss of the Cyber-Lover

Loss of the cyber-lover is another issue at this time. Over the numer- ous e-mails, the cyber-person has become an important confidante in the surfer’s life and the abrupt cessation of this relationship (which must happen if the marriage is to go forward) can cause much pain and sor- row. It is imperative that the surfer stops the behavior, both the infidelity and the lying. Anything that is deliberately hidden from a partner (whether it is the fact of being involved in an on-line affair or the spe- cifics of the on-line interactions) creates an emotional distance that can present a serious problem that is difficult to overcome.