Without a doubt, the Internet has changed our world: it has put information at our fingertips, increased the speed and efficiency with which we work, and broadened our connections at large. But in any list of benefits, there are typically costs. Online emotional affairs are on the rise, even though the people accused of this by their partners so often insist the relationship is “just an innocent friendship.”
More and more, the Internet is a forum for reconnecting with old flames (and it’s easy to idealize that former relationship if you’re having trouble with your current one), as well as a place for starting new friendships. The problem is, online communication is often fueled by a sense of anonymity that allows someone to minimize or even deny the emotional infidelity that’s unfolding (“I’m not really cheating if I don’t actually meet up with the person, right?”).
Are you vulnerable to having an online affair?
When you make a decision to marry or start a committed relationship, the rule of exclusivity is assumed (unless you’ve discussed otherwise). This rule states that you have made the choice to be involved physically and emotionally with your spouse/partner to the exclusion of all others.
Physical exclusivity is straight-forward—you’re not supposed to have sex with anyone other than your spouse/partner. Further, exclusivity raises objections to certain kinds of touch with friends, acquaintances or coworkers. For example, no back rubs, no hugs that linger beyond a friendly display of affection, no gazing in each others’ eyes while standing three inches apart…You get my point.
But what about emotional exclusivity?
Emotional exclusivity isn’t as clear as its physical counterpart and this is where many couples enter the slippery slope of emotional infidelity. Exclusivity does not prevent you from having friends or acquaintances of the opposite sex. And if you trust your spouse/partner (and s/he trusts you), it is assumed that you both can maintain a purely platonic friendship with someone of the opposite sex (or someone of the same sex if you’re gay).
However, care should be taken regarding the type of emotional connection you form with your opposite-sex friends—especially online relationships. In particular, any behavior that elevates the status of the relationship to “special” should be off limits.
The Potential Dangers of Confiding
Couples who’ve had an emotional affair report that it was easier to confide and share deeply personal information with an online friend (compared to a face-to-face relationship), even when they hardly knew this online “friend.” This makes online relationships ripe for a level of emotional sharing that violates the exclusivity of a marriage or romantic relationship and increases our vulnerability to having an emotional affair online.
When you confide in a friend, you entrust this person with something privileged—you disclose something about yourself that few get to see. This creates an emotionally intimate relationship—the friendship gets stamped as special once you confide in that person. In essence, you are telling your friend that you trust and value him/her more than others. While your motives in doing this with an opposite-sex friend might feel innocent, it’s important to ask yourself the following questions before creating this type of relationship:
- Out of all the options available, why are you choosing this person to confide in?
- Have you tried confiding in other friends, or are you assuming that only this particular person will understand you?
- What do you think this friend can offer that your spouse/partner can’t?
- How do you feel when you’re communicating with this person online (or offline)? Do you feel this way when you’re with your partner? If not, did you feel this with your partner in the past?
- Do you find yourself thinking about this person and anticipating the time you’ll spend with him/her (online or offline)?
Answering these questions truthfully can be difficult since you may be in denial about why you’re entering into this new friendship. However, the cost of minimizing or denying the truth can be detrimental to your marriage/relationship.
If you are seeking out a friend of the opposite sex and believe that this is the only person who can truly understand you, then you leave yourself vulnerable to becoming romantically involved with this person (emotionally and sexually). The power of online anonymity and of feeling understood and nurtured by a opposite-sex “friend” can pull at your heart, even if you’ve convinced yourself that “I’m not attracted to him [or her] in that way.”
If you’re absolutely sure that none of your same-sex friends can understand your issues, shop around for a good therapist who can offer you the understanding you need. A professional can offer you the perspective that might be lacking in your life.
Relationship Help Tip: A Litmus Test for Opposite-Sex Friendships
One way to prevent an online affair from occurring is to imagine your spouse/partner viewing all forms of communication (or listening in on your conversations) with this friend. If you’re about to say (or type) something that you wouldn’t if your spouse/partner were standing next to you, then you shouldn’t be having that conversation in the first place.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro