Cyber-cheating a growing cause of divorce;
online surveillance increases as result.
By Jeffrey Cottrill
Not only has the Internet made it easy to meet other people without leaving your own home, it has also provided spouses with a new instrument for starting (and carrying out) extramarital affairs. Whether the perpetrators are unhappy in their marriages, bored with their married sex lives, or merely flirting, "cyber-cheating" is now a common element in cases of marital breakdown.
"It can happen in three or four different ways," explains Dallas attorney Mike McCurley, a past-president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), who says that cyber-affairs are increasingly a cause of divorce.
"First, spouses can develop relationships with somebody they already know from work or somewhere else. It's easy to communicate with someone secretively on the computer, as opposed to on the phone.Chicago lawyer Paul Feinstein, also an AAML member, says he hasn't yet seen many cases involving cyber-affairs, but the new phenomenon doesn't surprise him. "The Internet provides one more diversion -- something people can do separately from their spouses," he says. "But is it a cause of marital breakdown or is it a symptom? That's the age-old debate."
Secondly, people actually meet through the web and form relationships that way.
Third, there's the pornography area, which has every kind of invitation you could imagine."
As a result, many websites now sell electronic surveillance software designed to catch spouses who cheat "virtually". For example, Infidelity.com offers a program that secretly sends you a copy of every e-mail your spouse sends. Software available from other sites allows you to track each website and chatroom your spouse visits. Some programs even record every key stroke in real time.
"The benefit is that you can monitor their sites and e-mails," says Anthony DeLorenzo, the founder of Infidelity.com and a former private investigator specializing in extramarital affairs. "I don't see any drawbacks. We send them the software, and if they find out that their spouse is meeting the other person somewhere, they can follow and possibly videotape them."The market for this kind of software is not happily married couples: if you've reached the stage where you feel the need to spy on your spouse, you know your relationship is in serious trouble.
"There are very few instances where 'spying' can improve a relationship," admits John LaSage, who founded ChatCheaters.com after his wife of 23 years left him for a man in New Zealand that she'd met on the web. "But surveillance products could be useful as a last resort, after all other options have been exhausted. For some, it can be difficult to believe what their heart and brain is telling them about the person that they've trusted the most. Right or wrong, they want physical proof." Many people feel more comfortable handling the situation by themselves than approaching a P.I., adds LaSage. "Infidelity can be a private issue they won't even discuss with friends or family."
However, because of the obvious privacy issues, the legality of surveillance software is highly questionable.
"The laws concerning this aren't yet fully determined," says McCurley, "but my best advice is: 'don't do that.' It's a risk you don't want to take -- whether through a computer or a telephone. There are many legal ways to find out whether your spouse is cheating that involve using a private investigator or an attorney. There are federal and state laws concerning eavesdropping and wiretapping."Feinstein agrees.
"In about 90% of cases, cyber-cheating really doesn't matter, because fault is deemed irrelevant in most states anyway," he adds. "In some cases, I've received some intercepted e-mails with varying relevance; how the clients got them is beyond me."Both DeLorenzo and LaSage agree that, with or without do-it-yourself surveillance, the best way to handle cyber-adultery is to confront your spouse directly. "If your spouse is cheating, there's obviously a problem with the marriage," says DeLorenzo. "You need to confront the person about it, and then either go to therapy to get help or to an attorney to get a divorce. There's no middle ground here."
LaSage says that many web affairs grow unexpectedly out of innocent surfing and chatting. "In many cases, people do not set out on the Internet intending to cheat. They start out thinking it's okay to do a little flirting because they feel they're in control of the relationship. They can remain anonymous, they can stop the communication anytime they choose, and they believe, as I have heard countless times on my website, 'it's not cheating if there's no touching.'
"The most important recommendation I can give is to not ignore the issue," LaSage adds. "It seems a natural response for people discovering an affair to deny what they're feeling."