Barry was very anxious and worried because his wife Pamela was spending more and more time on the computer chatting with her online friends. She came to bed late at night after hours on the internet, and she was not interested in sex. At the beginning of her online experiences, she had excitedly shared with him her e-mails and invited him to sit next to her while she entered chat rooms. However, for the last month she had been acting like she didn't want him around and switched screens rapidly when he entered the room. When he confronted her, she tried to reassure him that the friendships she had made were nothing for him to worry about. Barry continued to feel that something was wrong, so he logged on to Pamela's computer and found emotionally and sexually intimate e-mail correspondence between her and a man she had met in a chat room. Barry insisted that she terminate all communication with this man, but Pamela tried to convince him that this was only a harmless diversion.
Barry's concerns were realistic because internet relationships can threaten the stability and intimacy of a committed relationship. Time spent on-line can be a harmless distraction or can be dangerously distracting. However, research has shown that even moderate internet usage interferes with family relationships, particularly when an individual spends more and more time on-line and begins ignoring work, friends, and loved ones. Furthermore, on-line relationships can shift from an intellectually stimulating friendship to a romantically charged relationship. Secrecy, emotional attachment, and sexual intimacy are the hallmarks of an on-line relationship that has crossed over the line of platonic friendship and drifted into an emotional affair.
The Slippery Slope
Married people who unintentionally fall in love on-line do so gradually and often don't realize how far they have gone until they are hopelessly attached. The conversations usually begin with casual discussions about mutual interests. The public communication then moves to private messages and chats. As the messages become more personal, words of affection are expressed in greetings and sign-offs. When they start exchanging complaints about their primary relationships, they are expressing a vulnerability and neediness that the developing relationship feeds upon. After exchanging photographs and telephone numbers, the shift to real time signifies another line that has been crossed.
The signs of being hooked on the net by a dangerous attraction are:
1. Coming to bed at night later and later.
2. Secretiveness and requests for privacy while on the computer.
3. Work or household tasks slacking off.
4. Deception about activities.
5. Loss of interest in sex or an unusual increase in desire.
The Lure and Danger of Web Attractions
On-line communication is fueled by fantasy. We are free to be whoever we want to be on-line because we are not inhibited by physical appearance or the realities of every day life. Furthermore, we can idealize the other person and give them all of the traits that are missing in our chosen partners. We can focus on the here-and-now delight of exchanging intimacies when we have time to pick up our e-mail. People who actually rendezvous with their on-line lover often have sex within a few hours. Some marriages end because of the betrayal. Others end because on-line romances have become an addictive behavior. Occasionally, on-line lovers have abandoned their spouses in order to pursue the on-line relationship. However, it is more common for disillusionment to follow the real life meeting. On-line relationships don't have to undergo my "toothpaste test"; that is, until you have shared the same tube of toothpaste with someone for at least a month, you don't have the slightest idea about what it would be like to live with them.
Prevention and Recovery
1. Open the windows to the web and share your on-line interests with your mate.
2. Do not share sexual feelings that could be stimulating with on-line friends.
3. If your life on-line becomes more important than your friends and family, take immediate steps to stay off-line except for necessary business.
4. Use the seduction of on-line relationships as a warning sign. Figure out what is lacking in your life.
5. Talk to your partner about ways to enhance your relationship. Bring back into your committed relationship the wishes, dreams, and sexual fantasies that were experienced on-line.