Hitting the 'escape' key
Online gratification can become just as harmful to a relationship as physical betrayalBY MELENA Z. RYZIK
Remember Britain's uproar over soccer star David Beckham, who allegedly carried on an affair and sent sexy text messages to his lover.
When the Internet became popular in the early 1990s, it was hailed as a technological breakthrough. A decade later, easy access on the World Wide Web to images and information is causing an unprecedented number of breakups.
After all, titillating material is more available and visible than ever before. And whether it's online porn or Internet-enabled flings, a lot of relationships are feeling the strain.
Therapists, sociologists and even lawyers are waking up to the fact that online affairs and flirtations play as real a role in splitting up couples as offline romances do."Infidelity on the Internet is as devastating as infidelity offline," says Rona Subotnik, a marriage and family therapist and the author, with Dr. Marlene Maheu, of "Infidelity on the Internet: Virtual Relationships and Real Betrayal" (Sourcebooks, 2001).
"I think the Internet has been the single most significant factor in the accelerating divorce trend," says Robert Stephan Cohen, a top Manhattan-based divorce lawyer and author of "Reconcilable Differences: 7 Keys to Remaining Together from a Top Matrimonial Lawyer."
"It's amazing how many people come in here and say the Internet has been a source of things that go awry," he adds.
In a recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 62% of the respondents said that the Internet had played a "significant role" in the divorces they had handled in the previous year; 68% of those cases, a spouse had met a new love interest online, and 56% showed an obsessive interest in online porn.
Almost 80% of the lawyers surveyed said that incriminatory E-mails had been used as evidence in divorce proceedings.
With a few clicks and for little or no money, the Internet provides lots of anonymous temptations - and instant gratification. In the Internet age, being faithful is suddenly a lot more complex.
Like crack for sex addictsOnline porn is what nearly broke up Betsey's marriage of 20 years. (To protect sources' identities, all names and some identifying details have been changed.)
"My husband became hooked on Internet pornography as soon as he discovered it, about eight or nine years ago at work," the fiftysomething retired engineer and mother wrote in an E-mail. "He has an addiction - he is ashamed and secretive about his behavior; he is unable to stop regardless of the consequences to himself or anyone else. When he is in his addiction, his personality changes for the worse."
"The Internet is like crack cocaine for sex addicts," says a spokesman for Sexaholics Anonymous (who preferred to remain anonymous himself).
But even casual browsers can get hooked.
"They're are what we call the at-risk population," says Maheu. "They otherwise would not go out of their way to look into pornography because it would involve more forethought and planning. But when you're sitting at your computer alone at night, it's just a few clicks away."
Maheu estimates that as much as a quarter of the population falls into this easily targeted group, which runs the gamut from people who are mildly bored or curious to those dissatisfied with their relationships or generally depressed. "They don't have to use a lot of energy," she says. "They seek outlets that won't cause ripples in their work or home life."
Betsey's husband was always more than a casual user; he told her that he had "a problem" with pornography when they started dating. But the Internet made his problem worse.
"Internet porn is so there, just a keystroke away - at home, at work, anywhere," she wrote. And through pop-ups, cookies and spam, "once a person has gone to one of those sites, the porn pursues him."
Indeed, the number of adult Internet sites has ballooned in the last four years, expanding 17 times to encompass nearly 1.6 million sites, according to research by software firm Websense. Industry analyst Nielsen/NetRatings estimated that 34 million people - or one in four Internet users - visited one of those sites last year.
Digital smut is not the only trigger for relationship trouble. Online communication in general can create a false sense of intimacy, says Subotnik.
"There is a feeling that these are the only two people in the world connecting with each other. People will type things that they wouldn't say, and it happens much more quickly" than in real life.
"I have probably chatted with at least 500 women in some sort of mutual sexual way," says Harold, a 29-year-old Manhattan man in a serious relationship who still enjoys flirting online.Though Harold admits he has "almost had relationships end because of it," he also claims to have started relationships through "either randomly [instant messaging] people in chat rooms or making sexual overtures to women I have had previous sexual relationships with or crushes on in the past."
Is flirting on the Net cheating? Only if your partner doesn't know you do it, insists Harold.
Finding out that a partner is involved in a virtual relationship can be just as traumatizing as actually finding him or her in bed with another person. "It's an emotional type of cheating," says Maheu.
"Online relationships have a profound impact on our emotional experience," Israeli philosophy professor Aaron Ben-Ze'ev writes in "Love Online: Emotions on the Internet" (Cambridge University Press, 2004). "Online relationships usually involve greater intimacy and emotional intensity."
Harold says his girlfriends find his habit "a minor annoyance," but not every partner is so understanding.
Time online=time apartGeorge, a married man in his 30s who lives outside New York, first turned to the Internet to research a condition he has called "gender dysphoria," in which a person feels he or she was born in the wrong gender. George lost his job and spent more and more time on the computer, becoming what he calls "obsessed."
"You invest yourself into this thing that has nothing to do with your spouse, when really you should be investing yourself into your marriage," he says. "It saps your emotional energy and takes you away.
"If you think of television of being addictive in a passive way," he adds, "the Internet is addictive in an active way."Surfing the Net is a double whammy: There's potential for betrayal in both the content and in the diverted attention.
"The prospect of something newer and 'better' can turn any computer search into a time sink," writes Betsey. "For the porn addict, always in pursuit of more and different, minutes can become hours can become days." (A recent study classified people who spent 11 hours or more a week online looking at porn as sexual addicts.)
"Spouses say, 'I feel like you're not here with me,'" says Maheu. The absenteeism - whether literal or emotional - is often the first sign of a deeper problem.
"I was spending a couple of hours every other night online," says George, who's now going through a divorce. He wasn't hiding his being online from his wife, only the content, but the time spent apart "contributed to our disconnect," he says.
"I didn't have my eye on the relationship."
Problems in the sack?If spending too much time online can cause an emotional disconnect, physical breakdowns may not be too far behind.
Paul, a twentysomething club promoter in Manhattan, calls himself "a wild and crazy guy" who has no trouble getting dates. Still, he likes going online for sexual gratification.
"It's such a liberating feeling," he says. "I can be totally selfish."
Stephen, a Brooklyn 30-year-old in a long-term relationship, argues that online gratification may make it easier for couples to stay faithful. He even believes it takes some sexual pressure off women.
But do the idealized women pictured online sour his expectations of his real-life sweetie?
Stephen shakes his head.
"It's like saying Bugs Bunny is going to change my expectations of the government."
When cybersex is safe
Maheu agrees that exploring sexual needs online isn't always a bad idea, but says couples have to agree about what is and isn't off-limits.
"When you talk about your relationship, you really ought to be going down the list and saying, 'Okay, what about lap dances?' 'What about looking at pornography - alone or together?'" she says. "You as a couple have to talk about it and make an agreement, and if you violate that agreement, then it's cheating."
For Betsey, dealing with her husband's addiction has been a long process; his betrayal affected her profoundly. "I doubted my own attractiveness. I doubted my own adequacy as a woman and a lover," she writes.
Her husband entered Sex Addicts Anonymous. Betsey also received counseling through a 12-step group, which helped her come to terms with his problem.
"I have experienced emotional intimacy with him when he has been able to maintain his sobriety, and I have totally fallen in love with him at those times," she writes. "I can see that he is committed to his recovery, and I can see that he is making progress."
George, meanwhile, is grateful that the information he found online led him to a better understanding of his own gender dysphoria.
"I'm sorry that my marriage was the price I had to pay, but without the Internet I could never have found a way to start dealing with this whole issue," he says. "That was the first step in accepting it for myself."