Monday, March 12, 2012

Online Affairs

by Peggy Vaughan

This new arena for affairs, although not initially involving physical contact, is highly-charged sexually. It involves the same kinds of thinking and emotions as other affairs—including the secrecy, fantasy and excitement, as well as the denial and rationalization—and it has the same potential for being devastating to the primary relationship.

Here's a typical scenario:

1. You spend more and more time Online.
Online interactions provide an "escape" from the realities of day-to-day living.
The fantasy world online can make the real world seem dull and boring.
The sheer numbers of people create unlimited potential for "newness."

2. You meet someone interesting Online.
You present the "best side" of your personality, and so do they.
You share confidences: hopes, fears, fantasies.
The intense sharing brings you closer and closer together.
You fantasize about being more than online friends.
You become infatuated with your "friend" and want more and more interaction.
You feel like you're "in love."

3. Your primary partner suspects/knows about your online friend.
You deny or rationalize about your online activity.
Your partner becomes more and more suspicious and threatened.
You ignore or deny the impact this is having on your partner.
Your partner learns more and is devastated by the situation.
You tell yourself that since there's no actual sex involved, it shouldn't matter.
You grow closer to your online friend and more distant from your partner.

4. You want to meet your online friend in person.
You feel like "soul-mates" or that you were "meant for each other."
You consider "risking it all" to see your online friend.
You either meet and engage in sex or you don't and feel like "star-crossed lovers."

5. Your life has been changed in ways you never intended.
Your online relationship ends-and your "real" one may end as well.

Reflections on this scenario:

The above scenario is so common as to allow for some general observations. First, any new connection is going to be exciting, but it may not be the particular person who makes the difference. The excitement has more to do with the "kind" of relationship than to the specific feelings about a "real" person. In any new relationship (whether or not it begins online), people present the best sides of themselves; it's not reflective of the whole person functioning in the real world.

Whatever loss you feel when the "Online Affair" ends is the loss of a "fantasy," not the real thing. All too often we think of "love" only as the initial "heady feelings of love." Falling in love (or "new love") produces some of the most intense feelings you will ever experience, but it doesn't last. While it may be a fantastic experience, much of the intensity of the feeling is inherent in its newness and novelty. Once a "fantasy" love takes on all the real-life responsibilities of a long-term relationship, the feelings either make the transition into the next, deeper stage of love, or they wither. So comparing the feelings in a new relationship with the feelings of a long-term marriage is like comparing apples and oranges.

As for the impact on the primary relationship, it's common to rationalize an online affair as being OK because it's "not really an affair." But it often has the potential for being as devastating to the partner as a sexual affair. (In fact, most people whose partners have a sexual affair find that they recover from the fact that their partner had sex with someone else before they recover from the fact that they were deceived.)

We like to think that deception is only involved when there's outright lying involved. But a more accurate definition of a lack of honesty in a relationship is "withholding relevant information." Anything that is deliberately hidden from a partner (whether it's the fact of being involved in an online affair or the specifics of the online interactions) creates an emotional distance that presents a serious problem that is difficult to overcome.

So while people may disagree about the "definition" of an affair, there's no mistaking the impact of "Online Affairs" on the partner who is feeling hurt and threatened. When these hurt feelings are ignored or dismissed as unreasonable, it shows a "lack of caring" that is far more of a threat to the relationship than the "affairs" themselves.

Online Affairs often lead to the diminishing or destruction of primary relationships—although this was not the original intention. And in hindsight, many people who wind up having affairs recognize that they could have/should have known what they were getting into, but they simply blocked it out. A common lament is, "I didn't intend to have an affair."

When it comes to Online Affairs, it's not just a question of whether it's "wrong," but whether it's "smart." In looking for something "better in life" or a way to "get more out of life," people often wind up with less. We need to find some other avenue for igniting the positive "alive" feelings that are a big part of the enticement of Online Affairs.

The appeal of Online Affairs can serve as a signal that we need to rethink all aspects of our lives and determine what we can do to feel more "alive" that is rooted in reality (instead of fantasy)—and that does not come with such a high price.

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