Are You Emotionally Cheating?

How to protect your real-life relationship from virtual infidelity.

Posted Mar 28, 2014

Young man texting his mistress while in bed with his wife

There is much more to intimacy than just physical contact. It also speaks to a sense of closeness and familiarity—knowing someone and being attached to another person. It is ironic to equate intimacy with sex when sexual contact is often amazingly casual with little real closeness, familiarity, or attachment.

As a culture, we don't understand real intimacy. Online activities, especially Facebook, are providing proof that a sense of intimacy—and a betrayal of intimacy—don't require sex at all, much less any physical contact.

As I've worked with married couples in which one or both spouses have cheated on the other, it has become clear that sex is rarely the primary force driving an affair. The void filled by illicit sex is often emotional, not physical. It happens when a connection forms outside of the relationship that begins to satisfy and validate unmet emotional needs. When deep emotional needs are filled outside the marriage relationship, the result is a type of emotional adultery, though what begins as emotional adultery can quickly turn into physical adultery.

For many people, social media and virtual relationships provide a seemingly safe venue to share deep thoughts and feelings. Sure, some people just post and communicate what they do on a daily basis, but this becomes boring pretty quickly and doesn’t form an emotional connection. Imagine the string of status updates from someone’s typical daily routine: “Got up.” “Went to Starbucks.” “Had a meeting at work.” “Pasta for lunch.” “Drove home in traffic.” “Fed the cats.” “Watched American Idol.” Factual? Yes. Intimate, interesting, and engaging? No.

The intriguing aspect of online communication is not necessarily the what of peoples’ lives but the why—how they feel. These are windows into the soul and, as such, can be compelling. This is the essence of the emotional connection that can occur in online relationships. For many people, this virtual world unfortunately becomes their primary outlet for intimate communication. They become more willing to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns with their virtual community than with their “real” friends, family, or significant other.

As such, online communication can pose a threat of emotional adultery to relationships—especially a marriage. Many people make cyber connections with the opposite sex based largely on ideas, thoughts, and feelings—the foundation of emotional life. These virtual relationships begin to fill the emotional void in their life, and consequently become valued higher than their physical marriage. Whether it is a high school crush rediscovered on Facebook or a new love interest found in a chat room or dating site, these online relationships can emotionally overtake a marriage before any physical contact is ever made.

Could It Happen to You?

If you spend more time and energy explaining who you are and the intricacies of your daily life online than you do in person, you are at risk of losing your “real life” relationship to a virtual avatar. Although there are stories of people rekindling their unrequited past love online and finally connecting with their soul mate decades later, these stories are the minority. More often, people trade in a marriage with years of history only to discover that their virtual love is riddled with his or her own set of imperfections, and that the grass was not in fact greener on the other side of the fence.

Avoiding this scenario requires two important takeaways:

  1. Protect and honor your relationships by not starting down the slippery slope of emotional adultery. It is easy to justify a friendship when there is “nothing going on.” But if you need to defend a friendship either to yourself or your partner, you might be further down the slippery slope than you even realize.
  2. Emotionally invest in your “real life” relationships. Relationships, and especially marriages, require a great amount of time and work. Opening up, being vulnerable, and proactively sharing your life with your significant other is the best way to proactively avoid an emotional void and secure your most intimate relationship.

Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best selling author of over 26 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment. This article features excerpts from Dr. Jantz's book Hooked.