Mary-Joan Gerson examines infidelity in cyberspace.
Posted Jul 05, 2011
Is sexual betrayal more upsetting when it's discovered virtually? Does electronic capability encourage infidelity? What is considered infidelity in online behavior? Every therapist is dealing with these troubling questions every week in her office as online contact increases with new forms and new capacities.
Tara Parker-Pope in her June 14 N.Y.Times article, "Digital Flirting Easy to Do and Easy to Get Caught" states that "....it is now all too easy to flirt with strangers and engage in sexual fantasy without (technically) breaking a marriage vow." In fact partners experience internet flirtation as a rupture in fidelity and, most importantly, in attachment even though it takes place virtually.
In an article I have just published, I describe what I think are some of the uniquely troubling aspects of internet infidelity: the suddenness of its exposure. Since the flirtation has taken place out of ordinary sight, when it is discovered stored in the machine, it arrives with a tsunami of effect. (Cyberspace Betrayal: Attachment in an Era of Virtual Connection. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, Volume 22 Issue 2, 148.) What's more, it is permanently archived. My ordinary training as a couples therapist involves a process during which the past injury is processed and then punctuated; a ritual is often suggested to separate the past for the current landscape of concern and understanding and an imagined landscape of trust and union. However, it is difficult for partners who have been betrayed not to review and return to electronic evidence whenever they feel suspicious, which only retraumatizes the relationship.
One other aspect of internet betrayal which is troubling is that it has been conducted in the private domain of the home and thus can feel more violating to the partner who discovers it. In online trusts, partners often slip out of bed in supposed or real insomniac states, or withdraw from family engagement to go online and get into it.
There are aspects of self experience in online flirtation and sexual engagement which are different and intoxicating, which I describe: the potency of summoning the other at any moment, the belief (illusion?) that one is always present in the mind of the exciting new person. I could go on. But we will all be going on this electronic intergalactic relationship voyage; there is no stopping now. What is important is to chart our course and keep a reasonable destination in mind.