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Relationships and the Internet

(March 5, 2014)

Note: The ideas I discuss in this essay are taken from Chapter 14 of my book Harley Hahn's Internet Insecurity ("Protecting Your Family: Sex, Security and Relationships").

The Internet affects many aspects of life, even those we hope might prove enduring enough to resist the pressures of easy access to private communication at a distance. In particular, many relationships have been put in jeopardy by the lure of long-distance "romance".

In this essay, I will describe just such a case. I'll then show you how to tell if your spouse is having an online affair and, if so, what you should do about it, especially if you are interested in saving your relationship.

I'd like to begin by telling you about a family whose life was changed permanently by the Internet. The story you are about to read is completely true, although (as you might have guessed) I have changed the names.

A Modern-Day True Love Story

There was something missing from Barbara's life. She was in her early 40s and more or less satisfied, but she sometimes felt a nagging feeling of discontent that was difficult to put into words. Barbara did have her hobbies, though, and one of them was watching and discussing Woody Allen movies. Although she had a nice group of friends, she didn't know anyone who appreciated Allen's films as much as she did and, at times, she felt a bit lonely.

On the Internet, however, it was different. Barbara found Web sites devoted to Woody Allen's work, and she loved to spend time visiting them.

One day, she discovered that one of the Web sites had a discussion forum and, without a second thought, she joined the group. Finally, Barbara had found people who liked her favorite films as much as she did, and she found herself spending more and more time online, talking to her new friends.

She especially enjoyed talking to Charles, one of the regulars. Although Barbara lived in the U.S. and Charles lived in Europe, they hit it off immediately. Charles shared Barbara's passion for films, and he seemed to have a lot of the same tastes and opinions. As Barbara explained to one of her friends, "Charles is really something special. It's amazing how we like the same things, how he seems to know exactly what I am thinking. I do have a lot of friends, but with Charles everything is different. We think so much alike that we can communicate really well without even trying."

As the weeks passed and Barbara spent more and more time chatting, her new friends — especially Charles — became more and more important to her life. Although Barbara and her Internet friends talked a lot, it was only over the Internet and she hoped that, one day, they would all be able to meet in person.

Finally, she got her chance.

Woody Allen, who is an accomplished clarinet player, had just announced that he was planning a European concert tour with a jazz band. This was big news among Barbara's friends. Wouldn't it be great if they could all go to see Allen's concert together? It was expensive for Barbara to travel to Europe, but her friends had decided to meet in the country where Charles lived so, as a birthday present to herself, she decided to go.

It was Barbara's first trip to Europe and she had a wonderful time. Not only was she able to meet the people with whom she had spent so much time online, but she got to meet Charles in person, which was even better than she had expected. She felt such a strong connection with him, that she stayed for an extra night after the rest of the group had gone home. When it came time to leave, Barbara had to force herself to get on the plane. "Maybe it's better that I go home now," she told herself. "I need to find out if my feelings for Charles are real."

So, she went home and found, to her delight, that her feelings were real: she missed Charles enormously. Finally, she had found someone who understood her and could bring real meaning to her life. For the first time in her life, Barbara felt complete.

There were some challenges, of course. There always are. For one thing, Charles was 20 years younger than Barbara. Fortunately, the Internet was able to help. Barbara found a support group for "age gap relationships". She spent hours talking to people in similar situations, where there was a significant age difference between the two partners, and she read wonderfully romantic stories in which everything worked out perfectly and the two people lived happily ever after. This, she knew, was exactly what was going to happen with her and Charles.

However, if Barbara and Charles were to live happily ever after, there was another obstacle to overcome: they lived in different countries. After a lot of talking and soul searching, they decided that Charles would leave Europe and immigrate to the United States. But that meant that the two of them had to navigate the U.S. immigration regulations.

Once again, the Internet came to the rescue. By searching on the Web, Barbara was able to find another support group, one for people who needed help with immigration to the United States. Barbara found out that the best way for Charles to move to the U.S. was for him to apply for a fiancÚ visa. That suited her just fine. By now, Barbara knew that Charles was her soulmate, and the thought of spending the rest of her life with him made her giddy.

How did it all end? Less than a year from the time they met on the Internet, Barbara and Charles were married and living together, and Barbara was happier than she had been in years. She had met her soulmate and, finally, her life was complete.

By now, you probably have a warm spot in your heart for Barbara. If you are like me, you enjoy romantic stories, and you feel that it is wonderful when two people are able to find one another, overcome the obstacles that stand in their way, and live happily ever.

There's only one problem. Eleven months earlier, when Barbara had met Charles on the Internet, she was married, living with her husband of 21 years and their 11-year-old daughter.

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Couples and the Internet

Isn't it interesting how the story of Barbara and Charles sounds so different when you find out that Barbara was married and had a child? Just imagine you are reading the story again, but this time, leave out the last paragraph.

Clearly, how you interpret the story has a lot to do with the circumstances of the people involved. If Barbara were single, the story would be a wonderfully romantic example of how the Internet can help lonely people reach out into a cold, impersonal world and find someone to love. However, because Barbara was married (which was the case in real life), the story is a sad one, showing what happens to a family when one of the spouses takes the energy that might have revitalized a marriage and uses it, instead, to pursue an unhealthy fantasy.

So how do we make sense out of all of this?

One of the reasons we have such a problem with understanding relationships in our society is because the popular culture does not distinguish between infatuation and real love. Love stories — in books, in magazines, on TV, and in the movies — focus primarily on falling in love, not on the process of sustaining love. It's fun to watch a movie in which a couple ends up together, all ready to live happily ever after, but what happens next? How do you live happily ever after?

Thoughtful people know that a successful marriage requires a lot of effort. From time to time, every marriage goes through rough spots, and when this happens to you, the mature thing to do is to communicate with your spouse and work things out. It may not be easy, and it may not be fun, but you should do it anyway.

Unfortunately, too many people get in the habit of using the Internet as an escape, especially after a few years of marriage, when the infatuation and novelty have worn off. In such cases, it is common for one of the partners to spend more and more time at the computer, wrapped up in his or her own world. Eventually, this behavior will cause a serious problem, because it takes energy away from the relationship.

This is the case even if the person is using the Internet to do something that is basically wholesome, such as buying and selling old books or playing games. However, when one partner uses the Internet to get involved with another person, the situation becomes devastating. Sometimes, it happens when a husband or wife deliberately looks for emotional companionship. Often, it happens unexpectedly, as with Barbara and Charles, when innocent chatting gets out of hand.

In both cases, what usually happens is that the magic in a marriage is chased away by the daily grind of life: working, paying the bills, taking care of the kids, cleaning the house, shopping for food, cooking the meals, taking out the garbage, and on and on. For many people, life is so demanding that there is no longer much time for romance and sex, and it gets more and more difficult to conjure up the feelings of mutual attraction that created the relationship in the first place. The husband and wife take one another for granted and, all too often, begin to get on each other's nerves. Once this happens, each partner will begin to feel that the other one is not "meeting my needs".

In a way, this is normal, and it is one of the responsibilities of marriage to work through such feelings, to learn how to build a partnership that can survive the pressures of living together and managing a household. Unfortunately, if, in such situations, one of the partners is tempted to stray, the Internet can make things a lot worse.

When a frustrated lonely person starts to chat on the Internet, it is certain that the person will have no trouble at all finding people who seem to be more sympathetic and understanding than his or her spouse. There are several reasons for this.

First, talking on the Internet is a lot different from talking in person. When you talk on the Internet, your mind fills in the missing details automatically. As a result, it is common to misinterpret the meaning of online relationships, especially when they become intimate or romantic.

In other words, if you are married and you think you have met your soulmate online, chances are it is an illusion. People who chat online have no real responsibility towards one another. Unlike your spouse, your online friend does not live with you, and she doesn't share the day-to-day frustrations of work, bills, children, cleaning, shopping and cooking. Moreover, your Internet friend did not take a sacred vow to share your life for better or for worse. If she doesn't feel like chatting, she won't, so when she does choose to chat, chances are she will be in a good mood.

When you are married, you must live together and share responsibilities, day after day, even when you don't feel like it. Since you can't ignore your spouse every time one of you is in a bad mood, you will find that, unlike your experiences with your online friends, you will have to talk to your partner when you don't feel like it.

Of course, sometimes trouble at home is real, and the discontent you feel can be more than you want to bear. However, before you jump to conclusions — such as "my wife doesn't understand me", or "my husband doesn't care about my needs" — it is important that you understand the source of your discontent.

One major source of discontent is that we criticize most in others what we dislike about ourselves. This happens because of what is called PROJECTION. When we feel guilty or anxious about something, we will often, without thinking, project our own attitudes and feelings onto another person. For example, Rachel feels guilty about having sexual thoughts about her boss, so she becomes jealous of her husband and nags him about the way in which he interacts with other women. Brad worries a lot about money so, when his wife forgets to balance the checkbook, he gets angry at her and accuses her of being irresponsible.

The intermittent difficulties and frustrations that attend married life are normal.

It is important to remember that the intermittent difficulties and frustrations that attend married life are normal and, for this reason, it is normal to feel temptation from time to time. There is nothing wrong with this. After all, without temptation to put us to the test, commitment is just an idea.

However, just because we are tempted does not mean that we should act upon our feelings. Earlier in the chapter, I explained that it is part of our nature to need a strong emotional connection to a mate. Thus, before you engage in a questionable activity, take the time to ask yourself, "Will my action serve to help or to hinder the relationship I have with my mate?"

If you want to be happy, you must, in the long run, stay focused on your priorities, and not allow yourself to be driven by transient emotions and passions. This is especially important when you use the Internet because, as we have discussed, what you think is happening online is not as real as it seems.

One of the more interesting examples I know of is a young lady in California who fell in love with a wonderful man she met in a chat room. It was only after she made arrangements to travel to New York to meet her beau, that she discovered that the person she had spent so many hours talking to online was really another woman.

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The 8 Signs That Your Spouse
is Having an Online Affair

Intimate relationships are very common on the Internet, and they pose a big problem to many marriages. How can you tell if your spouse is having an online affair? Here are the warning signs to look for if you suspect that your husband or wife might be leading a secret life on the Internet.

1. Time. Your spouse spends more and more time on the Internet, even to the exclusion of other activities that he (or she) used to enjoy.

2. Need for privacy. Your spouse hides what he is doing. For example, when he is using the computer and you walk into the room, he quickly does something to the machine to switch away from what he is doing. When you try to see what is happening, he gets angry at you and complains about a lack of privacy.

3. Secret identities. Your spouse has email addresses or online screen names that he is keeping secret. When you question him about it, he makes up some excuse, but he won't let you see the mail or watch his conversations.

4. Denial. When you question your spouse about his Internet activities, he denies that he is doing anything wrong in a way that makes you suspicious.

5. Dishonesty. Your spouse lies about what he is doing online. When you catch him in a lie, he tells you one false story after another.

6. Addiction. You notice that your spouse develops a strong need to spend a lot of time online. For example, whenever he comes home, the first thing he does is rush to the computer to check his mail. He gets upset when you suggest that he turn off the computer.

7. Emotional withdrawal. Your spouse stops talking to you about personal matters. He becomes less and less interested in shared intimacy, including sex.

8. Rationalization. Your spouse admits to some online intimacy, but explains that it is okay because (a) it is not physical, or (b) they are only friends, or (c) it is important for him to be able to share his feelings with another person.

What should you do if you suspect that your spouse is misbehaving on the Internet, but you can't prove it? If you aren't able to talk to him about the problem, you may want to track his activities to see exactly what is going on.

One obvious move is to check out your spouse's computer. Examine his email, his personal files, his downloaded files (look for pictures), the cache, the cookies folder, and the browser history.

You can also try entrapment. For example, if you know what chat rooms your spouse likes to visit, you can get a friend to engage him in conversation and see just how far he will go. Or you can try it yourself. (Of course, your spouse may have a secret screen name you don't know about, and he may be chatting in private.)

Finally, you can use a type of program, referred to as SNOOPWARE, that will allow you to monitor all the activity that takes place on your spouse's computer: email, instant messaging, chatting, Web activity, and so on.

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What to Do If Your Spouse
is Having an Online Affair

If your spouse is having an Internet affair, there is something drastically wrong with your relationship. Obviously, you don't know your husband or wife as well as you think you did. These types of problems can take a long time to resolve, and it can't be done by arguing or by pretending nothing is wrong.

It is important that you and your spouse make an effort to develop better communication. This will allow you to explore the reasons why your spouse turned away from you in the first place. For example, it is common for a spouse to turn to the Internet in order to fulfill a need that is not being satisfied within the marriage.

Usually, this means nothing more than looking for the company of a friendly, easy-going companion. In some cases, however, the situation may be more sinister, if a spouse is interested in a particular sexual perversion or fetish. There is a lot of support for such activities on the Internet, including Web sites, chat rooms, discussion forums and personal ads.

So, what do you do? You have two problems to solve. First, you need to convince your spouse that something is wrong. This may be more difficult than it sounds, because there is a good chance that your spouse is addicted, not only to the infatuation of an extramarital relationship, but to the stimulation of a large amount of Internet activity. If so, he may have no idea how much time he really spends online, and he will be oblivious to the fact that he is ignoring other members of the family.

Second, you need to work with your spouse to improve your relationship. Again, this can be especially difficult where the Internet is involved, because your spouse will be fooled into thinking that the feelings he shares with his Internet friends are genuine and important. He may even be convinced that he has found his soulmate, the one person for whom he has been searching his entire life.

For many people, it is difficult to trade a rich fantasy life for the day-to-day routine of family responsibilities. For example, on the Internet, a man may be a smooth-talking stud, and a woman may feel like a seductive temptress. If you ask your spouse to give up his Internet identity, you are asking him to forgo a big chunk of his life. He may not want to do so, and even if he does, it will be difficult. For this reason, it would probably help the two of you to go to a marriage counselor. If you do, here are three hints to help you.

First, go together. Couples who go to marriage counseling together have the best chance of success. If you go to a marital counselor by yourself, your spouse is not going to know what is going on. As a result, you will become frustrated and discouraged when he or she does not respond to your efforts to change the marriage. Indeed, among troubled marriages, the ultimate divorce rate is higher when one spouse goes to marital therapy alone than when the couple receives no counseling at all.

Second, realize that solving Internet-related problems requires special expertise. When you choose a counselor, look for one who has experience with such problems and who understands the technology. Such a counselor will be able to keep your spouse from misrepresenting what he is doing.

Third, look for a counselor who emphasizes the idea that couples should work to stay together. Avoid counselors who think that each person should be concerned only with his or her own personal fulfillment.

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