Online Flirting

There’s not a lot of reliable information out there about infidelity. We do, however, know two things: Some people cheat and some don’t. According to various surveys, it is estimated that anywhere from 45-88% of people in monogamous relationships remain faithful to their partners.

Yet even after you account for the unreliability of human reporting on the subject, those figures assume that unfaithfulness is defined as a sexual act of indiscretion, and is usually limited to sexual intercourse. So where is the defining line? The one that, once crossed, forever identifies you as part of the other statistic?

Clearly, anything that could result in the production of offspring qualifies as infidelity, but how about kissing, explicit emails or simply an intention to cheat? There is a host of other things you may not necessarily categorize as cheating, but you probably wouldn’t want your partner to know about. More importantly, you wouldn’t want your partner doing it with someone else.

So ask yourself if you fantasize about people you know? Ever spend time alone with someone who has a less-than-platonic effect on your hormones? It’s natural to be attracted to other people, no matter how committed we are, so where do we draw the line between harmless flirtation and categorical infidelity?

Emotional Infidelity
M. Gary Neuman, psychologist and author of Emotional Infidelity, believes the answer is to eliminate same-sex friendships outside of marriage altogether. “My message is that if you want to infuse passion and have a buddy for the rest of your life, you have to keep that emotional content in your marriage. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen.”

Dr. Neuman goes so far as to discourage discussions of life issues with co-workers, as well as sharing feelings and even professional team-building exercises. He offers up the many couples he has counseled through related marital issues as evidence for his case. “Some people can handle it, yes. For those people who have a good friend and a good marriage, I can’t disagree. I just say, why not take the challenge, stop the outside relationship and see if your marriage gets better?”

Dr. Neuman’s recommendations are a little extreme. Friendships and work relationships enrich our lives, and it is a lot to ask to expect one person to satisfy all of our emotional needs – in fact most of the time, it’s too much. Yet, many psychologists claim that it is emotional infidelity is to blame for the most destructive effects of unfaithfulness, regardless of whether it is accompanied by a physical event. Intimacy with someone who is not your partner is what begins the spiral of loneliness, detachment and dissatisfaction that results in sexual affairs and divorce.

It takes a certain level of deception to act out a fantasy in the real world, but what’s the harm in a little online flirting? Evidently, it’s considerable. At a convention of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, two thirds of the attorneys surveyed cited the Internet as major causes in divorce cases over the previous 12 months. Most of these were related to seemingly innocuous indiscretions in chat rooms, emails or instant messenger programs. For the most part, these are not people who would walk into a bar and pick up a stranger, or necessarily even contemplate a physical affair (though some Internet relationships do end up that way). So why is cyberspace so alluring to the otherwise faithful?

Harmful or not
According to Kimberly S. Young, co-author of Cybersex and Infidelity Online: Implications for Evaluation and Treatment, it’s the very illusion of harmlessness that makes the Internet so dangerous to relationships. “Cyberspace creates a cultural climate of permissiveness that actually serves to encourage and validate sexually adulterous and promiscuous online behavior.” Young blames “virtual adultery” on three attributes common to online flirtation: anonymity, convenience and escapism.

There are other contributing factors that make it easier to cross that line online. When you feel yourself attracted to someone outside your relationship in the real world, there are steps you can take to avoid temptation. You might invite him to a dinner with your partner or make sure you only meet her in groups of people to head off those feelings of intimacy. When your only contact is virtual, however, there is no such recourse. Your conversation is almost always private, and whether or not the content is flirtatious, privacy by its very nature cultivates intimacy. Also, since there’s no real way to involve your partner in your meetings, online meetings tend to naturally foster secrecy. It’s all too easy for an innocent, anonymous friendship to cross into dangerous territory.

Know thyself
Perhaps a more important question is why you are seeking contact outside your relationship in the first place. What is it you are getting (or looking for) that you’re not getting from your partner, and is that indicative of an underlying problem in your relationship. What is it you can discuss with faceless handles in cyberspace that you can’t face with your loved one?

The total and instant access the Internet provides offers a tempting alternative to working on a struggling relationship. The tragedy is, the people at the other end of the computer aren’t real. Sure, there is someone somewhere typing, but even if they have never committed a deliberate deception, it is impossible to be your true self while looking for distant connections under the guise of an alphanumeric chat handle. Granted, the Internet also provides instant, private access to people we know in the real world, but that comes with its own set of obvious dangers.

The solution
If there is weakness in your current relationship, try spending your energy dealing with that, rather than looking to other sources. If it isn’t going to work out, it should come to an end before you begin something else anyway. Otherwise, you’ll never completely escape the cycle of deception. And if you truly believe your Internet activity is pure, that you are immune to the temptations both within yourself and posed by others – beware. Even when online contact doesn’t lead to sexual contact, even if your instant messages are completely free of subtext, emotional intimacy with those outside your relationship can be intimacy you are denying your partner. Be careful not to deprive your relationship of the emotional investment it needs to stay alive in the real world.

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  1. Pingback: Flirting: It's a Science | California Psychics Blog

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