I cannot tell you how many times Facebook has been cited as either the predecessor to an affair or the means by which one was discovered by clients in my office. Or how many times a client has whipped out their cell phone to review text or email interactions with a current or potential partner.
Technology is part of the human experience now. While once computers were utilized primarily for work, they are now practically a third member in a partnership. Cell phones (and the people who can be immediately reached with them) have become an extension of our hand, as operated by our brain and heart.
And the impact these devices and created spaces have on our ability to communicate quickly, act impulsively, and save or delete prolifically, has yet to be fully understood. Because it’s still just too new. And everyone loves it just too much.
Of course computers don’t have affairs, people do. Affairs have been around for as long as marriages have. But they were more scandalous in the past and not a given in the way that people seem to see them now. And quite frankly, they were harder to come by. Women weren’t in the workplace the way they are now.
Marriage wasn’t easily walked away from. Happiness was not assumed to be a right of being human in the way that it is now. Correspondence was slow and less private. So though technology doesn’t cause affairs, I don’t think that it can be denied that it has contributed to their proliferation.
The internet has simply open up the world, making it easier and faster to connect with others and easier to do so with relative anonymity. The first love, the more recent ex, the one you always wondered about. It all seems so harmless at first.
But all of these figures are going to most likely look pretty darn good, seeing as how they are most likely posting only their more flattering photos and activities. Your partner however, whom you know all the flaws of, suddenly doesn’t look anywhere nearly as appealing as someone else.
Someone who reads! Or camps! Or also loves your favorite band! Someone who surely would tell you how attractive you are! Who looks sexy when they roll our of bed in the morning! And the ease in which such folks can be located can lead to the quick line of reconnect, a quick hello. And there it is. The person has gone from being largely an illusion to being a real thinking, feeling, breathing human being. And a genuine risk to your relationship.
It’s not only the idealized person that can pose a risk, the idealized relationship can, too. I myself have no problem admitting that I have looked at my friend’s posts; anniversary’s in Paris, smiling faces refinishing decks amorously, statements punctuated with X’s and O’s professing their appreciation for the amazing meal their partner made them, or more generally their love, respect, and gratitude for their partner.
“I’m so lucky!!” and thinking that I want that, too. That THAT is the kind of relationship I should be in. Thus we start to compare our relationship to the seemingly accurately represented but actually highly filtered relationships of those around us. We start to hold partners up to expectations and standards that aren’t real.
You may have noticed that in this column, I am directing my thoughts towards you. Yes you, the one actually reading this. Because it is my belief that while you cannot protect your relationship from your partner having an affair, you can prevent yourself from engaging in one. We simply cannot control other people and to try to convince ourselves that we can is a recipe for exhaustion, anxiety, and heartbreak.
Relationships, even those with a legal stamp, are always a risk. But if we want the pay-off of love and a shared life, we have no choice but to throw our hearts in the ring with as much honesty, attention, intention and trust that we can muster, and hope for the best. If both members of a partnership do this, the relationship is off to a good start.
Most affairs aren’t started by one person intentionally seeking a sexual relationship outside of the one they have promised commitment to. Far more often they start out as a fanciful curiosity or a harmless conversation. But before long boundaries get blurry.
So how do you know if you are heading down a slippery slope with someone that could pose a threat to your relationship?
1. If you are hiding your communication with your partner or only telling them part of it.
2. If something your wrote would make your partner uncomfortable if they found it.
3. If you start confiding things in this person instead of your partner.
4. If you start speaking negatively with this person about your partner or your relationship, i.e. expressing dissatisfaction.
5. If you start looking forward to seeing this person more than you do most others and start dressing accordingly, altering your route, i.e. being at a certain place at a certain time to increase chances of running into them.
6. If it is becoming an obsession or an addiction and you find yourself checking your page, email, or phone often, hoping to have received word from them and if your mood starts to get impacted by the presence or absence of it.
7. If you make plans to take the relationship off the internet and meet in person and feel “open” or “uncertain” about what you want to come of it.
Something to always keep in mind is that an affair is a short-term distraction with long-term consequences. So before you continue downplaying your chats, friendship, or flirtation, ask yourself if it’s undermining your relationship, if it’s worth it, and what you are getting from it. If there is a genuine problem in your primary relationship, address it and if you determine it’s not right for you, you can part with respect and walk away knowing that you maintained your values.
And then you can decide if the person occupying so much space in your fantasy life is really someone you want to pursue and not just a projection of the solution to your unmet needs. Someone who may also have been more about convenience and accessibility then anything else.
The other thing that I think it especially important to remember when using technology to facilitate social interaction is that just like with cigarettes in the 50′s, we don’t yet know what the wider social impact or personal harm our continued use of and reliance on will be in terms of our ability to connect with others.
We aren’t there yet in terms of evolution. Our society is moving ahead faster and faster and in doing so each of us feels compelled to respond to it faster and faster. To be the first person to speak up, to get our idea or foot in the door, to act quickly, jump on an opportunity.
But we are losing touch by doing so with that more grounded part of ourselves that tells us to slow down, take our time, think about our choices. Internet affairs can be fast to ignite, quick to actualize, leaving little time or room for informed decision making.
Meaningful personal connections that are sometimes started but rarely fostered in the ether, instead take place in person, where body language, facial expression, and vulnerability come into play. Many affairs don’t take off until they are online, where people have fewer personal filters and inhibitions.
It’s human nature to fantasize about others. And we always had our imaginations and then movies and television to fuel them. But the internet is a blend of both, in interactive format. It is a conduit sure, but if it’s being directed by a strong need for immediate gratification, it can take you somewhere you never thought you would go. Into real life.
About the author
Alyssa Siegel is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Portland, Oregon where she works with individuals and couples, specializing in relationships and sexuality.
She is a member of the American Counseling Association, the National Board of Certified Counselors, the National Coalitionfor Sexual Freedom, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
Alyssais a contributing author to the book “Your Brain On Sex, How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life” and is regular columnist for Psychology Tomorrow.
For more information please visit www.alyssasiegel.com.