Over half of all U.S. households have Internet access, making the 40 million sexually explicit Web sites, chat rooms, bulletin boards and interactive games completely available to anyone who cares to partake. An estimated 20 to 33 percent of Internet users go online for sexual purposes; most are male, about 35 years old, married with children, and well educated. As many as 17 percent of users become addicted to online sexual activity. In the coming years, as the number of households with Internet access grows, it can be expected that more and more couples will suffer a variety of problems related to online infidelity.
Sexual behavior over the Internet can easily threaten relationships because it is extremely accessible, affordable, and the ability to hide one’s identity helps people feel they can escape being caught. Online sexual behavior is proving to be highly addictive to some users and serious relationship problems are reported in almost all marriages in which one partner is cybersex addicted. Even if the user does not become addicted, problems can still exist between partners.
How Does Online Sexual Behavior Start?
Online chatting or e-mailing can begin simply as a distraction from boredom or emotional distress. Behaviors that were once off limits in a face-to-face situation with strangers are suddenly available through the Internet. Individuals seeking to connect with a potential partner via the Internet can present themselves in any way they choose, and can omit information they don’t want others to know. What started innocently can easily advance to a real life emotional and/or physical extramarital affair. However, even if the behavior never advances to meeting in person, many partners view cybersex chatting and/or pornography viewing as a form of infidelity, a threat to the marriage, and as emotionally distressing as a “live” affair.
What are the Signs?
Problems that arise include loss of trust, a decrease in self-esteem, and a sense of isolation. Some users begin to have difficulty becoming aroused by their partners, avoid sex, and experience emotional distress in their relationships. In fact, 52 percent of cybersex users lose interest in relational sex. Or, to the other extreme, the user may request or demand sexual behaviors that the partner finds offensive. The partner may notice a significant change in sleep patterns, the demand for privacy, and the user may make excuses for spending time alone.
To be in a secure love relationship is to be desired and thought of as special. It is our main source of security, emotional safety, and comfort. Infidelity of any kind disrupts this special bond and one or both partners no longer have the sense of being connected in a secure, safe haven. In the case of Internet infidelity, when a partner suspects the user is engaging in cybersex behaviors, he or she may become overly sensitive to the partners activities and whereabouts, searching for evidence of wrongdoing. One or both partners may obsessively think about the other’s behavior, have problems sleeping, have difficulty focusing at work, and dealing with other tasks requiring attention to detail such as driving.
Likely Reactions to Confrontation
After a confrontation, both partners may agree there has been a betrayal and the goals are to move beyond it, recover, resolve what led to the betrayal, and repair the relationship. Other times, the partner experiences the situation as a betrayal, but the user is hesitant about giving up the Internet behavior because he or she believes no real harm has been done; then the couple is stuck. In some cases, the situation is worsened if the user has lost a job, been arrested, or has a health concern (such as worry over sexually transmitted diseases after a physical affair).
Some times after confrontation, the user is fearful of losing the relationship with the partner (and children, pets, finances) and at the same time also fearful of loss of the online behavior. He or she usually only discloses what he or she thinks the partner has already discovered, or is likely to discover, or be told by an outside party. Sometimes the user will even say that he or she reached a sexual Web site by accident or that it happened while looking for or chatting about something else. He or she wants to avoid having to admit any wrongdoing at all costs. Users in this mindset are reluctant to change or seek help.
Some users try to blame the partner for not engaging in sexual behaviors requested, which “forced” him or her to seek satisfaction by viewing pornography or chatting with someone online. Partners feel betrayed because the user has been sharing information that has been thought to be private within the relationship, especially if the dialogue contains emotional intensity or sexually suggestive flirtations, or if the user has arranged to meet with the other person face-to-face.
Reluctance to change must first be resolved. Any hesitation should be replaced by a desire to make a plan and take action to improve the relationship. In some cases, the betrayed partner may be so disgusted or angry by what the user has done, that a period of separation may be useful to cool down or reduce feelings of shame. A trained mental health professional can assess your particular situation and recommend the best course of action and treatment.
A therapist will likely want to determine if the user is addicted. If so, the therapist will offer support and assistance in the development of a plan, which might include restrictions on further computer use, accountability measures, and finding a 12-step or support group meeting. Some tips for changing behavior include:
- Use pictures of spouse, family or other important people as a screen saver so the user can see what is important to him or her each time the computer is accessed.
- Move the computer to an open area in the home.
- Do not use the Internet alone; go online only when family members or supportive friends are present.
- Use the computer only for specific, planned tasks that have been reviewed with someone who will hold you accountable.
- Have periods of time when no online behavior happens.
- Control Internet access with filtering or blocking software, or use an Internet Service Provider that already filters Internet content. You can also use monitoring software that e-mails reports of visited sites to a chosen person.
With help, the couple moves toward re-establishing trust and their sexual relationship. In the end, the couple will have strengthened their ability to repair problems, look for the good in each other, and find ways to successfully discuss and resolve long-standing issues.
After the devastating disclosure of infidelity, intense emotions and recurrent crises are the norm. The good news, however, is that the majority of marriages not only survive infidelity, but marriage and family therapists have observed that many marriages can become stronger and more intimate after couples therapy.
An extramarital involvement (EMI) is the catalyst for approximately 50 percent of the couples who initiate treatment. A striking paradox is that while polls indicate 90 percent disapproved of extramarital relationships, a national survey reported that 15 percent of wives and 25 percent of husbands had experienced extramarital intercourse. When emotional affairs or sexual intimacies without intercourse are included, the incidence increases by 20 percent.
Causes and Types of Extramarital Relationships
The causes of infidelity are complex and varied. Affairs can occur in happy marriages as well as in troubled ones. Although the involved spouse may not be getting enough from the marriage, sometimes the involved spouse is not giving enough. Reasons for EMI include low self-esteem, relationship deficits (e.g., lack of affection), or a social context in which infidelity is condoned. Multiple affairs may indicate an addiction to sex, love or romance. Love and romance addicts are driven by the passion of a new relationship. Sexual addicts are compulsively attracted to the high and the anxiety release of sexual orgasm. But such release comes with a price -- feelings of shame and worthlessness. In contrast, philanderers who perceive extramarital sex as an entitlement of gender or status take advantage of opportunities without guilt or withdrawal symptoms.
A new crisis of infidelity is emerging in which people who never intended to be unfaithful are unwittingly crossing the line from platonic friendships into romantic relationships, particularly in the workplace and on the Internet. Emotional affairs differ from platonic friendships in that there is 1) greater emotional intimacy than in the marital relationship, 2) secrecy and deception from the spouse, and 3) sexual chemistry. Internet affairs, which cause marital distress despite lack of actual physical contact, exemplify emotional affairs. However, combined-type affairs in which extramarital intercourse occurs within a deep emotional attachment usually have the most disruptive impact.
Vulnerabilities for EMI can be linked to marital problems (e.g., avoidance of conflict, fear of intimacy) or life cycle changes (e.g., transition to parenthood, empty-nest). Some dissatisfied spouses begin an extramarital relationship as a way of exiting from an unhappy marriage. More frequently, however, the marital history is re-written to justify an ongoing affair. It is unreasonable to compare a forbidden love affair that is maintained by romantic idealization with the routine familiarity of a long-term marriage.
The Impact of Discovery
It is common for both spouses to experience depression (including suicidal thoughts), anxiety, and/or a profound sense of loss following the initial disclosure. The reactions of the betrayed spouse resemble the post-traumatic stress symptoms of the victims of catastrophic events. Common reactions to the loss of innocence and shattered assumptions include obsessively pondering details of the affair; continuously watching for further signs of betrayal; and physiological hyperarousal, flashbacks and intrusive images. The most severely traumatized are those who had the greatest trust and were the most unsuspecting. The involved spouse may fear that they will be punished forever for the betrayal while they grieve for the lost dreams associated with the affair.
Treatment and Recovery
The first issue to be addressed in therapy is clarifying whether the purpose of treatment is rebuilding the marriage, resolving ambivalence about whether to remain married, or separating in a constructive way. One spouse may want to reconcile while the other spouse is still ambivalent or has decided to leave. Most family therapists work with the couple together as the primary approach. However, an ambivalent spouse or a severely agitated spouse may also need some individual therapy sessions. One way to help couples rebuild marriages after the disclosure of infidelity is based on an interpersonal trauma model -- a process of recovery and healing leading to forgiveness. The first stage of recovery after the impact of the disclosure establishes safety and addresses the painful emotions and traumatic symptoms. Understanding the vulnerabilities for the EMI and telling the story of the affair comprise the middle stage. Integrating the meaning of the affair into the present and moving on into the future is the final stage of healing and forgiveness. A wall of secrecy in the marriage and a window of intimacy in the affair usually characterize extramarital triangles. Reconstructing marriages requires reversing the walls and windows by erecting a wall with the affair partner and a window of honesty with the marriage partner.
- Establishing safety. Recovery cannot begin until contact with the affair partner is terminated. Stopping an affair does not just mean ending sexual intercourse. All personal discussions, coffee breaks and phone calls must also be stopped. When the affair partner is a co-worker, the contact must be strictly business, and necessary or unplanned encounters must be shared with the spouse in order to rebuild trust.
- Telling the story of the affair. A guiding principle is how information will enhance healing. However, a destructive process of interrogation and defensiveness never promotes healing, even if the answers are truthful. The initial discussions commonly resemble the adversarial interaction between a detective and a criminal. Simple facts such as who, what, where and when can be answered during the early stage to relieve some of the pressure for information. It is preferable to delay complex questions about motivations and explicit details about sexual intimacy until the process itself is more healing. The disclosure process evolves in therapy from a truth-seeking inquisition to the neutral process of information seeking – similar to a journalist and an interviewee. The final phase is one of mutual exploration with an empathic process.
Signs of healing and recovery
- The marriage is stronger and is couple-centered rather than child-centered.
- The vulnerabilities for infidelity are understood and addressed as they occur.
- The couple has developed trust, commitment, mutual empathy and shared responsibility for change.
Marital distress is one of the most frequently encountered and disturbing human problems. Everyone who is married experiences difficulties, but for some, these troubles reach the point that partners become profoundly disappointed and upset about their marriages and may even come to question whether they want to continue to remain married.
Marital distress is very unsettling and the ways marital problems often progress make it easy for things to go from bad to worse. However, in most situations, this flow in a negative direction can be altered. Most marriages can return to being satisfying. Sometimes people can make these changes on their own, but frequently help from a couple therapist is needed.
How Do You Know When to Seek Help or Suggest Doing So to a Friend?
No one has a perfect marriage, and almost every couple can benefit from some help at times with their marriage. Pre-marital preparation and marital enrichment programs such as the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) and the Relationship Enhancement Program are available in many localities and most people find them helpful regardless of how well their relationship is going. And many people seek couple counseling with a trained therapist to improve their marriages even when their marriages are not unduly distressed. You don’t need to be in a distressed marriage to be in marital therapy. Many people with very solid marriages choose this path to enhance their relationships. Experiencing marital distress, however, represents a different state from the ups and downs of life in marriage that most people experience. In distressed marriages, people feel fundamentally dissatisfied with their marriages.
Disappointment in the relationship doesn’t just come and go; it is a constant companion. Most frequently, couples with high levels of marital distress fight a good deal and their fights don’t lead to resolution, but simply a sense of being worn out. Or they may not fight, but simply feel completely disconnected. People stop doing nice things for each other, they stop communicating, and things tend to go from bad to worse. Frequent arguments that don’t get resolved, loss of good feelings, and loss of friendship, sex and vitality are other signs that a marriage is distressed. Other signs, such as contempt, withdrawal, violence, and a complete loss of connection signal that a marriage is in desperate trouble and that it is at high risk for divorce. And you need not be legally married to have “marital distress.” Serious, long-term, committed relationships can experience these kinds of major problems, too. Sometimes marital problems are purely about problems in the relationship such as communication, solving problems, arguing, intimacy, and sex.
These kinds of problems often begin with partners simply not having a good sense of how to be married and how to communicate and provide support. Other times couples may do well for a while, particularly in the earliest stages of their romance, but they are not ready for the longer-term tasks in marriage. Studies of couples show that while the risks for marital distress and divorce are highest early in marriage, these risks also grow just after the transitions that occur when couples begin to have children and when the children reach adolescence. Other times, marital problems are directly the result of individual problems, such as substance abuse. And marriages can even seem to be going well, but one shattering event like an extramarital affair will throw a marriage into distress. Marital distress has powerful effects on partners; often leading to great sadness, worry, a high level of tension, and problems such as depression. If prolonged, it even has been shown to have direct effect on physical health. The effect on families is also profound, especially when conflict is high. Children raised in high conflict homes tend to have many more problems than other children. And once marriages are distressed, a progression begins that easily becomes a cascade downward, ultimately leading to the ending of a marriage.
The Kinds of Help That Work
The good news is that there are effective treatments for marital distress. Given a willingness to work on a marriage, most people can make their marriages satisfying again. No one begins as a perfect partner. Marriage depends on a number of skills, such as being able to understand yourself, understand your partner, fight well, problem solve, and negotiate differences. Sometimes patterns we learned in our families growing up aren’t effective, but are carried over to a marriage. And sometimes the stresses of life make it difficult to stay happily married. Treatment for marital distress is in part building or rebuilding the skills that work in marriage, such as learning to communicate and problem solve, and how to fight without engaging in too much hurt.
Partly, marital therapy is about partners working to see each other as people, to understand where they are coming from, and to negotiate those differences that can be negotiated and accept those differences that cannot. Couples all have issues that stay with them; the key is to build a process that can help find a way to talk about those issues, to find solutions, and not have the problems that emerge in life become overwhelming. Couple therapists have special training in couple therapy. They know how to help couples have a sense of progress even as they struggle with difficult issues. There are many kinds of effective couple therapy. Some promote skills and practice, others look more at the past and how things got this way; most combine the two.
If you have a marital problem, call a couple therapist and make an appointment. Finding a couple therapist is easy, but use caution. Be sure the person has specific experience in couple therapy, as marriage and family therapists do. Beginning couple therapy is not easy. For most people, it’s hard to begin to share with a person you don’t know about marital difficulties, and it’s hard not to be discouraged as you argue about these issues at first in front of a therapist. Couples with marital distress are often discouraged and have trouble believing that couple therapy can help. But couples who begin marital therapy begin to create a process for overcoming their difficulties. Sometimes the resolution of problems happens very quickly, though more typically a longer period is needed. For most, it’s hard to work on these problems at first, but ultimately that becomes easier and problems are resolved.
What Should You Do if Your Partner Won’t Go to Therapy?
Some people with marital problems won’t seek help even when it is essential. If your partner won’t go to therapy, try to encourage them. It’s hard to fix a distressed marriage on your own. Still, if they won’t go, you can begin to do some things yourself. A marriage and family therapist is likely to have some useful ideas about how to improve the relationship without both of you getting into therapy and about how to find better ways to approach your partner about the idea of entering treatment together.