Shattered Vows

The Columbus Dispatch September 4, 2003

Internet access implicated in the growing number of divorces

September 4, 2003
By Dennis Fiely

The ease and convenience of online encounters have turned the Internet into a home-wrecker.

A divorce is pending for a Columbus couple who each pursued a cyber-relationship in response to their stale, 16-year marriage.

“The computer made it far too easy for us to communicate with other people, especially when our marriage was in trouble,” said the husband, 39. “In my opinion, it prevented us from getting together to resolve our issues. Without it, I think we would have tried counseling.”

The couple — parents of two school-age children — separated after he developed a relationship with a West Coast woman, whom he met through an online role-playing game, and she did the same with a longtime friend on the East Coast.

Through e-mail notes and instant messages, they sometimes nurtured their long-distance affairs simultaneously — while sitting at computers in different rooms of their house.

The electronic exchanges eventually inspired face-to-face meetings that severed the tenuous union.

“The computer brought us closer to other people than each other,” the husband lamented.

Columbus family-relations lawyer Jeffrey Grossman implicates the Internet in almost half of his cases that involve an extramarital relationship — a figure that corresponds to reports from therapists and other lawyers nationwide.

“I can’t count the number of cases I’ve had in which an innocent e-mail developed into a serious relationship,” Grossman said.

At the click of a mouse, chat rooms, message boards, and discussion groups avail countless lonely hearts and philanderers to dissatisfied spouses.

In fact, hundreds of chat rooms with titles such as “Married but Looking” and “Married and Flirting” are designed for cheaters.

The surge in cyber-affairs has spawned academic research, Internet specialists among marriage counselors, and spying software.

Despite some studies that suggest a rise in adultery, Columbus divorce educator Cindy Hide doubts that more divorces can be blamed on the Internet.

“There are different ways to choose to be unfaithful,” Hide said. “The Internet is another option, but the issue is always the same: How strong is the foundation of the marriage?”

Nevertheless, the technology confronts couples with unprecedented opportunities and rationalizations for infidelity.

It enables spouses to experience the excitement of new acquaintances under the cloak of anonymity and from the privacy of home.

“It feels safe,” Columbus psychologist Terry Imar said. “You’re not checking into motel rooms or signing your name to credit-card slips. The neighbors are not going to find out.”

Many married surfers dismiss their cyber-affairs as harmless, nonphysical contacts: “But I am not seeing anybody,” they might contend.

“I bet I hear that every week,” Grossman said.

In online interviews with 86 people in “married” chat rooms, only 26 said they had met their online partners in person, noted University of Florida researcher Beatriz Avila Mileham.

Absent touching, 83 percent of her sample indicated that they don’t equate online contact with unfaithfulness.

The offended partners usually have a different view.

“It goes beyond innocence when people are telling each other they love them, sneaking phone calls and writing love letters,” said a 50-year-old woman from Long Island, N.Y.

After 21 years of marriage, her husband left her within three months of meeting another woman online.

“It is no longer innocent cheating,” she added, “when men and women would rather be on the computer instead of spending time with their spouses and children.”

Relationship counselors agree.

“If you know your partner would not like the fact that you are cheating emotionally and mentally, then it is not OK,” said Judith Schwartz of Village Counseling in German Village. “A chat room siphons energy from a marriage.”

It expresses an indifference to or a rejection of the spouse, Imar said.

In a few cases, Internet temptations snare seemingly happy spouses.

“I’ve seen people who never would have thought about having an affair get involved in chat rooms,” he said. “They start talking to someone and begin to believe that their marriage is not as good as they thought.”

In a paper presented to the American Psychological Association in 1999, researchers Kimberly S. Young, James O’Mara, and Jennifer Buchanan compared the allure of Internet romance to a drug-induced high.

“A lonely wife in an empty marriage can escape into a chat room where she is desired by her many cyber-partners,” they wrote. “A sexually insecure husband can transform into a hot cyber-lover that all the women in the chat room fight over.”

The volume of traffic contributes to “a climate of permissiveness that makes it seem OK,” Mileham said.

Anonymity, convenience, and escape make up the “ACE model” that researchers and treatment specialists use to define the addictive nature of fooling around online that yields the buzz of instant gratification.

Relationships “can escalate quite rapidly because there are no barriers,” Schwartz said. “People are not put off by physical appearances. They can have immediate, intense relationships without taking the time to get to know each other. The Internet is the ideal arrangement for the communication of deep thoughts without fear of disapproval.”

People reveal secrets, desires, and personal problems that they would not disclose to their spouses.

This emotional component is more damaging to marriage than the sex talk that preoccupies chat rooms.

“The sexual ties die out in time,” Grossman noted.

Infidelity researcher Shirley Glass, author of Not Just Friends (The Free Press, $25), described the Internet as “the epitome of the emotional affair.”

“It is almost as if people are sharing their personal diaries,” she said.

Regardless of the form of infidelity, marriage counseling typically focuses on “underlying issues” such as unexpressed anger, boredom, and changing goals.

At some point, however, “you really have to reach an agreement about appropriate use of the computer, ” Imar said. “I’ve had some spouses who did not want their partners online at all.”

Added Glass: “For me, the real tragedy is that so much of what people give of themselves in an affair would be so welcome by their spouses.”

Her observation rang painfully true for the 39-year-old Columbus man whose marriage disintegrated online.

“Each and every day, I closed myself off from the only woman I have ever loved,” he said. “She needed me, and I wasn’t there.”

Instead, he was seated at his keyboard.

Warning signs

Some indications of a possible Internet affair:

* Change in sleep patterns. A spouse shows more energy at night when activity in chat rooms and meeting places usually peaks.

* Demand for privacy. A spouse moves the computer, changes passwords or, when questioned, mounts a defense.

* Avoidance of household chores. A spouse signals a lesser commitment to the marriage by spending increased time online.

* Secretive behavior. A spouse hides credit card bills for online services and telephone bills with calls to cyber-lovers.

* Personality changes. A spouse who suddenly becomes cold and withdrawn shifts the blame to the partner.

* Loss of interest in sex. A spouse replaces sex with cyber-sex.

* Declining investment in the relationship. A spouse shuns rituals such as vacations, trips to the movies, and plans in general.

Source: Cybersex and Infidelity Online: Implications for Evaluation and Treatment by Kimberly S. Young, James O’Mara, and Jennifer Buchanan; American Psychological Association

Legal maneuverings: Sexual intercourse legally defines adultery.

Yet, by any name, Internet infidelity could have legal consequences.

Even in an age of no-fault divorce, courts and judges have enough flexibility to consider computer use in financial settlements, noted Columbus divorce educator Cindy Hide.

Threats to expose unsavory Internet behavior in court might speed settlements with parties protective of their public images.

Some states, Hide said, permit spouses to file civil suits seeking damages from third parties involved in marital breakups.

Still, the effect of cyber-love and pornography is most likely to be felt in custody cases.

On June 30, the 7th District Court of Appeals in Columbiana County changed a custody ruling to favor the father because, in part, “The appellant-mother had a history of using pornography and Internet chat rooms.”

“If someone leaves a long-term, stable relationship for a stranger they met on the Internet, that may be an indication that the parent is a bad decision-maker,” said Bradley Frick, a Columbus divorce lawyer.

Computer-using habits, he said, also “might take time away from the kids or leave them unsupervised.”

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