How to Recover From an Online Emotional Affair

Recovery from an online affair is not as simple as disabling an Internet connection to preclude communication with an online partner (although for some people, this might be a good first step).  It requires a straying partner to disable an emotional connection, which is much harder to do. 

The good news is that post-online-affair recovery is possible, particularly when both parties appreciate the danger of Internet-facilitated emotional involvement, despite the lack of physical contact. 

In many ways, the Internet facilitates the same types of relationship building opportunities we have in person.  Except that virtual relationships with many different people at once are much easier to sustain.  Consequently, virtual polygamy can (covertly) co-exist within the context of offline monogamy.

The harmful and often traumatic relational consequences of online affairs are well documented,[i] yet the prevalence of Internet infidelity is on the rise, impacting relationships between couples, as well as their families.[ii]  Successful recovery requires understanding the risks, which can prevent recidivism. 

Components of Internet Infidelity: Sexual and Emotional   

Internet infidelity is hard to define, particularly because it lacks the physical component traditionally associated with relational unfaithfulness.  Research defines Internet infidelity as including exchanging sexual photos, cybersex, online flirting and watching online pornography.[iii]  While people disagree as to what exactly constitutes Internet infidelity, a consistent combination of factors has been identified as secrecy combined with sexual excitement.[iv]

Yet recovering from Internet infidelity requires acknowledging and understanding the component of emotional injury.

Recovery Involves Recognizing Emotional Injury

Discovery of a partner´s online infidelity causes shock, anger, loss of trust, and the difficult decision of whether to end the relationship.[v] These negative consequences are similar to those experienced upon the discovery of offline infidelity.[vi]

Yet in terms of accepting responsibility for having an online affair, some straying partners underestimate the intensity of emotional bonding online.  Although Internet infidelity involves the same two components as traditional infidelity: emotional and sexual,[vii] the emotional component of an online affair may be of greater significance than partners appreciate. 

Modern online communication is no longer limited to cold text on a computer screen; its emotional value can be enhanced through modern technologies such as webcams and Skype, which make the online experience more powerful.[viii]

Couples who choose to work through online affairs must therefore put a premium on appreciating the danger of engaging in online activities that are likely to breed emotional connection, and cultivating strategies for avoidance.

Offline Recovery from Online Infidelity: Strategies for Success

Marriage and family therapists believe that enacting physical boundaries through monitoring software, site restrictions, and other methods of controlling computer use can be an important step in addressing Internet infidelity, because such measures promote a degree of relational safety.[ix] Yet such precautions are only a part of recovery.  Therapists note the importance of developing psychological boundaries as well.[x] 

In order to reduce Internet infidelity, researchers agree that rules-based approaches such as moving the home computer into a common area or establishing regulations for computer usage must be paired with attempts to change thinking about the propriety of the activity itself.[xi] Such efforts include countering rationalizations about online affairs not being harmful because they lack a physical component, and enhancing understanding of the impact on the offline partner.[xii]

Therapists also note the necessity for additional treatment and a greater degree of forgiveness when Internet activity involves an identifiable third party, as opposed to activity such as watching pornography.[xiii]

Recovery is Possible Through Partnership

Similar to efforts to overcome the betrayal of offline infidelity, recovery from online infidelity involves both partners working together to rebuild relational trust and respect.  Appreciating the emotional allure of online romance seems counterintuitive to people who think about cheating in the physical sense.  Yet successful recovery from online affairs requires both partners to appreciate the danger of forming online emotional attachments to begin with. 

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

References

[i] Andreas Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On: A Critical Review of the Literature,” The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families 24, no. 4 (2016): 359-366 (362).

[ii] Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On,” 359.

[iii] Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On,” 359 (citing Henline et al., 2007; Hertlein & Webster, 2008; Whitty, 2003).

[iv] Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On,” 360 (citing Hertlein & Piercy, 2006).

[v] Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On,” 362.

[vi] Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On,” 363.

[vii] Katherine M. Hertlein and Fred P. Piercy, ”Essential Elements of Internet Infidelity Treatment,” Journal of Marital & Family Therapy 38, no. 1 (2012): 257-270 (257).

[viii] Hertlein and Piercy, ”Essential Elements of Internet Infidelity Treatment,” 266-267.

[ix] Hertlein and Piercy, ”Essential Elements of Internet Infidelity Treatment,” 260-261.

[x] Hertlein and Piercy, ”Essential Elements of Internet Infidelity Treatment,” 261-262.

[xi] Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On,” 363.

[xii] Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On,” 363.

[xiii] Hertlein and Piercy, ”Essential Elements of Internet Infidelity Treatment,” 265-266.

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