Are You at Risk For an Emotional Online Affair?

Despite the lack of physical contact, the Internet is a threat to committed relationships because it facilitates emotional affairs, which in many cases, lead to physical ones. Whether seeking attention, affirmation, validation, or encouragement, people who are not receiving what they want from offline partners are likely to look online, because the Internet is filled with “friends,” “fans,” and “followers” ready to fill the gap. 

Some people believe they can safely admire others online without jeopardizing offline relationships.  They are wrong.  In reality, these partners are flirting with danger and putting their relationships in jeopardy, because they underestimate the power of online emotional bonding.

Beware of Thinking You are “Just Looking”

Online emotional affairs are harder to detect than physical ones, for obvious reasons.  The danger for Internet users is that despite all of the legitimate online business we conduct every day, it is easy to stray off course, both figuratively and literally, with a simple click of a tantalizing link, often prominently displayed, provided by websites eager for our business.

Some people use the Internet to engage in sexual behavior they would never dare attempt offline.  This is likely explained in part by social stigma, because research shows that sexual activities such as viewing pornography and accessing other sexual material are subject to less social condemnation when done online.[i]

Yet online sexual activity can be very harmful, particularly within the context of a relationship.  Many individuals who turn to the Internet to gratify sexual desires downplay the harm, assuring themselves they are “just looking.”  Yet in reality, many of them are not just looking for pornography, they are looking for partners. 

The Internet Promotes “Affairs of the Heart”

Nelson and Salawu (2017) note that virtual communication, even if partners never meet in person, can lead to emotional relationships, sometimes referred to as “affairs of the heart.” [ii]  They explain that due to the bonding they produce, emotional affairs are dangerous precursors to physical affairs.

Internet users appear to appreciate the danger of emotional affairs.  One study indicated online behaviors most likely to be viewed as cheating are online sex, online dating, other online sexual behavior, and emotional involvement.[iii] Of the four identified scenarios, 60-82% of survey participants rated online emotional behavior as more harmful than online sexual behavior.

So the question remains, if people in committed relationships appreciate the danger of online emotional involvement, how does it happen?

Seeking Online Emotional Assistance Invites Response

Although many social media platforms provide forums for online bonding, a significant amount of research has been done on Facebook.  Nelson and Salawu explain that Facebook facilitates online emotional involvement, a potential predecessor for unfaithfulness, through media dependency theory—where a social media platform facilitates self-disclosure and emotional infidelity.  

Their research reveals that even a significant number of married people use Facebook to satisfy emotional needs. They note that high levels of self-disclosure through Facebook wall posting creates the opportunity for others to demonstrate understanding and care during times of need, and creates emotional distance between married partners.

Some Internet users are even more proactive, seeking out online forums for assistance and guidance on particular issues.  While there is less risk in seeking impersonal, practical information, when seeking advice on personal issues, users are wading into dangerous territory.    

Are You Falling into an Emotional Online Affair?

How do frequent social media users who are in offline committed relationships avoid straying down the virtual path towards an online affair?  The first step is recognizing warning signs of attachment

Nelson and Salawu note that indications of online emotional involvement include eagerly waiting for a virtual communication partner to come on line, confiding in them about personal issues, sharing information about offline relational problems, and fantasizing about physical and sexual contact. They note that other indications of growing emotional attachment to an online relational alternative include giving or receiving gifts, and comparing your online interest to your partner, either verbally or mentally.

Other warning signs indicating growing attachment to an online partner might include excitedly anticipating breaks in work or family time to check email or social media for messages, and creating time alone, often very early in the morning or late at night, specifically to communicate with an online partner.

Avoiding Online Attachment Preserves Relationships

Committed relationships benefit from a mindset of commitment both on and offline.  Partners dedicated to staying together guard the sanctity of their relationship and prevent online emotional affairs by avoiding online temptation 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 (361) (citing Daneback, Cooper, & Manson, 2005; King, 1999).

[ii] Okorie Nelson & Abiodun Salawu, “Can my Wife be Virtual-Adulterous? An Experiential Study on Facebook, Emotional Infidelity and Self-Disclosure,” Journal of International Women’s Studies 18 no. 2 (2017): 166-179 (167)(citing Pittman, 1989; Vaughan, 1989; Shield & Binder, 2013).

[iii] Jaclyn D. Cravens and Jason B. Whiting, ”Clinical Implications of Internet Infidelity: Where Facebook Fits In,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 42 (2014): 325-339 (329) (citing Henline, Lamke, & Howard, 2007).

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