Are You Emotionally Cheating?

Are You Emotionally Cheating?
How to protect your relationship from online emotional infidelity.

In our sex-obsessed culture, we tend to view intimacy as merely physical and narrow its focus to sexual activity. This, however, is not an accurate picture of the power of intimacy to create and forge personal relationships. There is more to intimacy than just physical contact.Intimacy also speaks to a sense of closeness, familiarity, knowing someone, and an attachment to another person. It is ironic to equate intimacy with sex when sexual contact is often amazingly casual with little real closeness, familiarity, or attachment. As a culture we don’t understand real intimacy. Online activities, especially Facebook, are providing proof that a sense of intimacy and betrayal of intimacy don’t require sex at all, much less physical contact.

As I’ve worked with married couples where one or both spouses have cheated on the other, it has become clear to me that sex is rarely the primary force driving an affair. The void filled by illicit sex is often emotional, not physical. It happens when a connection forms outside of the marriage that begins to satisfy and validate unmet emotional needs. When deep emotional needs are filled outside the marriage relationship, the result is a type of emotional adultery. What begins as emotional adultery can then quickly turn into physical adultery.

For many people, social media and virtual relationships provide a seemingly safe venue to share deep thoughts and feelings. Sure, some people just post and communicate what they do on a daily basis, but this becomes boring pretty quickly and doesn’t form an emotional connection. Imagine the string of status updates from someone’s typical daily routine: “Got up.” “Went to Starbucks.” “Had a meeting at work.” “Pasta for lunch.” “Drove home in traffic.” “Fed the cats.” “Watched American Idol.” Factual? Yes. Intimate, interesting, and engaging? No.

The intriguing aspect of online communication is not necessarily the what of peoples’ lives but the why—how they feel about their life. These are windows into the soul and, as such, can be compelling. This is the essence of the emotional connection that can occur in online relationships. For many people, this virtual world unfortunately becomes their primary outlet for intimate communication. They become more willing to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns with their virtual community than with their “real” friends, family, or significant other.

As such, online communication can pose a threat of emotional adultery to relationships—especially a marriage relationship. Many people make cyber connections with the opposite sex based largely on ideas, thoughts, and feelings—the foundation of emotional life. These virtual relationships begin to fill the emotional void in their life, and consequently become valued higher than their physical marriage. Whether it is a high school crush rediscovered on Facebook or a new love interest found in a chat room or dating site, these online relationships can emotionally overtake a marriage before any physical contact is ever made.

If you spend more time and energy explaining who you are and the intricacies of your daily life online than you do in person, you are at risk for losing your “real life” relationship to a virtual avatar. Although there are surely stories of people rekindling their unrequited love online and finally connecting with their soul mate decades later, these stories are in the minority. More often, people trade in a marriage with years of history only to discover that their virtual love is riddled with their own set of imperfections and that the grass was not in fact greener on the other side of the fence. Avoiding this aforementioned scenario requires two important takeaways:

  1. Protect and honor your relationships by not starting down the slippery slope of emotional adultery. It is easy to justify a friendship when there is “nothing going on.” But if you need to defend a friendship either to yourself or another person, you might be further down the slippery slope than you even realize.
  2. Emotionally invest in your “real life” relationships. Relationships, and especially marriages, require a great amount of time and work. Opening up, being vulnerable, and proactively sharing your life with your significant other is the best way to proactively avoid an emotional void and secure your most intimate relationship.