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Internet infidelity is one of the biggest issues that couples face today, says Ian Kerner, and with digital technology increasingly playing a role in divorce, we have to be all the more vigilant.
By Sex therapist and relationship counselor
TODAY contributor
updated 9/17/2009 3:38:20 PM ET 2009-09-17T19:38:20

After writing a column last month on the subject of Facebook and why you should unfriend your spouse , I received no shortage of e-mails — many of which were from people who vehemently disagreed with me — and so I thought it would be worthwhile to address the subject of Internet infidelity in greater depth.

While I was trying to make the point that too much familiarity can be bad for a relationship, and that social networking sites like Facebook sometimes bring a degree of proximity (and banality) into relationships that works against the sense of mystery we also need to cultivate, many thought I was saying that Internet infidelity is not a real threat and that we should turn a blind eye to our partner’s digital wanderings.

Quite the contrary, I think that Internet infidelity is one of the biggest issues that couples face today, and with digital technology increasingly playing a role in divorce, we have to be all the more vigilant. The Internet is still a relatively new technology and there isn’t a clear relationship rule book on how to use it. In many situations, snooping isn’t a pleasant choice, but it’s the right choice.

Is emotional infidelity worse than sex?
Like cell phones and hotel rooms, the Internet is a facilitator of infidelity, rather than a direct cause of it, but it’s increasingly a catalyst for a particularly pernicious strain of cheating: emotional infidelity.

Emotional infidelity often takes the form of a flirty friendship with someone of the opposite sex, in which many of the characteristics of a sexual relationship are present, but without the sex. At least, for the moment. According to the late Shirley Glass, whose book “Not Just Friends” still remains the classic treatise on the subject: “Emotional affairs are characterized by secrecy, emotional intimacy and sexual chemistry. Emotional affairs can be more threatening than brief sexual flings.”

Glass also implores us to “maintain appropriate walls and windows. Keep the windows open at home. Put up privacy walls with others who could threaten your marriage.” But with the threat of the Internet, it’s not just windows and walls we need to worry about, it’s also leaks and seals. The No. 1 danger of Internet infidelity is not that it could lead to actual sexual infidelity, but that it so easily diverts precious emotional resources away from one’s core relationship. With its quick hits of newness and novelty, the Internet enables us to easily tune out and turn off to our partners, when we should be making an effort to tune in and turn on.

So back to the question, what do you do when your gut is telling you that’s something wrong? Should you snoop? I personally believe that in a committed relationship there should be nothing to hide. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect your partner’s privacy, but I think that that respect first and foremost demands a foundation of trust. As an example, I have one password for all of my various e-mail accounts and my wife knows what it is. Does she ever use it? I doubt it, but she’s welcome to sift through my e-mails anytime she likes. That’s what trust is all about: having nothing to hide and being able to respect each other’s privacy. One can’t exist without the other.

To snoop or not to snoop?
But what about when trust is not a given in your relationship, and you’re worried that your partner might be engaging in behaviors that you’d consider inappropriate?

Before you snoop or dig around, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does your spouse spend way too much time on the computer and other digital devices such as a cell phone or smart phone? Is he/she secretive about it? For example, is your spouse comfortable leaving his/her Facebook page or e-mail open when not at the computer?

  • Is your spouse in touch with former flames or members of the opposite sex via a social networking site such as Facebook? If so, does it make you uncomfortable? Do you feel like you don’t know what’s going on, that these “friendships” aren’t out in the open?

  • Does your partner call you paranoid when you bring up the subject and insist on his/her right to privacy?

  • Is your spouse a flirt when you’re out in public?

  • Has your sex life changed as of late (as in you’re having less of it)?

  • Does your partner criticize or joke at your expense when you’re out in public or make negative comments about your relationship to others?

  • Is your gut telling you that something’s wrong?

Depending upon how you answered these questions, it might be time to snoop, especially if you’ve tried to talk about your concerns with your partner but have been stonewalled. Hopefully there will be nothing to discover and you’ll be able to breathe more easily and more coolly examine why you had suspicions and where you might be able to improve your relationship.

But it’s also possible that you could find something that bothers you, but doesn’t bother your spouse. Emotional infidelity is murky territory. A 2008 study in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy explored how men and women perceive online and offline sexual and emotional infidelity. The results showed that men felt sexual infidelity was more upsetting and women felt emotional infidelity was more upsetting.

That means that there’s lots of room for disagreement on this subject of emotional infidelity and that many men do not think a flirtatious friendship constitutes cheating. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue. Just because your spouse isn’t interested in taking a flirtatious friendship to the next level doesn’t mean the other party feels the same way, and he may not even realize he’s down the path of emotional infidelity.

Nobody likes to be snooped on, but nobody likes to snoop either. Neither position has the moral high ground, and ultimately a loving couple can make themselves stronger and better through a meaningful dialogue around these issues. This could be the opportunity to establish definitions and set boundaries that you both agree on.

And what if you find something that really bothers you, like a seriously flirtatious friendship or proof of sexual infidelity?

It’s painful, but better to know than not, in my opinion. Be glad that you snooped.

Ian Kerner is a sex therapist, relationship counselor and New York Times best-selling author of numerous books, including "She Comes First" and "Love in the Time of Colic." He was born and raised in New York City, where he lives with his wife and two sons. He can be reached at www.iankerner.com.

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