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By Sex therapist and relationship counselor
TODAY contributor
updated 1/28/2010 3:34:49 PM ET 2010-01-28T20:34:49

Welcome to the age of the “e-motional” affair, where infidelity is just a click away and cheating has become easier than setting up a Wii. From iPhones and BlackBerrys to Facebook, Twitter and Craigslist, technology isn’t just enabling infidelity, it’s accelerating it at record pace: Flirtatious friendships, emotional affairs, the return of the ex, sexting, online porn and cybersex — with each new advance in technology comes a new way to cheat, and more and more of us are increasingly leading “digital double lives.”

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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. When two people meet in a chat room or strike up an e-mail relationship, it’s easy to begin idealizing each other and blur the line between fantasy and reality. An intense sense of intimacy is quickly fostered. Sharing personal details and desires is often easier over the Internet than it is face to face. The instant gratification of these technologies stimulates reward centers in the brain, and soon one finds oneself craving the quick hit of an instant connection or lamenting its absence.

Can you cheat without sex?
And as much as I write and speak about it, I still get the same incredulous question from the guys: “Emotional infidelity? What the ---? Do you really think it’s possible to cheat without sex?”

My response? Absolutely. The brain is our biggest sex organ, and most affairs begin in the mind. Attraction is magnified by an emotional connection. When one partner starts sharing himself or herself with another person, it chips away at the foundation of their relationship — and starts building a foundation for a new relationship. Part of what makes a couple’s relationship special is the information they share only with each other. Some of it is seemingly meaningless daily details, like how bad the morning traffic was or what they had for lunch. Other times it’s deeper desires, fears and goals. But as an emotional affair progresses, less and less of a person’s sharing goes to his or her partner, and more goes to the affair partner.

When does a friendship cross the line and become an e-motional affair? Internet affairs are typically characterized by three distinguishing qualities:

  • Close friendship and emotional intimacy. An online affair often begins as friendship and gradually drifts into something more. While friendship alone isn’t enough to qualify as cheating, a feeling of shared closeness and understanding is the starting point for an online affair.

  • Secrecy. Here’s where friendship and attraction cross the line into emotional cheating. Each person stops sharing certain aspects of the friendship with his or her partner, and starts confiding more in the “friend” and less in his or her partner.

  • Sexual attraction. An online affair is fueled by feelings of attraction between two people. You start to idealize the other person and fantasize about what sex would be like. This only adds fuel to the fire. Just like primary relationships, affairs that start out slowly and build a connection before progressing to sex are often the most difficult to break off — and the most damaging to the other relationship.

Privacy vs. secrecy
With the Internet, too many people hide behind their “right to privacy,” when what they’re really trying to protect is their right to secrecy. But nobody should have that liberty. The moment you have something to hide — the moment you write an e-mail that you don’t want your partner to see; the moment you’re uncomfortable talking on the phone in front of your partner; the moment you have to delete your Internet history before getting off your computer; the moment you have to set up a special e-mail address for certain correspondences; the moment you’re uncomfortable sharing your passwords — that’s when a leak has sprung. And watch out: It could quickly lead to flooding.

A common myth is that only people in unhappy relationships have emotional affairs. In fact, many men and women who commit emotional infidelity report that they were happy when they became involved with their affair partners. Rather than seeking out love (or sex), unfaithful partners gradually blur the boundaries between friendship and intimacy over an extended period of time. Which is not to say there aren’t a variety of factors that predispose a couple to online infidelity.

Some of the more common relationship weak spots include:

  • Unresolved issues in the relationship that are either ignored or not resolved in a way that’s satisfying to both partners.

  • Long or regular intervals of time spent apart, often because of work or other obligations.

  • Child-centric marriages that prioritize parenting and neglect a couple’s relationship, with few opportunities for romance and alone time.

  • Unsatisfying or infrequent sex, often a result of incompatible libidos or sexual preferences.

  • A lack of shared interests and opportunities to simply have fun together.

  • An unequal balance of power in the relationship; for instance, if one partner carries most of the housework and child care responsibility or has all of the financial decision-making power.

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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