Can the Internet Threaten Real-World Relationships?
Cyberspace: An Escape From Reality
Not long ago I watched an episode of "Drop Dead Diva" in which a woman sued a website for causing her divorce. The site was one that encouraged secret affairs. She lost the case, based on the fact that the website alone did not cause her marital problems. Of course the show was fiction, but it brings up the question: "Does a cyber-fantasy world have enough power to disrupt a real one?" The evidence suggests it does, and for good reasons:
- Recovering addicts can find a compelling substitute "high" in an Internet relationship.
- Stressed out people may get pulled into an online relationship because of the easy, light banter - a welcome break from everyday problems
- Online no one has to deal with another person's everyday issues - no one is irritable, tired, or even has bad breathe in the cyberworld.
- Anyone can be who or what they want online, whether or not it's true in reality, making them much more attractive than flesh-and-blood partners.
Infidelity on the Internet: Virtual Relationships and Real Betrayal by Marlene M. Maheu and Rona
Internet Relationships Can Happen to Anyone, Anywhere
Even those in long-term, happily committed relationships can get in over their heads on the Internet. Many people have wandered innocently into chat rooms or on to social networking sites and begun friendships that ultimately became more. Neither party may have consciously set out to betray a lover or spouse, but one or both were still blindsided by the addictive affects. Many new Internet users are unaware of how compelling online involvements can become. These situations are easy to get into and tough to get out of, for a number of reasons:
- It's very easy to form a powerful emotional bond with a stranger who seems perfect
- The casualness of online relationships is misleading. Since there are no physical cues, feelings can develop quickly, without anyone realizing it's happening.
- The online world offers a quick escape from reality - and that's easy to get hooked on.
- Online partners may be available at almost any time or place, unlike real-life mates, who have boundaries.
Once upon a time cheating spouses left a trail of letters, credit-card receipts, and lipstick-covered cigarette butts. Today anyone can access anyone else 24/7. Online "friends" can be contacted discretely, in minutes, via mobile phone, tablet, or notebook. Networks are available in malls, libraries, airports, and often dozens of local hot spots.
But My Mate Has Never Joined a Dating Site
In films a character has often learned of their mate's cyber affair when they stumbled across evidence that the beloved joined a dating site. Today that cliche no longer applies. Thanks to the creativity of webmasters, it's possible to interact with others online in many ways. More than one person has become ensnared in a complicated situation when they searched for entertainment, diversion, or were just curious.
Internet contact can be initiated through live video chat sites, chat rooms, instant messaging, email, and social networks, among others. Most of these require the user to actively create a message or even a membership, but can still seem relatively innocent upfront. There are even sites dedicated to finding partners to have affairs with.
Online video chat can be especially compelling because it's possible to see and hear a person who may be far away geographically. Unfortunately, this type of communication is most often designed for entertainment only and typically there is a charge for it. Despite the fact that they are being billed for the contact, it is easy for users to become attached to the performers, forming unhealthy and unrealistic bonds. On the surface it would seem that occasional entertainment might be fun, but there are some real dangers:
- People who become attached to online contacts often distance themselves from their families.
- Focus or obsession with online relationships may keep mates from resolving real-world issues
- Sites which charge to contact other people are often very expensive and this can cause financial problems.
Does a Cyber Relationship Count as Cheating?
If you believe that it's not cheating as long as there is no physical contact, then you also probably don't care whether or not your mate enjoys a little alone time with an Internet buddy. But if you feel that forming a an intimate bond with another person can become an emotional affair, you have some things to think about.
More than one person has gotten so deeply involved with a cyber romance that they left their mate. Even those who don't leave can disassociate to the point where they are unavailable to the real people in their lives. And, of course, people who become attached to online entertainers may ruin a family budget and become addicted to pay-to-view sites.
There is also the issue of trust. It's hard to remain comfortable with a mate who quickly flips the screen when you walk in on them surfing the Web. When your spouse can't explain excessive text or data charges on their cell phone bill, it could arouse an uneasy suspicion. Maybe the most profound reason to care about online friendships is that they might drive a wedge between you and your mate.
There are a number of online sources and software which can help to determine whether someone is hiding their Internet activities. Using these could certainly provide the ammunition needed to confront a mate, However, this is something which, in itself, may cause more issues. While it can provide answers, it is not a solution.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not the Internet can destroy relationships is an individual one. Like the "Drop Dead Diva" case which opened this article, the decision about who is responsible is a murky one. This much is certain - forewarned is forearmed. It's smart not to underestimate the power of cyberspace in affecting our lives.