Couples, marriage

Why Friending Your Ex on Facebook May be More Hazardous to Your Marriage Than You Think

32041547 - strong addiction to the internet at night*While this article is focused on Facebook use, because it’s such a popular medium for online connection, this really applies to any connection, technology-assisted or otherwise.

About a decade ago, when Facebook was still new and Apple was just rolling out its first iphone, I was among the group of people who thought it was fun to be able to reconnect with old friends.  I saw no harm in reaching out online to catch up with people I had not seen in a few decades, including a few I had dated.  I viewed it as a high school reunion of sorts, and we have high school reunions all the time, right?  I was in a happy marriage and had no intentions of crossing any boundaries.  I was excited about sharing Christmas cards with my high school and college friends over the internet.  To be honest, it was fun…

…and then I started practicing marriage therapy again after a hiatus of several years.  I had a front row seat to the utter destruction these types of connections have had and are having on marriages and families.  Now, research statistics corroborate that social media use can have a negative impact on marital happiness and stability.   I don’t think any voice of warning is too strong in this instance, and people seem oblivious to the potential corrosive influence of online connections.  Reconnecting in any way with a former love interest is risky, especially if that individual is considered a “first love,” which I will explain later.

I don’t want to seem all cray cray, and I do think some people can manage Facebook relationships with former flings—my husband has a few in his friends list right now.  Lest any of those people happen to be reading this and think I’m calling them out, I don’t find that threatening in my case.  He has little interest in Facebook, but a great deal of interest in his family.  My son’s recent verbal observation was, “Mom, you have to admit you got so lucky with dad because you have him totally whipped,” and while I don’t know about the “whipped,” part, because he’s not necessarily a pushover, he is very loyal.  However, spouses need to understand the general risk these contacts impose, because too many people are surprised when they are entangled in an emotional mess.

It’s not uncommon for people who have ended up in affairs with Facebook friends to ask, “How did this happen?  I had no idea I would feel these strong emotions.  It doesn’t make sense.”  I’ll explain why it does make sense.  Most people are ignorant to how quickly dormant emotions can be awakened.

The Unique Risk of First Love 

As mentioned, connecting with a “first love,” is by far the riskiest move, and most people don’t realize the intensity of emotions that can arise from these circumstances. The relationships are sticky.  While people sometimes minimize “adolescent love,” or even “young adult love,” the truth is that these are very impassioned experiences for people and are imprinted in memory.  Nancy Kalish, a qualitative researcher of rekindled love relationships who headed up a study with 2000 participants, explained that men and women told her that their first loves became “the standard for all the rest,” and they don’t forget.

Here is a list of reasons why these relationships can make sparks:

  1. It is familiar. There is shared history and experiences. Bottom line:  It feels comfortable instantly.  Kalish put it this way, “The emotionally loaded memories of attachment were still there, but the person was not.  When they reunited, the sight, smell, touch, and sound of the long-lost love activated these stored emotional memories.  Like the key to a lock, the first love matched the memories, and everything felt right.”  She added that early relationships can be only a few months long and still have the same explosive effect.  This is important because people often assume that because they have had a longer-term relationship with someone else, they can’t be easily influenced by a comparatively short-term connection.
  1. It is formative. Love relationships in one’s late teens or early 20’s are associated with high levels of bonding hormones and sexual fervor, “forged in the fire of the teenage brain,” in Kalish’s words.  This unique attachment pairing sets the stage for a lifetime association.
  1. Our brains are excellent at recalling memories with sensory triggers. My son recently has taken an interest in the song, “I Melt with You,” by Modern English.  Every time he plays that song, I’m immediately transported to a scene in my high school boyfriend’s Porsche when he was teaching me to drive a stick shift, and I was laughing hysterically at what a disaster I was at first.  I can hear him saying, “I can’t wait to play you this new song I found that made me think of you.”  I don’t even remember him with fondness.  Our relationship was burned to a crisp after the 5 year period of on-again, off-again drama.  Regardless of the fact that my memories of him are emotionally neutral, my brain recalls that scene every single time I hear it. Contact with a former love will elicit sensory triggers.  Online conversation patterns with an ex can create sensory recall, and you can and will be transported in time.
  1. We usually remember positive emotional experiences with first loves more than negative experiences. Contrast that with a spouse who may have annoyed you five minutes ago.  First loves are associated with the nostalgia for youthful days—with emotional higher hopes and more energy.
  1. People don’t usually alter requirements in a partner, so if they were appealing once, they will be appealing again.  Romantic love researcher Helen Fisher explained that our partner preferences don’t really change all that much.  She said, “Romantic love is like a sleeping cat and can be awakened at any minute.  If it can be awakened once, it can probably be awakened a second time.”
  1. Love relationships in one’s late teens/early adulthood are often ended with ambiguity and If you started a relationship that was never fully realized, it’s easy to pick up right where you left off.  I had never heard this articulated until I read Kalish’s book.  Kalish pointed out that the “lost love,” relationships with the most intensity occurred after an ambiguous break-up, e.g. the couple’s relationship dissipated because of distance, interfering parents, or other circumstances unrelated to the couple’s formally ending it.  It’s common for people to think if they contact a previous love interest they will get closure for this ambiguity.  That logically seems to make sense, and yet it doesn’t work.  Kalish said, “closure is a myth (because) the old feelings come back.”  Most people are unaware of this and don’t expect it.
  1. The years of separation can make the heart grow fonder.  Helen Fisher used the term, “frustration attraction,” to explain that barriers to a relationship can increase yearning and feelings of ardor. She explained that passionate love stimulates dopamine-producing neurons which make people want to seek out that person.  She posited that our brain cells prolong their activities if the lover associated with those chemicals is unavailable, increasing potency of the fond feelings.

But what if my Facebook friend and I only went on a few dates?  We weren’t even romantically involved.

It’s probably easy to see why an intense early love relationship could be quickly reignited, but many individuals are surprised at the affairs that develop from “someone I just dated a few times,” or “someone I thought was cute but never went out with—we were just friends.”  There are several reasons why it’s still easy to become romantically attached to an old friend.

  1. Most affairs start with a platonic relationship.  People think if they aren’t already romantically involved, it’s safe.  There is a natural progression from initial familiarity to deeper emotional sharing to bonding, which people underestimate as fertile ground for affairs.
  1. Our brains respond to novelty, and it’s a new rediscovery.  Whether the person is a former love interest or not, it’s new, which begs attention.
  1. We disclose emotions more quickly and deeply online than in person.  That emotional sharing is a bonding experience.
  1. If you start hiding your communication from your spouse, the hiding alone fuels feel-good hormones.  For example, adrenaline.
  1. Connecting with anyone from the past reminds us of when we were young and had more energy and our whole lives ahead of us. That individual becomes associated with those emotions—there is a cohort effect of sorts.
  1. Carrying on an online relationship is fragmented and lacks the mundane aspects of daily life. Getting immediate responses from a partner far away while your spouse may be ignoring you may beget an illusion that the online partner is more responsive.
  1. Communicating online with anyone in a private conversation provides a natural close, shared intimate experience. It may be more surprising when affairs DON’T develop from these relationships than when they do.
  1. The nature of fantasy.  It’s amazing how many of these relationships are experienced in the minds of the individuals instead of in actual physical contact.  That can generate persistent emotions.

The Unexpected Dark Side

According to Kalish, people rekindle first romances all the time, and if they are both unmarried, they often create stable relationships.  However, she warned that many people she interviewed were in happy marriages and were shocked when they felt feelings for former lovers.  In some instances, they destroyed their marriages and hurt their spouses and children.  In other cases, some reported an increase in unhappiness and emotional pain and yearning for their past partners.   Individuals often tell me that they are having more dreams about the lost love, which creates guilt.

Energy that is going into the online relationship is energy being sucked out of the marital relationship. Sharing that’s happening online is sharing that’s not happening with a spouse. Sometimes, the spouse becomes the enemy, preventing the extramarital connection.

You think there’s a time limit, but there’s not

Some people think, “That was decades ago when I was a teenager…I’m a completely different person now and too old to have an affair.”  I was surprised at how many couples in Kalish’s study had not seen each other in more than 50 years and still reported the same chemistry that they experienced in their late teens.  In one case, a couple who were both in their 90’s and hadn’t seen each other in over 70 years rekindled a former romance.  This is important to know because sometimes people think they are old enough that they won’t have extreme emotions.  False.

I am certain that there are tens of thousands if not millions of people engaging in clandestine Facebook affairs with old lovers and friends as I type.  I’m not saying that you can’t ever friend an ex on Facebook, but it’s a good idea to be aware of the potential dangers before you do….along with shared passwords with your spouse.

Here are some references and further reading:

Why We Love:  The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher.  2005, Holt Paperbacks.

The Lost Love Chronicles: Reunions & Memories of First Love by Nancy Kalish.  2013, Dr. Nancy Kalish published.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sticky-bonds/201204/in-the-time-machine-lost-love-vs-spouse

https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200607/lost-love-guess-whos-back

https://qz.com/578395/the-psychology-of-why-rekindled-romances-are-so-intense/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sticky-bonds/201310/10-points-about-lost-loves-might-surprise-you

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214001563

Photo credit: Copyright: bialasiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

Advertisements
Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy

Mistress, Thy Name is Smartphone

cell-phone-ignoreHere’s a scenario I have seen play out in therapy with several iterations: I was carefully listening to a client in a marital  session when her partner suddenly picked up his phone.  My eyes widened at him as if to communicate, “Great—that just set you back at least an entire therapy session—that’s going to cost you.”  Predictably, his spouse stopped mid-sentence and expressed annoyance that he could not keep from looking at his phone even in a therapy session in which they were discussing their disconnection.  Just as predictably, he defended his logical reason for picking up his phone at just that moment, triggering an eye-rolling sigh from his wife.

Big disconnection.  In a moment when the couple is working on connecting.

Smartphones can be so paradoxical when it comes to romantic relationships.  They are a primary means of communication, both initiating and maintaining connections.  At the same time, they generate couple conflict at key moments when a partner feels replaced by something seemingly more appealing.

Phubbing

The behavior is so common it has even earned a unique term which was recently introduced into the common vernacular:  Phubbing—a portmanteau of the words, “phone,” and “snubbing.”  Taken a step further, “partner phubbing,” is referred to as “P-phubbing,” or “Pphubbing,” which I cannot mentally rehearse with a straight face, because it sounds too much like wannabe gangster talk.

Nevertheless, ignoring one’s romantic partner with a smartphone has become seemingly normative in modern culture, but is doing nothing for strengthening relationship quality.

Competing Attachments

Cell phones are too often a competing attachment in a relationship.  A competing attachment is exactly what it sounds like—something that competes with a relationship partner for time, attention, and energy.  All relationships have some competing attachments.  The obvious ones are children, careers, extended family and other responsibilities.

Most couples can name specific competing attachments in their marriages.  In mine, I used to call it the “3 B’s of Bromance,” or “BBBBromance,” alluding to the activities my husband frequently planned with his buddies:  basketball, bicycling, and boating.  Then, he got his BlackBerry and it became the “4 B’s,” because it takes time to schedule all those appointments with your bros.  That increased his bathroom time, which became the “5th B,” (Oh stop it—you all know exactly what I’m talking about and you’ve all done it).  There were times I wanted to smash his BlackBerry with a hammer. Then, cell phones became little computers, “smartphones,” decimating my alliterative list and romantic relationship quality simultaneously.

I’d complain except I’m (almost) as bad as my husband.  It’s true.  He can be in the middle of a sentence, and if I feel my phone vibrate, I will mindlessly pick it up—or “Phub,” him (snicker).  In fact, after I read him this post and asked if it made sense, he replied, “Yep–because you’re a phlippin’ phubber.”

Phubbing Infidelity

Say that ten times fast.  In more damaging circumstances, mobile devices can be used not only to ignore a partner, but to perpetuate connection with someone else while doing so.  I’ve been preaching and preaching and preaching about the dangers of developing traitorous relationships with phones, but despite my efforts, it looks like I will have a steady stream of clients healing from smartphone-assisted affairs.  It’s not even infrequent that couples will be in bed together while one is texting an affair partner.  Sometimes, they both are.

Universal Attachment Desires

EVERYONE wants to feel important and loved in their marriage.  Both males and females tell me over and over that what is distressing is that they feel like they “don’t ever come first,” in their relationships.  I’ve never had a client say, “I’m just so frustrated that I’m his priority—I really just wish his career or golfing came before I do.”

Put the #$%@*! Phone Down!

As a marriage maintenance strategy, do this:  Ask your partner if he or she feels “Pphubbed,” (giggle—I can’t help it).  If the answer is yes, create a plan to be more attentive.  The plan is easy to execute.  Its name is:  PUT YOUR PHONE ON SILENT AND PLACE IT OUT OF ARM’S REACH FOR A DEFINED AMOUNT OF TIME. 

Take a deep breath and back away from your phone slowly.  I promise that you will survive without looking at your smartphone for an hour—or 24 (gasp).

Or you can do what I did—Last week, my husband and I were on a date when I announced, “Honey, look at your phone—I found a new way for us to ignore each other at dinner—while connecting at the same time.”  I had sent him an invitation to play a mini-billiards game through texting.  My announcement was tongue-in-cheek—neither of us is a gamer.  However, I was alerting him to the fact that we should probably put our cell phones away and pay attention to each other.  There was no need to be defensive because we both know we are at fault at times.

We put the phones away.  We survived.  Relationship preserved.

I’m not in any way affiliated, but it looks like you can join an anti-phubbing crusade.  You can vote for or against Phubbing (but only on your laptop–if you visit the site on your smartphone, you won’t like the message you receive).  It might get your partner’s attention—but only if you alert him or her through his/her smartphone. Sigh.  Sometimes I really want to return to the 80’s.

References:

Mobile Phones in Romantic Relationships and the Dialectic of Autonomy Versus Connection, by Robert L. Duran, Lynne Kelly, & Teodora Rotaru, in Communication Quarterly, 59(1), 2011, 19-36.

The Effects of Cell Phone Usage Rules on Satisfaction in Romantic Relationships by Aimee E. Miller-Ott, Lynne Kelly, & Robert L. Duran, in Communication Quarterly, 60(1), 2012, 17-34.

My Life has Become a Major Distraction from my Cell Phone: Partner Phubbing and Relationship Satisfaction Among Romantic Partners, by James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David, in Computers in Human Behavior, 54(2016), 134-141.

Photo credit: Copyright: konstantynov / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

One Simple Thing You Can do to Protect Your Marriage

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

54955635 - woman checking her mobile phone while embracing a man at home

I was on a hike with another couple a few nights ago, and the husband asked me to identify the number one thing I would tell people to keep their marriages strong.  I’m not usually asked to reduce marital tips down to one dimension, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  I thought for a minute and realized I had a definite answer, informed by the cases I have had over the last 5 years.

“I would say,” I replied, “To realize that when you are texting someone, you are in essence entering a private room with that person.”  I’m expanding on the image here.  The room has no windows.  The social response is in real time, so it is as if you are right next to the person having an actual conversation.  If you text daily, you are entering that room daily.  If you text on and off all…

View original post 562 more words

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding…

View original post 1,496 more words

Adolescence, Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, marriage, Parenting Teenagers

Before Starting or Continuing your Extramarital Affair, Do This First

49639937 - teenage boy standing between parents who are ignoring each otherI am probably going to ruffle some feathers with this post, and I may not even sound very compassionate, but I have had a somewhat upsetting month from a therapy standpoint.  That’s saying a lot, considering the emotional challenges I face with people on a daily basis.  I feel a responsibility to address this topic.

Infidelity cases are a very typical presentation for a marriage therapist.  Considering the hours of therapy and supervision I have completed, I can easily say I have seen hundreds of these cases.  With an increase in ways to perpetuate infidelity through technological means, I’m not anticipating the phenomenon slowing down any time soon.

The emotions are always very painful.  It’s hard to sit with the emotions and not feel a great deal of compassion for the victims.  I am highly motivated to assist couples in healing severe betrayals, and I have high belief that marriages can heal and be stronger than before, despite the deep and unpredictable emotions.

However, something that is even harder than sitting with the pain of a betrayed spouse is sitting in front of an adolescent who has discovered that his or her parent had an affair.  Watching a teenager try not to cry while explaining the impact of a parent’s infidelity is heart-wrenching.  I have seen several of these cases in the last month, and the devastation heaped on children is inestimable.

Our culture encourages individual “fulfillment,” and downplays the real impact of marital dissolution on children—otherwise you might feel incapacitating guilt and shame about your betrayal—and we wouldn’t want that.  Aren’t you meant to be “happy,” after all?

Most teens find out by accident.  In worse cases, they are the ones that discover the affair and either feel responsible to hold the secret or feel guilty about blowing their families apart with the disclosure.

Here are common symptoms I anecdotally witness in teens and children who are exposed to a parent’s betrayals and related marital distress:

  1. Episodes of enduring worry and anxiety with associated panic attacks; in short, the children are TERRIFIED of what will happen to them and to their families.
  2. Increased nightmares
  3. Intense grief and anger about the conflict and/or dissolution that follows a marital betrayal; clients routinely explain that their parents’ infidelities had a relatively traumatic impact that changed their lives.
  4. Lost focus at school and difficulty maintaining academic success
  5. Depression
  6. Self-harming behaviors
  7. Increased substance use
  8. Decreased confidence about eventually maintaining long-term relationships
  9. A feeling of personal betrayal and rejection; they perceive that the parent was in many ways choosing the affair partner over them and their family, i.e. “He/she cares more about (the affair partner) than about me and our family.”
  10. Unpredictable crying episodes
  11. Increased aggression and externalizing behavior
  12. Insomnia
  13. An increase in stomach distress and other types of somatization
  14. Parentification; in an attempt to reduce stress in the marital system, they will increase roles of caretaking and comforting younger siblings.
  15. Disconnection from their own emotional needs because they don’t want to add more stress to the family system
  16. Generalized distrust in people and future love relationships
  17. Embarrassment, guilt and shame and feelings of unloveability
  18. Increased sexual promiscuity

That’s for starters.

Even if children don’t know explicitly about the affair, affairs have a direct impact on children.  Spouses who are having affairs are less emotionally and physically available to their children.  In short, infidelity has a very real and devastating impact on everyone in the family.

So, before beginning or continuing your extramarital affair, sit your children or and/or your affair partner’s children down and say, “Just so you know, I’m about to SHATTER your world.  You’re going to be really sick, sad, fearful, rejected and just absolutely devastated for an unknown period of time.  You’re going to lose confidence in pursuing your own relationships, but I really, really, really want to pursue this dopamine rush I get when I’m around this person who’s not your mom (or dad).  I really like how it feels.”

Some of you are thinking, “Oh, I could never do that.”

Right.

Your marriage is not just about you, or even just about you and your spouse.

Seriously—just stop it.

Photo Credit: Copyright: highwaystarz / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

One Simple Thing You Can do to Protect Your Marriage

54955635 - woman checking her mobile phone while embracing a man at home

I was on a hike with another couple a few nights ago, and the husband asked me to identify the number one thing I would tell people to keep their marriages strong.  I’m not usually asked to reduce marital tips down to one dimension, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  I thought for a minute and realized I had a definite answer, informed by the cases I have had over the last 5 years.

“I would say,” I replied, “To realize that when you are texting someone, you are in essence entering a private room with that person.”  I’m expanding on the image here.  The room has no windows.  The social response is in real time, so it is as if you are right next to the person having an actual conversation.  If you text daily, you are entering that room daily.  If you text on and off all day long, you are in that room most of the day.  Everyday.

I see a lot of infidelity cases.  One hundred percent of them in the last few years  accelerated development through texting.  In most cases, a romantic interest did not precede the texting relationship.  Most of them started in a benign way between co-workers, church members working together on projects, neighbors and best friends of the couple.  Here’s the typical developmental course (IMHO):

  1. Begin texting to communicate practical information.
  2. Increase frequency of texting, still to communicate practical information.
  3. Add a joke to your text, making it more conversational in nature.
  4. Get a response to your joke, and continue the playful banter.
  5. Feel a positive chemical boost after a text exchange.
  6. Find yourself checking your phone to see if the person texted.
  7. Realize that you are starting to look forward to getting texts from that person.
  8. Tell yourself that since you aren’t seeing that person face-to-face, you are fine and not being disloyal to your spouse.
  9. Increase casual and playful texting.
  10. Shift from playful banter to deeper emotional disclosures.
  11. Experience an increase in the euphoric chemical boost.
  12. Find yourself hiding your phone from your spouse, because you don’t want the texts to be “misinterpreted.”  (ALERT: Tipping Point)
  13. Continue to tell yourself that nothing is going to happen, because you still aren’t in this person’s physical presence, so you are still in control.
  14. Realize you have an emotional yearning for this individual.
  15. As you increase the need to hide your texts, begin to see your spouse as the enemy.
  16. Find yourself disconnecting from your spouse to find a place to text this person more often and privately.
  17. Hide more.
  18. Declare your deepest feelings and yearnings for this person and plan to meet in a private location.
  19. Engage in physical affection.
  20. Bam!
  21. Feel as if you have “fallen,” in love with this person and want him/her more than your spouse.
  22. Tell yourself this is your true love connection…otherwise you wouldn’t have “fallen,” in love, and you wouldn’t have these feelings.
  23. See your spouse as the one thing standing between you and true love and happiness.
  24. Destabilize your family.
  25. Make an appointment with me.

This may sound harsh to some readers…definitely to those who see themselves somewhere on this continuum.  I’m not changing my story.  If you would not repeatedly enter a private room with someone without a window where someone can see in, frequently enough that you start to share feelings with someone that you wouldn’t share with your spouse, don’t do it on a cell phone.

Here’s one more thing that should not surprise you:  If your texting partner is an old boyfriend or girlfriend, you can expect to immediately resurrect the same emotions you felt when you were dating that person.  You will exaggerate all the good memories you had and minimize the negative memories you had from that relationship.  That’s not unique.  Your texting affair is not unique, and the effect is as if you are on drugs.  I’ve written this before, and I stand by it.

Lastly, realize that no matter how great you think your marriage is, this can happen to you.  It is the failure to be watchful and set boundaries that gets people into trouble.  If you think you could never end up having an affair, you’re kidding yourself—FWIW.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_wavebreakmediamicro’>wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding information immediately.

However, the most common cases I see in couples therapy right now are those in which: 1) pornography use is hurting the marriage (accessed most often now through technology), and those in which 2) emotional affairs are hurting the marriage (most often perpetuated through technology).  Both of these presentations existed before the internet, but they are exponentially more common than they were prior to 1992, when I graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

In short, technology can expose marriages to more intrusive forces.  There is so much more availability to corrosive materials and to relationships with people outside the marriage, that people who want to stay in committed relationships need to realize the risks and set intentional boundaries in a boundless world. 

This applies to both spouses.  I would say that clinically I see more men using pornography and more women having emotional affairs, but there are women who use pornography excessively, and there are definitely men having emotional affairs.  I might see more women show up in therapy for emotional affairs because they are perhaps more emotionally invested than their male technological affair partners, but that’s just one guess; I have seen men who are deeply embedded in emotional affairs, ready to dump their marriages to chase the alternative digital connections.

The Problem with Pornography

Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap, is another therapist who has been a witness to how technology has disrupted marriages with pornography.  She admitted that early in her career, she had sometimes recommended pornography use for couples wanting to address sexual concerns in their marriage, such as low sexual desire.  However, she confessed that after her clients began accessing pornography on the internet in a broad and immediate way, she realized how potentially harmful it was.

She pointed out that most internet pornography invites the user to have a relationship with it (the computer porn), rather than with their partners.  In this way, it was actually diminishing rather than enhancing her couples’ sexual relationships.  Additionally, many spouses feel betrayed and violated by their spouses’ porn use and experience it as an infidelity.  In fact, in many cases, the porn becomes preferable to the spouse, entirely fracturing the committed relationship.  It can diminish sexual performance and sexual quality as well.  She wrote her book in part to clarify the reversal of her opinion in the age of technology, and to try to mitigate some of the effects of pornography.  I agree with her observations about how internet pornography is negatively impacting marriages.

The Trouble with Emotional Affairs and Technology

Besides porn, I see a HUGE problem with emotional affairs maintained through digital technology.  I remember the very first time a couple came in and the issue was related to cell phone texting.  The wife had her old boyfriend’s cell phone number programmed into her cell phone from when she was dating him a few years earlier.  After she was married, when she was unhappy with her husband, she would text her old boyfriend.  She didn’t see the harm in just finding out how he was doing.  The problem was that over time, she began texting him more and more, and since texting is such an immediate form of communication, she had access to him 24/7.  I recall recognizing in that moment the reality that technological access had profoundly shifted the playing field for boundaries in  marriages.   The natural boundaries that existed when I got married that prevented association with previous love interests had disappeared.   I accurately predicted that many more marriages would be affected by this lack of boundaries.

Texting is a low investment but  high response form of communicating, meaning that it takes very little effort to respond to someone with texting, but it can be perceived as highly responsive.  The couple began exchanging texts essentially all day long, and that relationship started to become more real to her than her daily interactions with her husband, which were often colored by the daily stressors and realities of life.  In many ways her real life partner couldn’t compete with the seeming emotional responsiveness of her texting boyfriend.

As she disclosed her complaints about her husband, her old boyfriend “validated her feelings,” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he shallowly declared that he would “never treat her that way.”  He continued to look like the hero by doing essentially nothing but moving his fingers, while her husband was trying to meet the demands of real-life experiences that inevitably arise when you live with someone.  The comparison was unfair.

The emotions experienced in these low-investment, high response relationships are very real.  People also emotionally disclose faster and more deeply with technology than with face-to-face interaction, so the relationships are often characterized by high emotional sharing, and the result is that the people involved experience heightened emotional closeness.  The emotions are linked with physiological responses, some of which are very rewarding and powerful.  People in emotional affairs experience a dopamine rush just like people in physical affairs, and they become confused by the experiences.  Because the emotions are real, the relationships feel “real,” even though they are in fact extremely limited in nature.

Most emotional affairs are relationship fragments—users are in essence taking the best part of the romantic relationship without having to invest or sacrifice like they would to maintain a real long-term committed relationship.  When people pursue dopamine-induced emotional affairs over their real relationships, the real relationships become casualties.  Let’s say the partner then pursues the emotional affair by developing a real relationship with that person.  Over time it becomes as predictably mundane as the original relationship (usually after about 18 months to 2 years).  This is often when a new emotional affair is started and the whole cycle repeats, damaging people in the process.

Your Affair is not Unique

As you read this from an outside perspective, I have no doubt that you can see the problem.  However, when people are caught up in emotional affairs, they think their emotions mean that their relationships are “special.”  Even though I point out to people repeatedly that their affairs are not unique from the other hundreds of affairs I have seen in my practice, they don’t believe me.  That’s because they are feeling such powerful emotions.  Sometimes they also mistakenly think they aren’t harming the marriage if they aren’t meeting with the affair partner in ongoing face-to-face contact.  Ongoing emotional affairs are in many ways more challenging than in dealing with pornography in a marriage.  I have seen women openly expressing true love and the desire to run off with an old boyfriend on Facebook while criticizing their husbands for looking at online pornography, which I find confusing and hypocritical.

Many people cling to their emotional affairs and refuse to set boundaries.  Many are dishonest about how much the distant but powerful contact with others is hurting the marriage.  Many unfairly expect their spouses to be ok with their casual contact with potential affair partners because they “aren’t seeing them in person, so what’s the big deal?”

In the example cited above with the cell phone texting, I asked the wife if she had any boundaries about texting other men.  She defensively inquired, “Are you telling me that I have to stop texting my old boyfriend completely even if I know that I’m not going to start a real relationship with him?”  I responded, “Neither I nor anyone else can tell you that you have to do anything.  However, if your spouse says it is hurting him, and you knowingly engage in behavior that you know is hurting your spouse, it is unreasonable to expect that this won’t chip away at the relationship over time, so you are putting your marriage at risk.  The question is, ‘Do you want to put your marriage at risk for divorce or not?’”  Sometimes also I have to point this out when a husband thinks his wife should just be okay with his pornography use.

You Must Set Boundaries to Preserve the Marriage

If you want to build a long-term, high quality and stable relationship, build a sturdy fence.  Protect your relationship.  No one can make you.  You can hide just about anything in this day and age at some level, but if you are, you are injuring yourself and your relationship the most.  Set boundaries intentionally.  In short, if you are engaged in a conversation you wouldn’t want your spouse reading over your shoulder (commonly texting, Facebook, chat rooms, messaging capabilities through your online game, etc.), you are making your relationship vulnerable to eventual decay. It’s a risky choice.

Remember, if you build a fence around your relationship now, you are less likely to need an ambulance later. 

References:

An Ambulance Down in the Valley, poem by Joseph Malins (1895).

The Pornography Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography by Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz (2009), William Morrow Paperbacks.