Virtual Infidelity: Online “Affairs” and How They Affect Intimate Relationships

Online relationships are becoming a part of our social reality in the digital age.  We get acquainted with someone on the Internet and establish an emotional connection.  We communicate often and sometimes extremely openly with that person and we can come to feel a special closeness to them.

Sometimes we know the person in real life and sometimes we don’t.  Perhaps they are a business acquaintance who lives in another city and whom we see in person only rarely and then only fleetingly.  Or maybe they are an old flame who suddenly surfaces online, and old fantasies get reignited.  We may not run to meet them in person but we can convince ourselves that it is a good idea to keep up the connection through social media and emails.

 Normal online relationships vs. virtual affairs

A spouse or partner cannot meet every emotional need that we have.  Most people have healthy friendships with people outside their primary relationship or marriage.  Sometimes these are people with a common interest, or old friends who share our sense of humor.  Sometimes these people are trusted confidants and we feel very connected to them even if we only communicate with them online.  Spouses, partners, boyfriends and girlfriends need to allow each other to have separate parts of their lives in order not to become swallowed up and stifled in a relationship.

The dark side of virtual or “special” friendships outside of a relationship depends on how they are conducted, and consequently their meaning for and impact on the primary relationship.  An online relationship can be perfectly fine or it can be a form of infidelity and even a destructive betrayal whether or not there is any overt sexual content being exchanged online.  For people with a history of intimacy issues or sexually addictive behaviors these kinds of virtual or emotional connections pose special risks.

Even in its most seemingly innocent form where the “special friend” is not in a sexually relevant category (by relevant I mean opposite sex for straights, same sex for gays and lesbians) the special friend can still be a form of disloyalty.  A good example is the straight married guy with a friend who is like the little bad demon sitting on his shoulder, urging him to forget about what his wife wants and just do what guys do.  In this case the choice of the “friend” is in itself a threat to the relationship.  Whether the spouse knows about it or not, the friend often exists to drive a wedge into the couple and undermine the trust and closeness that form the foundation of the marriage.

Connecting online with someone of sexual interest can be a form of sexual betrayal even when there is no actual or even virtual sex involved.  The partner who invests a lot of himself online in a special friend who is exciting and sexually attractive is taking part of himself out of the relationship in a way that undermines the intimacy of the couple.

For sex addicts and recovering sex addicts, the online connection can represent the re-emergence of an old acting out pattern in a watered down form.  The excuse that “she tracked me down!” or “how could I know she would post a photo like that on Facebook?” or “I have to deal with her because she’s a ‘business connection,’” are just ways of dodging the fact that the addict wants to find a way to avoid their relationship and engage in an experience that is more of a “high.”

Problems to look for in an online relationship

1.    It relates to an old pattern of sexually addictive behavior

When the person who is spending a lot of time connecting with a special someone on the internet is a practicing or recovering sex addict or has a history of serial seductions and infidelities then the “special” online relationship – no matter what the logical reason for it – is often a step down a slippery slope back into old destructive behaviors.  This is true even if the partner knows everything about it.

2.    It is done in secret

Privacy is one thing.  Secrecy is something else.  The very fact of concealing the existence of the online relationship from a partner strongly suggests that it is a form of emotional betrayal.  Whether consciously or not, a person may be falling into a “double life” in order to assuage loneliness, act out anger at their partner or simply avoid dealing with getting close or committed.  This is in some ways the worst kind of betrayal because it prevents working through the problems in the primary relationship and building a stronger connection.

3.    There is no accountability

When one partner wants to pursue an online relationship and will not talk openly about why and what it means it is often because they are afraid that what they are doing is illegitimate in some way.   If on the other hand the person is willing to discuss it, have their partner learn about the online friend, seek out trusted advisors and even let their spouse or partner meet the friend then the betrayal issue will probably go away of its own accord.

Getting stuck in cyberspace

By their very nature, relationships that exist only online are not real and intimate in the same sense as relationships that exist in person.  No matter how many jokes or videos you share online, and even if you engage in a variety of high tech cybersexual activities, you will never go to the supermarket together or take care of each other when you are sick. Online relationships that make one partner partially missing in action have the potential to prevent couples from growing together.  While there may be real reasons why the partners are better off going their separate ways, the online virtual affair will only stand in the way of their making a good faith effort to find out.

Are All Sex Addicts Narcissists?

In some circles “narcissistic sex addict” has become redundant.  It almost sounds like a double put-down, and yet many sex addicts exhibit narcissistic personality traits. Often they are self-centered, ignore others’ needs and feel they should have special privileges.

Narcissism is on a continuum

At the mild end, there are narcissistic personality traits, the folks who seem a little overly impressed with themselves and who like being the center of attention.   At the extreme end, “narcissistic personality disorder” borders on the sociopathic.  These are the folks who barely know anyone else exists and couldn’t care less.  Somewhere in between are the people with what I call a “narcissistic defense system,” who are using a façade of power and self-importance to cover up deeper feelings of insecurity and low self worth.

Narcissism and sex addiction

A narcissistic defense is a brittle façade which covers feelings of being unlovable and unworthy.  This narcissistic “false self” is so common in sex addicts because they feel so deeply inadequate that they have a long-standing habit of avoiding intimacy.  Instead of getting close and trusting someone, the sex addict is essentially emotionally alone, choosing non-intimate sexual encounters instead.  Many sex addicts become progressively more isolated as their addiction progresses in what is called “relational regression,” even as they present a false picture of their own power and competence to the outside world.

Will Sex Addiction Treatment Cure Narcissism?

To a great extent, yes.  Sex addiction treatment involves a great deal of self-examination with an emphasis on learning honesty, integrity and the capacity to trust both self and others.  The same skills that help the addict recover from addiction are the skills that allow the addict to begin to behave in a more authentic and vulnerable way.  These newly learned abilities go a long way toward eliminating the need to put up a narcissistic defense.  As the sex addict gains an ability to see and accept him/herself more realistically, they will in turn be able to behave in a more trustworthy way and to connect on a deeper level with their fellow human beings.