by Carol L. Meylan, MBA, LCSW
The fantasy of the “perfect partner” is so powerful and gratifying that participants in an on-line relationship may seem as if they have lost touch with reality!
Please know that I am not talking about dating web sites where adults connect on-line and then proceed from emailing to phone conversations and texts with the hopeful outcome of meeting in person. After all, this is the modern world’s way of matchmaking!
In my work with couples, I hear frequently that one partner (I will make him male, but this happens equally to both men and women) is involved with someone he met or connected with on the Internet. Often the man has hoped to keep the communication secret from his partner, but secrets are really hard to keep and eventually the woman discovers the cyber affair.
A typical scenario goes like this:
When I talk to couples where this type of situation is going on, the woman may feel that her partner has been having an affair, even if they haven’t met in person. A cyber affair feels like infidelity to her because the communication is done secretively and the cyber couple has become emotionally intimate. The real-life partner feels betrayed and shut out. Her trust has been violated and usually she is deeply hurt by the deception.
Why is the Internet so seductive? Because it allows us to create and experience a fantasy world.
Let’s be honest: Sometimes day-to-day life can get to feeling like a struggle or even drudgery with a lot of hard work and few pleasures. The Internet offers us a world where we can pretend to be anyone we want to be. We can pretend to be younger, more attractive, more adventurous, and more successful. On the Internet, we can project whatever image we choose, which may or may not have anything to do with reality! We are also projecting a fantasy onto the person we are communicating with. We may come to believe and put our faith in fantasies or 'projections' we have imagined about our cyber-lover - that she is much more beautiful, sensitive, understanding, loving, forgiving, or interesting than our real-life partner.
Often times, people in a cyber relationship disclose extremely personal information to each other. A man may tell his cyber-lover about a difficult situation at work that he would be afraid to tell his wife for fear of her reaction. Or he may disclose something he is really ashamed of. His cyber friend is understanding and soothing and comforting – qualities his wife might not show him. The cyber couple often share their disappointment in their current marriages or real-life relationships; they sympathize with each and grow close through their shared emotional disclosures. They believe they have met their soulmate who understands them in a deeper, more intimate way than they will ever achieve with their real-life partner.
Why? The technology hijacks yours brain.
Just as people get “addicted” to the thrill of video-gaming, the excitement and unpredictability of cyber communication causes your brain to release powerful biochemicals. The thrill of an unexpected text triggers the release of dopamine and norepinephrine. Your heart starts to race and you feel the powerful stimulation of infatuation, euphoria and “chemistry”. (www.cyberparent.com/love/chem1.htm)
Since the texts and emails come at unpredictable times, you begin to check your phone constantly. You may even sleep with your phone. You act like a 16-year-old in love. You are thrilled when you receive a text and despondent when you haven’t heard from your cyber friend in a few hours. On again – off again contact hijacks you – your mood swings up and down depending on whether or not you hear from your friend. Behavioral psychologists agree that this type of contact, or what is known as “intermittent reinforcement” is the strongest way to train a person to do something or to reinforce a behavior. Cyber-reinforcement is a powerful force that can be difficult to resist.
So what is the harm in having a little cyber affair?
First, your real-life partner cannot possibly compete with the on-line fantasy partner. She will never measure up to the shared fantasy you have created with your cyber-lover. So you pull away from your real-life partner: you spend less time with her, you talk less to her, you aren’t interested in sex with her, and your real-life relationship starts to fail. The main danger of a cyber affair is that it will damage or terminate your real-life relationship whether it is discovered or not.
Second, fantasy is mistaken for reality. Often times, people will carry on cyber affairs for years, in the hopes that they will eventually unite with their cyber-lover and live happily ever after. This fantasy often comes to a painful conclusion if the cyber-lovers give up their real-life relationships and try to form an integrated physical relationship.
When you have to deal with the humanity of the real person behind the cyber-lover, you may find that not only does the cyber person not live up to your fantasies, but you have been caught up in a web of deception. You may feel horrible about ever getting involved with that person in the first place, and wonder if you can salvage your real-life relationship. (I can help. Text for an appointment: 310-795-8249.)
Next time: What do I do to save my real-life relationship after a cyber affair is discovered?