Does Facebook lead to infidelity? Some statistics say so. I will be participating in a webinar on April 4 at 5 p.m. hosted by PBS/This Emotional Life that explores this topic. To prepare, and to get your feedback, I recently posted a blog on Psych Central about marriage and the internet. I have excerpted a few paragraphs here. You can read the whole post here.
Here’s my honest opinion, after reading hundreds of comments and emails from people who have been involved in online relationships or emotional affairs as well as the responses on the discussion boards of the Emotional Affairs support group on Beliefnet’s community site:
Although the internet and social media can foster intimacy in a marriage, it seems to do more harm than good. Of all the comments I’ve read, 90 percent of the opposite-sex relationships that were damaging to the marriage happened online.
Now I am no relationship expert. If I were I’d be able to sustain a dozen or so friendships with men online. But the only male friendships that I’ve been able to continue through the years–ones that are actually strengthened by our online dialogue–are those where there is at least 30 years difference between us. Their average age is 75. One is a priest, one an ex-priest, and one a deacon. See a pattern?
In the 15 years that I have been married, I have met a handful of men that I liked and admired, with whom I shared interests and a sense of humor. Had one or two been women, I’m sure they would have become my best friends. However, on some level, I knew that a closer bond was somehow inappropriate, or disrespectful to my marriage. It’s a source of frustration for me. Because the correspondence gave me great joy, like it does with my female friends.
But there is no getting around the opposite-sex thing … the “When Harry Met Sally” problem.
I can say that having read more than 500 descriptions of emotional affairs, both on the comboxes of my posts and on the discussion boards of the Emotional Affair support group. Most of the these relationships start out benign: an email from a guy you knew in college, friending an ex-boyfriend on Facebook (as suggested by Facebook: “people you might know!”), getting to know a co-worker better online. But the relationship can take a dangerous turn very quickly if you’re not careful, and even more easily if you are doing most of the talking behind a computer. Because you don’t have any non-verbals with which to interpret statements. What a person could very easily say over coffee comes off way wrong in an email. And what she would never say over coffee, she does in an email because she gets to hide behind her computer.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to talk to someone of the opposite sex online. I have many male acquaintances and co-workers. But I think only a minority of folks can handle an intense, intimate relationship with a person of the opposite sex without it getting in the way of marriage. And maybe the failure rate is so high among my readers because most of them suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or addictions. For those guys, it’s even harder.
Because, as a bipolar friend recently explained to me, attention from the opposite sex becomes a type of anesthesia from pain and angst to a depressive or recovering addict. She becomes needy, clingy … trying to recapture that bliss over and over. For someone stressed out, with little time for anything recreational or fun in her life, the playful bantering online is a reprieve from her pressured days—a moment of fantasy where the hard stuff is temporarily removed. And the manic depressive? That’s the most dangerous. Because while a person in a manic cycle, she lacks perspective … her frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex have said “see ya!” to the reptilian part of the brain, and so she forfeits the reins, unable to gain control.
Moreover, what you can get away with in a same-sex friendship you can’t in an opposite-sex one. The rules are different.