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The allure of a knight in shining armor" online can push her over the line and into adultery. She may arrange to meet several online lovers at hotels for sex. Yet when exactly did she cross the line? Does her relationship become adulterous when she has sex with another man, or does it begin as soon as she starts flirting?

Women often justify their online relationships because they see them as virtual, not adulterous," says Marnie Ferree, especially if the relationship is only emotional, not sexual yet."1 Women cross the line, however, as soon they begin to sneak around behind their husband's backs to share intimate thoughts with another man." Stay-at-home moms in chat rooms are sharing all this personal stuff they are hiding from their partners," says Peggy Vaughan, America Online expert on problems caused by infidelity. She adds that such experiences can quickly escalate into their thinking they have found a soul mate. It's so predictable, it is like a script."2

[Online relationships] can threaten marriages, even if there is no sex involved," says Dr. Shirley Glass, a Baltimore-based psychologist who has been studying infidelity for over twenty years. "Such online liaisons involve the three elements of an emotional affair: secrecy, intimacy, and sexual chemistry."3

Understandably, many participants in online communities never intended for their innocent conversations to lead to full-blown affairs. Take Beth and Bob, for example. Both wandered into Christian chat rooms not knowing that the emotional connections made there could lead to adultery. Or take Julie, whose online affair led to a divorce. I really didn't want to have affairs from these men online," she says. I really just wanted someone that would talk to me ... and I could talk about everyday things and I thought they cared."

Not only did Julie have an unintended affair, she failed to find someone who could meet her deeper needs. These people don't care," she says now. They are just using each other. It truly is a meat market, and I don't think there are a lot of real feelings involved. Oh, in some crazy way they think there is, but there's also the fear that if you aren't online then they will find someone else. I guess that is why the people that are into that stay online so much. They are afraid of losing that partner whoever they have been talking to. But it's inevitable, because no one can be on all the time, and sooner or later ... they find someone that is more interesting or seems to say all the right things all over again."4

Debbie, a 36-year-old attorney from Los Angeles, wasn't looking for an affair; she just wanted someone to help her learn how to play a multiplayer game called DarknessFalls. One guy offered to help, but soon he started flirting with her. I appreciated his help so much and wanted to continue getting it, so I innocently began flirting back," she said. The flirtations grew, and soon enough we were having cybersex while we were in character. I grew less and less attracted to my husband, and the male character became my fantasy online husband in the game.

I felt as though I had fallen in love with this character. My online husband and I began corresponding through email and expressed that love for each other and began talking on the phone. I started spending less time with my [real] husband and more time online. Pretty soon I was missing court appearances because I couldn't get off the game. Luckily for me, my online husband [dumped me] after a year and a half. My God, it was the worst feeling in the world. I felt like I had lost everything in the world that mattered to me. I left the game because I hurt so much."5

Both Debbie and Julie experienced a pattern that occurs frequently in relationships and has carried over to the Internet: the sex/intimacy exchange. Women often give sex to get intimacy," says psychologist Dr. James Dobson, and men give intimacy to get sex."6 Internet chat rooms, newsgroups, and even online games have a way of bringing those tendencies together.

At first, a man may seem truly interested in discussing a favorite author with a woman in a literary newsgroup. As their conversation grows in intimacy, however, he may begin to pry about exotic interests. The woman who has invested in that relationship and has allowed it to meet a need for her may decide to respond in kind. Having a meaningful relationship seems impossible for me," says the woman who is looking for a knight in shining armor. I start to get attached emotionally and it scares men off; they just want free sex."7

A clandestine Internet relationship can seem fun for a season swapping faceless messages can create the exhilaration of a masquerade ball. It's tempting to stay in an environment where your strengths can outweigh your weaknesses. Yet after that season is over what most people want is someone who will love them for who they really are. Especially when they're not at their best when they're throwing up, when they have morning breath, or when they've just tripped up a flight of stairs. They desire the kind of intimacy where they are known for whom they are warts and all and are still loved.8

Regrettably, that realization may not come until after they have developed a cybersex addiction or damaged their marriage with an online affair. What is your situation? Do you anxiously look forward to your next opportunity to connect with someone online? Do you prefer your online persona to who you are in real life? Have you developed an emotional relationship with someone online behind your spouse's back?

If you have had an adulterous online affair or show signs of cybersex addiction, you really need the help of a professional counselor. Few people are able to work their way back toward healthy sexuality and intimacy without the help of a professional who can guide them through unresolved emotional conflicts.

1 Telephone interview with Marnie Ferree, August 2000.
2 Karen S. Peterson, Spouses Browse Infidelity Online, USA Today, July 6, 1999. (To see article online:
3 Ibid.
4 Email posting on Cyber Windows newsgroup. Used by permission.
5 Jennifer P. Schneider, A Qualitative Study of Cybersex Participants: Gender Differences, Recovery Issues, and Implications for Therapists, available online at: Also published in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 7 (2000): 249-78.
6 James C. Dobson, Love for a Lifetime (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 1996), 88.
7 Schneider, A Qualitative Study
8 Steve Watters, Strange Love, July 22, 1999,

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