“We were texting back and forth about a project we were working on together. Gradually, the texts became a little more familiar. Over time we started sharing more, and … I guess you could say I’m involved in an emotional affair. I want to stay married, but I feel like I love this other person.”
I have heard some version of this explanation several times over the last year alone. In just the last few months, 80 percent of my new couples cases in therapy have centered on emotional affairs perpetuated through electronic communications. In every instance, a smartphone facilitated more frequent and ongoing connection than a traditional computer or laptop.
In my conversations with other therapists, they report the same phenomenon. I see this as a growing problem. It scares me. It should scare you enough to be very cautious.
I started seeing my first couple in therapy in the fall of 1989, long before the ubiquity of cellphones. At the time, I couldn’t even imagine carrying an entire computer around in the palm of my hand. However, as a couples therapist, I have observed how it has changed the playing field for potential relationship infidelity.
Emotional affairs are often more difficult for me to deal with in therapy than physical affairs. Technology-facilitated communication creates real emotional bonds. Relationships in which people never meet face-to-face are some of the most enduring, largely because they are relationship fragments and not whole relationships. They lack reality testing, so resolution takes longer.
Affairs occur from proximity. In short, people have affairs with people with whom they share space and experience. Smartphones have increased the range and duration of proximity.
Here are seven reasons I believe smartphones exacerbate emotional infidelity:
- Real time response. You can keep your phone with you, continuously interfacing with another individual which keeps you potentially connected all the time. Getting a response from someone generates a real physiological reaction.
- Relationship fragmentation. Any smartphone affair is a relationship fragment. It’s easy to have a relationship in which all that is required of you is to chat. It’s different when you need to help with the dishes or bills or other mundane events of daily life.
- Lack of reality testing. Smartphones do not have bad breath in the morning. They do not leave their dirty socks all over the house or the toilet seat up. You have a partner who responds but doesn’t have body odor. Enough said.
- Control of presentation. People in digital relationships can hide undesirable qualities and promote desirable ones and accommodate partners easily.
- Ability to hide. Digital relationships can be hidden for indefinite amounts of time. When they are discovered, partners get better at hiding them.
- Faster emotional disclosure. People disclose emotional vulnerabilities more quickly in digital relationships, developing deeper relationships with real emotions faster than in face-to-face interaction.
- Multitude of ways to connect. People start affairs with various apps on smartphones, including Facebook, games with messaging capability, email, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Anything that connects to you to someone is potentially hazardous.
It’s about more than boundaries. Any time online emotional affairs are brought up, most people go to the obvious discussion of boundaries.
I am certainly an advocate for boundaries in communication, but the biggest problem with emotional affairs lies within the marital dynamic. When one partner begins disclosing something to someone he or she can’t tell his or her spouse, that’s when the relationship is vulnerable to possible infidelity.
When one partner experiences the other as unsafe or unapproachable and can’t share fears or hurt, the partner can sometimes become the enemy. If a wall is erected between partners, any intrusion from the outside is more likely to occur.
If you feel like you can’t approach your partner, the fastest way to begin shifting the relationship is to talk about the wall and how you would like to be able to have the kind of relationship in which you can disclose. Get relationship therapy, if this doesn’t seem likely.
Deal with the resentment in your relationship. Do not leave it alone. Silence is not going to save you. What you think is long-suffering is placing the relationship at risk.