6.13.2011

Electronic Affairs, Texting and Sexting. What is Emotional Cheating?

I can just hear the search engine's humming away this week: How do I know if my partner is texting a porn star? Is my spouse sexting? What constitutes an affair? Have I broken my marriage vows? What a large issue to address, but since we cannot get way from it (drat!)...

Maybe you can't readily identify where the line is crossed via electronic devices with a person outside the marriage, but this reminds me of the slogan about pornography -and good art- I know it when I see it. If you catch your spouse sexting (sending flirtatious texts, or text pictures with sexy material, suggestive emoticons), how do you know if he/she has cheated on you?

In Therapy //
As a therapist, this is a common topic of couple's counseling. This has become known as "emotional cheating" or an "emotional affair."  I'm not convinced that this is useful or accurate language, nevertheless, the aggrieved party will feel that the trust is gone, they have been betrayed and the hurt is ever-present.  Forgiveness is faraway.

The role of therapist in this situation is to adopt the language that rings most true for both parties...often, there is not agreement on what the contact actually meant. This is a great beginning point. 
  • How is the marriage overall?
  • Is the issue of extramarital affairs new, or, has there been a history/pattern of such behavior?
  • What constitutes "cheating" for each partner?
  • Can the implicit and explicit rules for your marriage be reviewed and re-set?
  • How motivated are both partners to stay engaged and go the distance, with whatever emotional fallout may be coming?
  • What word do you both use to describe the incident? One partner may say "flirted" and the other may say "cheated," e.g. unfaithful, infidelity?  
  • Is each partner willing to improve on the relationship and take some responsibility for the current state of affairs?
When to Leave :(
The therapist  cannot determine whether a couple stays together or not, but, an expert therapist can reflect back to the couple areas of progress, their unique strengths, and remind them of their clearly stated goals, remaining neutral and collected. If communication has always  been a challenge, then this crisis will be difficult to maneuver. The less reactive two people are, the better they can problem-solve and keep their eyes on the prize.


Couples Stay Together :=}

Yet, as devastating as it is to discover your partner is having intimate discussions with another person, most couples choose to repair and recover. Most couples are interested in keeping a marriage or their family together. The "cheated" party can often learn to see the straying in a different light. After all, feeling as if your partner has cheated is NOT the same as your partner actually cheating; feeling like the plane is going to crash is very different than the plane really crashing. A few helpful books are available on this subject and your therapist can guide you through some trust-building exercises.

Societal Shift :3
With much thoughtful and meaningful discussion, it is up to each couple to decide their future.
The truth is, this new electronic "cheating" is a scramble...what does it mean and how should we individually interpret it? If you can recall the introduction of Playboy Magazine in the 1960's - and to think of how radical and outrageous it was to see naked pictures of women - men would hide their cache of "girly magazines." Boy, we have definitely developed a new norm. Billy Graham is famously quoted as saying that he was never alone in a room with a woman that wasn't his wife lest he be compromised. Well, even that parochial position isn't a deterrent against our electronic lifestyle.

[ Physical Contact ]
In my experience, most email, phone or text contact with an outside person does not result in physical contact.  As recently reported Congressman Weiner appears to have had cell phone-only contact with several women, albeit sexual and graphic. This is a good example of art. I know it when I see it, and this is art, er, he has violated his marital vows of exclusive intimacy. But, when a partner does, in fact, act on a physical relationship, the strategy for repair is quite similar. Physical affairs are just what they have always been, affairs. It is a violation of monogamous vows. (Here, we can get into levels of physical contact, oral sex, etc, but, I'll save that for another time). Repair, responsibility, and remorse are the Three R's that become the focus. Often, an affair is a symptom of a larger problem...but not always. Either way, the steps towards reunification will be the same. Apologies need to be painfully spelled out and again, both partners must take some responsibility to recover and be highly-engaged towards repairing the damage. The stray-er holds a few cards but not all.


Cognitive Restructuring ~
Putting our cards on the table here, (and in therapy), let's acknowledge that fact that the "cheater" will almost always deny his/her behavior, then move on to minimizing, and rationalizing.  Conversely, the "victim" will now question ALL behavior as suspect, feel justified in her/his outrage, and may even tell himself that this is "the worst thing that has ever happened," "I'll never trust you again," or "Our marriage means nothing to him." The hurt party is utterly convinced that if her partner loved her, he couldn't have cheated. Not true. Cognitive restructuring is simply changing one's beliefs.

Communication :+)
Both sides need to be fully heard, utilizing effective communication skills, and acknowledged through new and different behaviors (something concrete such as transparency, accountability for the cheater and less accusation and over-generalizing from the cheater).


Electronic Crack :y
As most moms of young boys now must explain what P-O-R-N means, it's obvious that electronic imagery is here to stay. Neuro-imagery can explain why the male brain responds so positively, and quickly!, to sexual imagery; crack for the masculine hypothalamus.  While it can be monitored and delayed, the reality is that we are all struggling, sociologically, with how to make sense of it all. A husband who catches his wife undressing on Skype, to a man she has never met in person, is unsure if she has been disloyal! And, yes, women are sexting on par with their male counterparts. The "hit," an ego stroke, is chemically addicting; powerful...changes up the monotonous day. Frankly, it's not too complicated to understand. Read why we check email 17 times a day here.

And, as with all cultural shifts, we won't have a clear understanding of what is exactly happening to us until it's behind us.