Electronic Infidelities

In my mid-20s, I felt stuck in the most irrelevant job I could imagine. Without really intending to, I found myself at a business news company, employed to write one newsletter about telecommunications and another about multimedia. After six years of trying to make phone companies and the cable industry sound interesting, I ran screaming to graduate school for counseling, which thankfully left to a new, far happier existence as a licensed therapist.

Still, little did I know that phones, television, and the internet would prove to be central themes in my couples counseling. One premarital couple used texting language during most sessions – e.g. “LMK” (let me know), “CID” (consider it done), and “OMDB” (over my dead body) – requiring a glossary on hand just to keep up. Another couple struggled with the compulsion to read each other’s email accounts. At one point, I estimated that more than two-thirds of my couples were facing some sort of technology-related relationship issue: including Facebook affairs, web pornography addiction, Xbox compulsion, and online gambling. I might have thought I was escaping technology, but my new work made clear that for my clients, the world remained full of temptations that could send even the steadiest couplings into a relationship chaos of shame and self-doubt.

In Imago Relationship Therapy we talk about closing the relationship “exits” that allow people to disengage from conscious partnership. Texting, email, social networking – all could be categorized as relationship exits, and so it seems simple to put a ban on those activities in an effort at securing the marriage. If we liken telecom addiction to alcoholism or drug abuse, it makes sense that environment plays a big role in supporting sobriety. Yet, removing all temptations is an impossible task, and fixating on abstinence ignores the roots of the so-called “electronic infidelity.”

In his book “In the Shadows of the Net,” Patrick Carnes applies the 12-Step process to the problem of internet addiction, emphasizing the importance of admitting the problem and setting iron-clad boundaries. But he also explores the reasons why a two-dimensional cyber relationship may feel safer than a traditional relationship for some people, and how the non-abusing partner may be colluding in the deception in ways that engage their own childhood wounds about image and secrecy. In other words, technology may be the vehicle, but there are deeper issues driving the couple apart.

In treatment we close relationship exits to focus two partners on rebuilding personal communication. With time and commitment, we reopen the exits in safe ways that make both people feel comfortable, while practicing methods for returning to the conversation if things start to feel out of balance again. It is important to recognize that closing the exits – cutting off the web access, canceling the cell phone plan – is not the ultimate solution, but rather a tool for reducing distractions so the couple can spend time exploring the underlying issues.

It may be tempting for a husband just to demand that his wife simply hand over her cell phone and all will be forgiven, and she might readily comply in the hopes of a quick fix. But this only masks the deeper emotional adaptations that laid the groundwork for the partnership’s breakdown in the first place. Choosing to consider the history that led to the divide is a brave decision. Therapy can be a safe place to explore that history and create connection at the same time. I have seen it work – and both people get to keep their cell phones.