Mention extra-marital affairs, and most people think of secret meetings, furtive phone calls and booking into hotels under a false name. A modern twist on this (and more prolific) is the cyber-affair or virtual adultery.
In a technology-saturated world, it is becoming increasingly easier for spouses to lead separate lives on a virtual (online) platform and to fulfil imagined possibilities and life-long dreams. A balding middle-aged man recently retrenched has the opportunity of re-inventing himself online as a young, successful entrepreneur. A bored housewife can connect with ex-boyfriends and sketch out the details of her seemingly vibrant, jet-setting lifestyle.
‘Innocent’ online friendship
According to Facebook (a social networking platform where one can meet new and old friends), the fastest growing demographic of new users is women aged 45 -55. Now while this statistic may shock you, it actually makes sense - as older generations are finally tapping into the power of technology and being influenced by the internet. This influence can have devastating consequences though, as many of these Facebook users innocently reconnect with old school mates, and over a period of time a casual acquaintance leads to an online tryst.
An age-old problem
Family counsellor and Christian psychologist, Dan Williams has noticed the online love-affair trend impacting Christian marriages as well: “Though virtual adultery is a fairly new term, the problem is not - Jesus identified it 2 000 years ago. In the Sermon on the Mount He said “I tell you the truth, anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” Matt 5:28. Jesus warned that untamed thoughts so often lead to unfortunate consequences!
I often have clients tell me with regret “I didn’t think it would go that far. I never intended to be unfaithful.” Affairs most often begin with emotional bonds, not physical ones, as two acquaintances or co-workers allow their casual conversations to become increasing familiar, then flirtatious, and then intimate. The warning of Jesus teaches us that the moment a person begins to transfer to a third party the attention that properly belongs to his or her marriage partner, or entertains thoughts that should be focused on their spouse, is adulterous. The instant a person begins to secretly invest emotionally in someone other than their own partner, is the point at which they begin to commit what might be termed ‘virtual adultery.’”
Creating a second life...
But it is not just Facebook that jeopardises our marriages. Online chat rooms, sms dating services and virtual reality programmes are all powerful temptations. ‘Second Life’, a 3D Virtual World Community is another resource growing in popularity and in threat. With over 3 million users (tiny compared to Facebook’s 500 million active users), ‘Second Life’ is a virtual world where people create avatars (or characters) and design a parallel life to their real one.
In this world, avatars can engage in sexual acts and even have families. This is scary, as many ‘players’ in this game are directly leading a double life and engaging in virtual adultery. This can exist for years in the parameters of cyber-space, though sometimes it crosses over into the real world when online couples decide to meet.
Avoiding online adultery
There are hundreds of books advising how to protect your marriage from physical affairs. Some of the advice is applicable to online affairs, but more tailored tips are necessary if we are to win the war against ‘virtual sin’:
- Communicate daily and maintain emotional vulnerability with each other. Don’t exclude your spouse from any area of your life (eg: talking about work stress)
- Ensure both partners have any and all passwords to accounts or have a joint online account (for Facebook)
- Set Facebook updates to notify both of you
- Place the computer in a space at work/home, where the screen is clearly visible
- When you get an sms/email/friend request from someone of the opposite sex, tell your spouse of it and get their advice
- Avoid sharing emotional/intimate details with someone of the opposite sex. If you are uncomfortable with your spouse seeing your online communications, that is a loud warning bell
- Cultivate an atmosphere of trust. Allow your spouse access to your emails/cellphone and post.
If trust is present in a marriage, often the above precautions are redundant - as partners would not even consider hiding info from each other. But setting strict boundaries together will significantly curb online temptation. “Test everything...Avoid every kind of evil.” 1 Thess 5:21-22.