Accepting the Facebook friend request from her old high school boyfriend seemed harmless enough to Monica, even though she felt a twinge of excitement at the time. At first, he would “like” pictures that she uploaded or comment on posts that she made. Then they started to message each other. Soon they were e-mailing, texting and talking on the phone every day. “Before I knew it, I was in love with another man. I would communicate with him all day while I was at work. I would make up phony excuses to so I could talk to him on the phone at night and we met up at hotels. I took advantage of every opportunity I had to see him . . . and I was married.”
Affairs like Monica’s, started on Facebook, are becoming common, according to Dr. Steven Kimmons, a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor at Loyola University Medical Centre. “One spouse connects online with someone they knew from school. The person is emotionally available and they start communicating through Facebook.”
There is even a website dedicated to these affairs– facebookcheeting.com – and the stories on the site are eerily similar. Here are just a few examples:
My wife had a Facebook emotional affair for over a year with an old high school friend. I guess, from what she has said at our marriage counseling, it started out as just catching up and talking about old times. Then he began to ask her some “what if’s” and “do you have any regrets,” and then there was some sexual innuendo and they started to explore some of their history and it developed from that. To say I am devastated is an understatement.”
“I found out about four months ago that my husband was having a affair with a friend from high school. He said she happened to pop up on ‘people you might know.’ He said he messaged her and it went from there. Did I mention I was 7 months pregnant when I found out?”
“I divorced my wife over a Facebook affair. I had enough. To me it is a full-blown affair of the heart.”
As these stories demonstrate, people too often take a cavalier attitude when reconnecting with old flames or love interests on Facebook. They either don’t recognize the potential pitfalls or think they can resist temptation. Frequently they can’t.
Even though most “Facebook” affairs do not result in actual physical relationships, virtual or emotional affairs can be just as damaging to real-life relationships.
Is a Virtual Affair the Same as a Physical Affair?
"A lot of it is curiosity," says Dr. Kimmons. “A spouse sees an old friend or someone that they dated and decides to say 'hello' and catch up on where that person is and how they're doing."
Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as your spouse or significant other is aware and approves of it. A line is crossed, however, when the two people become more emotionally involved and intimate with each other. That’s also about the time that the online relationship becomes something that is hidden from a spouse or significant other. Some experts refer to this as “emotional cheating.”
Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author writes in his weekly blog, The Chart, “An online affair is fueled by feelings of attraction between two people. You start to idealize the other person and fantasize about what sex would be like. This only adds fuel to the fire. Just like primary relationships, affairs that start out slowly and build a connection before progressing to sex are often the most difficult to break off - and the most damaging to the other relationship.”
He continues, “In order for attraction to launch into an emotional affair, a person has to also develop intimacy and, eventually, a feeling of connection with that person that supersedes their current relationship. In other words, attraction + effort + intimacy = emotional infidelity. Take away one, and all you’re left with is a natural instinct or a harmless Facebook friendship. Put all three together, and with friends like that . . . your relationship has a new enemy."
How do these Facebook affairs work out? Not well, at least for the participants’ marriages.
Surveys show that Facebook is being cited more and more in divorce cases. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers surveyed the nation’s top divorce attorneys in 2010. 81% of those lawyers reported an increase in social networking websites being used as evidence in divorce cases – with Facebook being cited 66% of the time. One online divorce service in the United Kingdom found the word “Facebook” appearing in 989 of the company’s 5,000 uncontested divorce petitions. If that unscientific survey is to be believed, Facebook ruins 1 in every 5 marriages in the United Kingdom.
Many divorce lawyers are now insisting on seeing their clients’ Facebook pages before the start of proceedings. As one online pundit put it, “what you put online, stays online – forever. Even if you’re not the one who posted it.” Photos found on social networking sites – including those of family members, friends and colleagues, are fair game for divorce attorneys.
We have experienced the phenomenon of Facebook affairs ending marriages first hand in our practice, and we expect the trend to grow. A word of advice for those in relationships who use social networking sites: if it wouldn’t feel right picking up the telephone to call that old flame that you haven’t seen in years, you probably shouldn’t be “friending” him or her on Facebook.
Cooley & Handy are Divorce Lawyers and Personal Injury Attorneys serving individuals and families in Bucks County, Montgomery County and Philadelphia. We help our clients navigate the ever changing and always challenging legal system with knowledge, experience and a healthy dose of creative problem solving. This newsletter shines a light on some of our latest cases and news of note.