In-the-flesh affairs are easy to identify. From making out in a cab to sneaking away for some afternoon delight, unless you're Bill Clinton, there is little ambiguity when physical contact is involved. But the same cannot always be said for online affairs and the line between friendly chatter and full-blown cheating is often blurred by distance, uncertainty and sometimes a dose of self-serving rationalization.
In my practice, I hear from many clients who admit to crossing lines of infidelity online that they wouldn't dare approach in-person. Whether they're sending flirty Facebook messages or full-on sexts, technology has not only transformed the way we communicate, but it has also changed the way we cheat.
Also see: An Emotional Affair: Is It Really Cheating?
Dr. Katherine Hertlein, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist believes that online chatting is set up perfectly to facilitate cheating. "It's affordable, accessible and anonymous," explains Hertlein. "And since communicating online with friends and family is also acceptable, behaviours that border on cheating territory often go unnoticed."
But how do you know if your flirty, smiley-faced texts amount to being unfaithful? We've compiled the top signs that your chatting is bordering on cheating along with expert advice for managing online affairs.
Also see: 10 Signs Your Relationship Is In Trouble
Experts agree that secrecy is the number one sign that your chatting may amount to cheating. If you close computer windows when your lover walks in, delete your browsing history or erase messages and emails, you may want to consider whether or not you're being honest with your partner (and yourself) about your online relationships.
But some degree of privacy is natural, so how do you know if your secrecy is a sign of infidelity?
According to infidelity expert Katherine Hertlein, it's really about how your partner would react if they knew what you were up to. "If your private chat was revealed and your partner would feel hurt by both the content of it and the fact that you purposely concealed it, you're probably bordering on unhealthy secrecy."
Also see: 32 Emotional Signs That He's Cheating
Dr. Sheri Meyers, author of Chatting or Cheating, agrees. "Being secretive is a sign that you're having an affair." And though it's not always intentional, online affairs can be just as damaging. "Flirtation can be fun and it's harmless if it's out in the open.The dangerous part is when it crosses the line into secrecy. Flirtatious text messages, self-revealing chats, and intimate confessions can fuel a unique cocktail of brain chemistry that can turn a platonic friendship into an addictive, all-consuming affair of the heart."
If you find yourself being secretive about an an online "friendship", it may be time to take a step back and ask yourself what toll this friendship is taking on your primary relationship.
Also see: 11 Signs He’s a Womanizer
You share more info with your "friend" than your lover.
While it's normal and healthy to have close friends aside from your lover, in most relationships, your partner is an important source of support, guidance and collaboration. If you find yourself rushing online to celebrate an achievement or talk through a challenge with your crush, this may be a sign that something is amiss. Emotional infidelity may not involve physical contact, but as you direct your thoughts and energy toward your online crush, you're apt to become less emotionally and intimately engaged with your partner.
According to Dr. Meyers, women are more likely to enjoy emotional affairs and tend to "dance in the realm of emotional infidelity for longer and be satisfied with this arrangement." By contrast, "men will try to transition to a physical relationship more quickly."
However, the psychological and physiological attraction to emotional connections can be just as intense as physical ones, so online affairs aren't necessarily safer. In fact, the secrecy inherent to online affairs can add to the excitement, cloud your judgment and lead to severely hurt feelings on the part of all parties involved.
You get a "high" from your online chat
This is a big one! Research suggests that the mere thought of receiving an email or text message can create a natural high for regular text and email users, as our dopamine levels spike. It follows that the thought of receiving a potential flirtatious message would also create an instant high and the desire to seek more gratification. Recognizing the difference between excitement for the unknown and the desire for emotional and intimate fulfillment is essential.
Though your sexy chats may produce a sense of relief and pleasure, Dr. Meyers warns that you may be idealizing your online relationship on account of chemical changes in the brain. "Biochemical research has shown that the effect of these love chemicals is twofold: they are released in response to your friend, and they bond you to him or her."
If you're constantly thinking of your online friend and begin to "feel alive" at the thought of receiving a message, there is a good change that your chatting is really a form of cheating.
What to do if you're chatting amounts to cheating
Before addressing solutions, it's important to understand that one person's chatting is another's cheating. Each couple determines their own unique set of rules for their relationship and talking to your partner about your expectations with regard to sexual fidelity is of paramount importance.
If you do determine that your chatting amounts to cheating, the first step to repairing your primary relationship is to cut off the cyber friendship.
"You have to cut it off. You can't transition or make rationalizations for maintaining contact," says Dr. Meyers. "Cut it off and grieve. There is brain chemistry involved that requires you to grieve. But you have to make a conscious to decision to choose your relationship over this emotional affair or emotional sex."
One you cut it off with "class and clarity", Dr. Meyers suggests that you see a professional for support and stop visiting your "playground". This may involve leaving a chatroom, ending a Facebook friendship or blocking a phone number.
Refocus your energy on nurturing your primary relationship and finding ways to replicate the excitement your experienced online. The desire to cheat is not necessarily a sign that something is lacking in your relationship; however, if you do find yourself seeking pleasure and attention from other sources, it may be useful to revisit the way you interact with your partner and look for opportunities to inject novelty and unpredictability into your romantic and intimate life.
If you're still reticent to end your online fling and find yourself rationalizing your secretive behaviour, bear in mind that though technology may reduce the obstacles to cheating, it does nothing to minimize the consequences of betrayal.
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