PBS' "This Emotional Life" is hosting an upcoming webinar about the internet's impact on relationships, marriage in particular. As a panelist on the webinar, I wanted to explore this issue a bit with my readers so that I can offer your viewpoints in addition to my two cents.
Here's my honest opinion, after reading hundreds of comments and emails from people who have been involved in online relationships or emotional affairs, as well as the responses on the discussion boards of the Emotional Affairs support group on Beliefnet's community site:
Although the Internet and social media can foster intimacy in a marriage, they seem to do more harm than good. Of all the comments I've read, 90 percent of the opposite-sex relationships that were damaging to the marriage happened online.
According to a story on PI Newswire:
A recent study shows as many as one in five divorce filings cite problems on Facebook or other social networking websites. In Rochester, marriage counselors are sending a warning to even happily married couples: Facebook affairs are threatening healthy couples, too.
"I have suggested to myself to write a thank you note to the inventors of Facebook and Myspace because they have been responsible for a significant percentage of my income," says marriage counselor Dr. Dennis Boike. He's not kidding. "I'm having people say I never would have expected me to do this. I've turned down opportunities galore. But to see this seductive part of it is that no one else sees it. It's in the privacy of my computer. I'm not going out anywhere, I'm not dressing for it, I'm not smelling of another's perfume. There are no tell-tale signs except my computer record."
And this by Ned Hibberd of MyFoxHouston.com:
Maybe they should change the marriage vows to include, "until Facebook do us part."
Facebook and other social networking sites can certainly connect you with long-lost friends.
But a new study suggests Facebook can also help disconnect you from your better half.
The site, which boasts more than 350 million active users, is mentioned by name in almost 20% of divorce petitions, according to Divorce-Online.
Prominent Houston divorce attorney Bucky Allshouse can understand why.
"It's really kind of shocking what people put on Facebook," says Allshouse.
Perhaps it's not so shocking that the social networking site can essentially pour kerosene on "old flames."
Now I am no relationship expert. If I were, I'd be able to sustain a dozen or so friendships with men online. But the only male friendships that I've been able to continue through the years -- ones that are actually strengthened by our online dialogue -- are those where there is an age difference of at least 30 years between us. Their average age is 75. One is a priest, one an ex-priest and one a deacon. See a pattern?
In the 15 years that I have been married, I have met a handful of men that I liked and admired, with whom I shared interests and a sense of humor. Had one or two been women, I'm sure they would have become my best friends. However, on some level, I knew that a closer bond was somehow inappropriate or disrespectful to my marriage. It's a source of frustration for me, because the correspondence gave me great joy, like it does with my female friends.
But there is no getting around the opposite-sex thing -- the "When Harry Met Sally" problem.
I can say that having read more than 500 descriptions of emotional affairs, both on the comboxes of my posts and on the discussion boards of the Emotional Affair support group. Most of the these relationships start out benign: an email from a guy you knew in college, friending an ex-boyfriend on Facebook (as suggested by Facebook: "people you might know!"), getting to know a co-worker better online. But the relationship can take a dangerous turn very quickly if you're not careful, and even more easily if you are doing most of the talking behind a computer. Because you don't have any non-verbals with which to interpret statements. What a person could very easily say over coffee comes off way wrong in an email. And what she would never say over coffee, she does in an email because she gets to hide behind her computer.
I'm not saying it's impossible to talk to someone of the opposite sex online. I have many male acquaintances and co-workers. But I think only a minority of folks can handle an intense, intimate relationship with a person of the opposite sex without it getting in the way of marriage. And maybe the failure rate is so high among my readers because most of them suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or addictions. For those guys, it's even harder.
Because, as a bipolar friend recently explained to me, attention from the opposite sex becomes a type of anesthesia from pain and angst to a depressive or recovering addict. She becomes needy, clingy, trying to recapture that bliss over and over. For someone stressed out, with little time for anything recreational or fun in her life, the playful bantering online is a reprieve from her pressured days -- a moment of fantasy where the hard stuff is temporarily removed. And the manic depressive? That's the most dangerous. Because while a person in a manic cycle, she lacks perspective; her frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex have said "see ya!" to the reptilian part of the brain, and so she forfeits the reins, unable to gain control.
Moreover, what you can get away with in a same-sex friendship you can't in an opposite-sex one. The rules are different.
Take my friendship with Priscilla.
Our relationship formed online. She joined one of the Beliefnet groups I moderate, sent me a sweet note after watching my self-esteem video. We exchanged emails a few times. I learned a bit about her. Bought her book. Loved it. We emailed more. I got a little manic because I was so excited I had met a cool writer that shared my interests plus had a killer sense of humor. We were exchanging like 20 emails a day. Within a few weeks, she was at my home. Met Eric and the family. Then I went up to New York to visit her. Her sons looked at me, kind of confused as to where this woman came from, and asked, "Where did you guys meet?" Priscilla says "Online." They laugh. "You're not serious, are you?" We both nod.
We are still good friends today.
Take that same scenario, but substitute Priscilla with a man.
Not going to fly.
According to one woman:
The mania, or initial chemistry, isn't fun ... it's worrisome, sending all kinds of red flags. Instead of thinking [with a same-sex friendship], "This is kind of cute. I'm so excited because I have a new friend!" ... you are fretting: "Yikes. Why am I so excited to get an email from him? This is wrong to feel excited, right? I have a good marriage. Why am I feeling this way?"
The relationship may very well start out with the same innocent energy -- a combustion erupting from excitement and shared interests -- but you never know when one or both parties might get attached and therefore get needy and jealous, and then it becomes a problem for one or both of the marriages involved, because personal needs are now being met through the online relationship instead of the marriage.
Here's the part in the article where I give you five things you can do to nurture your marriage while fostering great online relationships with persons of the opposite sex.
Except that I don't have any.
However, I will give you one way in which the internet has definitely made my marriage stronger. About six years ago, I started emailing Eric a brief love letter every day, a note he could add to his self-esteem file. I just thank him for a few specific things, or mention one, two or 10 of his many positive traits. It has become a kind of tradition now in our marriage, a way for me to express my sincere gratitude for everything he gives me, and a reminder of who my partner in life is.
So there's one to work on. And also, befriend religious men at least 30 years older than you. The success rate there is good.
What do you think?
Does the Internet promote or damage marriage?
A version of this piece originally appeared on Psych Central. Therese is Associate Editor at Psych Central, where she contributes to "World of Psychology." She writes the daily blog,"Beyond Blue," for Beliefnet.com, blogs for Blisstree.com, and is the author of "Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes." Visit her at www.ThereseBorchard.com.