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Why Internet Infidelity Is a Growing Problem

Given Facebook's recent IPO, declining stock value and founder Mark Zuckerberg's surprise wedding -- all of which happened within days of each other -- it's easy to say of Facebook's status: "It's complicated."
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Given Facebook's recent IPO, declining stock value and founder Mark Zuckerberg's surprise wedding -- all of which happened within days of each other -- it's easy to say of Facebook's status: "It's complicated."

And those aren't the only complications Facebook and other social networking sites pose. All you have to do is read about the newlywed Indian woman who is divorcing her hubby because he didn't change his Facebook relationship status from single to married to see that the Internet is rapidly changing how and what we think about relationships and what's acceptable online behavior for our partners.

Perhaps most of us wouldn't throw in the marital towel over a Facebook status, but a spouse's misbehavior on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn has increasingly played a part in divorce proceedings over the past five years, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. And though the often repeated statistic that Facebook is responsible for 1 in 5 divorces is somewhat misleading, K. Jason and Kelli Krafsky -- the husband and wife team who co-wrote "Facebook and Your Marriage" -- say that Facebook does make affairs easier.

"Affairs happen with a lightning speed on Facebook," says Mr. Krafsky. While office romances and out-of-town trysts can take time to develop, "on Facebook, they happen in just a few clicks."

The Internet, as well as technology like Skype and webcams, have made pornography and the possibility of cheating accessible to everyone, even if all we end up doing is flirting online -- and a good 20 percent of us do just that, according to a 2009 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Is flirting cheating? Sexting? Messaging a hottie on Facebook? Watching porn? Depends on who you ask. We know that a tryst in a hotel room is cheating; the online world is much more ambiguous than that. But it's clear that Facebook has made life more challenging for people in relationships.

How much time our sweetie is spending on Facebook often wreaks havoc for jealous types, according to one study. Of course, people who have trust issues would be snooping around the old-fashioned way -- checking their partner's pockets, wallet or cell phone -- anyway, but Facebook can add to the anxiety. It isn't only anxious, jealous people who check out their partner's Facebook profile; loving partners do, too. Interestingly, guys spend more time every day looking at their partner's Facebook page, not out of jealousy but out of passion (or so they reported). Still, the study's authors acknowledge that too little is known about how social networking websites are impacting couples.

But we do know that it most definitely is impacting couples, and a sobering study recently published in the Journal of Marital & Family Therapy indicates how ill-equipped most therapists are in dealing with Internet infidelity:

"A majority (73%) of marriage and family therapists did not believe they were trained in how to deal with this problem. These findings accentuate the need for therapists to be well-informed when working with clients in which Internet infidelity is an issue."

Part of the problem is that many therapists can't even agree about the definition and treatment of Internet infidelity, which makes addressing trust, accountability and the betrayed partner's ability to express his or her feelings challenging.

Some of the therapists in the study indicated there had to be some sort of real-life sexual behavior to be cheating. Others say emotional intimacy -- secrecy and breach of trust -- was enough.

Identifying cheating is a problem couples have, too, and unless they both agree on what's cheating and what isn't in their relationship, there could be trouble ahead for their marriage -- and they may not be able to find a therapist who can help them with that.

One question the study raised was gender, not only of the client but also of the therapist. Porn watching appears to be accepted, perhaps even expected, among men. But some found the reverse to be hard to grasp; according to one therapist, if a husband considered his wife's porn habit to be infidelity, "I think I would be flabbergasted. If a couple came in and the husband said, ''I am feeling, you know, terribly hurt. My wife is watching porn,' I don't know what I would do. I think I would call the state and hand my license in."

That attitude is problematic since 30 percent of women watch porn online (remind me not to hire that therapist!)

The study indicates therapists have their work cut out for them if they're going to be helpful to couples facing Internet cheating. That means we might be on our own until the experts can figure it out. In the meantime, just be sure to keep your Facebook status up to date.

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