Online Sex, Dyadic Crises, and Pitfalls for MFTs

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By David Schnarch, Ph.D. and Ruth Morehouse, Ph.D.
The following article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct., 2002 issue of Family Therapy Magazine, published by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and is reprinted with their permission.

Cyber-sex and Internet affairs bedevil couples and marriage and family therapists (MFTs), alike. These new forms of sex highlight problems in relationships-and in treating extramarital affairs-that can trigger new growth opportunities for couples and clinicians.

Sex is the most frequently searched topic on the Internet (Freeman-Longo and Blanchard, 1998). Estimates suggest 20 percent of users engage in online sexual activity, approaching seventy five million people worldwide (Cooper et. al, 1998). A study by MSNBC.com found over nine million users visited adult entertainment websites, and twenty three percent of women and fifty percent of men surfed the web for visual erotica (Cooper, et. al, 2000). Given that research studies of extramarital affairs indicate roughly half of all men and a quarter of women report an extramarital affair, (Kinsey et. al, 1948; Kinsey et. al, 1953; Glass & Wright, 1997), it's not surprising that the Internet's anonymity, convenience, and ready access to potential partners make it a conduit for the unhappiness pervading many marriages.

While, perhaps, the rise of Internet affairs reflects how the technology creates new ambiguity regarding violations of monogamy, it certainly reflects the difficulties people commonly have in defining a "self"-and not violating it. Another MSNBC.com survey of 7000 people indicated 60 percent did not consider cyber-sex with another person to be infidelity, likening it more to pornography and less like a real relationship. However, such rationalizations are negated by reports from those who have Internet affairs that "intimacy," "closeness," and personal disclosures make cyber-sex seductive.

Some partners are disturbed by their mate viewing pornography or masturbating to it (on- or off-line), and sexually provocative computer correspondence with another person is even more upsetting to more people. As with non-computerized erotica, the lower one's level of differentiation, the more likely he or she will experience the other's pornography or sex-laced chats as a "violation" or "betrayal," because it threatens his or her reflected sense of self, identity, and security. Using the Internet for sexual stimulation and/or emotional affairs is especially corrosive to relationships built on emotional fusion-which includes, unfortunately, many marriages.

Cyber-sex involves using computerized text, images, or sound files for sexual stimulation. Cyber infidelity occurs when a partner in a committed relationship uses a computer to violate agreements of sexual exclusivity (which, in some dyads, could involve solitary cyber-sex.) An Internet affair uses interactive computer chat to create exchanges for the purpose of sexually arousing oneself or others, and creating shared sexual excitement often culminating in simultaneous mutual masturbation. Many of our clients' Internet affairs involved sexual engagement or emotional sharing with others, a desire for romantic involvement supposedly reserved for their spouse, and other signs of emotional investment such as fantasized or planned real meetings.

Internet affairs often go through progressive steps: non-sexually-explicit flirting, sexual innuendo and explicit repartee, scheduling sex-laced chats, discussing sexual preferences and fantasies, simultaneous masturbation online, and planning or (in fewer cases) conducting face-to-face meetings and physical contact. In some cases, the original contact was not about flirting or sex, but started as getting acquainted and emotional sharing and proceeded through increased sexual involvement. The greater the eroticism, continuity and scheduling, secrecy and deception, lying by omission, and emotional closeness with the online partner, (i.e., degree of intent and deliberateness), the more likely there is a violation of personal integrity and monogamy, and more likely the spouse will see it as such.

People who play fast and loose in their electronic encounters argue that the point at which it becomes an affair is a "gray area." For some, this may reflect incomplete discussion of mutually agreeable marital boundaries and guidelines. However, more often the issue involves lack of differentiation (i.e., avoidance of self-confrontation, unclear personal values, quest for reflected sense of self). People's sense of violating their own integrity-or having something to hide or rationalize-best indicates when the line has been crossed, and this is what we utilize in treatment.

Anonymity on the Internet leads to emotional and sexual engagements beyond what people do in face-to-face encounters-even with their spouses. We find women are as likely to engage in cyber-affairs as men, including many who in daily life had never had an emotional or sexual extramarital liaison. Internet affairs are facilitated by ease of convenience, self-deception about where "stepping over the line" occurs, rampant opportunities for self-presentation and getting "validation" from others, and desire to escape the confines of boring, lonely, or hostile marriages.

Lots of people like hot sex-and they're often in a relationship where sex is tepid at best and often mechanical. Poorly differentiated people have difficulty maintaining vibrant sex in an ongoing relationship, because sexual novelty requires proposing things that are an emotional "stretch." Many people are so afraid of rejection, or are so inexperienced at initiating novel sexual experiences, that they prefer to express their sexuality in the obscurity of the Net. For those too embarrassed to talk to their partner about sex-or introduce sexual behaviors they'd like to do-Internet affairs are particularly attractive. People who are dependent on their partner's validation and acceptance "go underground" and keep their secret erotic side hidden from their mate. But while the prospect of sex and intimacy without anxiety, vulnerability, or risk of rejection or embarrassment appeals to many, Internet affairs rarely develop into satisfying long-term emotionally committed relationships.

Internet affairs are the epitome of self-presentation (i.e., presenting yourself the way you want to be seen) and the antithesis of intimacy (self-confrontation and self-disclosure in the presence of a partner (see Schnarch, 1991). Elsewhere we have written that "...a cyber-relationship may approximate a real relationship-but then so does sex with an inflatable doll. Neither one is likely to help people develop substantial capacity for an intimate relationship when they are subtly capitalizing on ways either one differs from the real thing" (Schnarch, 1997). The lower one's level of differentiation, the more this holds true.

New look at the "adulterer"

Additionally, we have observed another factor unmentioned in the MFT literature. Recently we published an account of how people have a natural biological link between anxiety, general physiological arousal, and sexual arousal. Growing up in an emotionally volatile or sexually/physically abusive household accentuates this normal anxiety arousal-sexual arousal pattern into a dominant sexual response (Schnarch, 2002). Given that a third of women are sexually abused growing up, we believe this explains the large number of women, in particular, who have Internet affairs.

For example, Cindy's sexual behavior wasn't uncommon, although like many couples we see, the pattern of her marriage didn't make sense at first glance. Her marriage with Boyd hinged around keeping her "safe" (read: non-anxious), and their sex was boring. However, Cindy also engaged in cyber-affairs. She got the sexual charge she liked and the validation she needed by visiting Internet porno sites and trading erotic e-mail with men she met online. Things blew up when Boyd started monitoring her correspondence. He ranted about "emotional infidelity" and demanded a full accounting. Cindy screamed about invasion of privacy and invoked the Fifth Amendment. Cindy couched her defiance in statements about "needing a life of her own," but beneath this apparent show of independence, they were highly emotionally fused.

Cindy got a general arousal rush (which she experienced as a sexual charge) from her taboo anxiety, and adrenalin-filled clandestine sexual behavior and by defying Boyd. But Cindy wasn't an adrenaline junkie. Some anxieties turned her on, and others made her run for cover. She wasn't about to destabilize her relationship by proposing new sexy behaviors, and deception made her sexual secret naughtier and more electric. She kept her marriage "stable," went to her computer, logged in and turned on. Although often mislabeled "sexual addiction," this anxiety arousal-sexual arousal linkage underlies many cases of repetitive ("compulsive") online clandestine sexual behavior.

New look at the "resolute spouse"

Boyd was as upset by realizing Cindy's sexual fantasizes and masturbation as he was by Cindy's cyber-contact with other men. The secrecy and deception that Cindy found arousing threatened Boyd's sense of security, because his emotional equilibrium depended on their emotional fusion as did Cindy's "safety and security." As far as he was concerned, Cindy violated their relationship when she was not monogamous in her head. Boyd wanted to be Cindy's "one and only" in all respects. Like many poorly differentiated couples, the emotional fusion that provided "security" also created the togetherness-pressure that fueled Cindy's motivation for a "hidden life" that excluded Boyd.

Cindy was clear she had stepped over the line when she felt she had something to hide-because that's when she became sexually aroused. Boyd felt Cindy was "cheating" when he realized she was separate from him, and that he did not know or have access to all aspects of her life.

Treatment and professional issues

Treating Internet affairs is no different than treating affairs in general-meaning therapists have to deal with many knotty clinical dilemmas. Here we will mention two: (1) The boundary line at which a person violates his or her agreement to monogamy, and (2) paradigmatic problems surrounding handling feelings of "betrayal." These are no small matters, because "betrayal" dominates clients' ruminations and the MFT literature (Moultrup, 1990, Pittman, 1989; Cooper, 2000; Meheu and Subotnik, 2001; Glass & Wright, 1998; Spring, 1997).

Many therapists define the boundary of monogamy by when the spouse becomes (or would become) threatened, insecure, upset, or anxious (citations). This guideline overlooks that this (a) is determined by the partner's level of differentiation, (b) implicitly reinforces emotional fusion and both partners' reflected sense of self, and (c) constitutes an undifferentiated clinical stance (by encouraging one partner to define his/her behavior through the reactions of the other). While it may seem we promote indifference and are heedless to the impact on the spouse, we have found the exact opposite. This problem surfaces most clearly and acutely in the problem area of "betrayal."

We use the same criterion for monogamy breaches as in all other areas of our therapy: when an individual violates his or her own integrity. Some clinicians get uncomfortable identifying boundary violations this way because this may seem too subjective and let the adulterer "off the hook." However, in the Crucible and Passionate Marriage Approaches we let each person define this point, because working each partner against his or her self-defined criterion provides forward drive in treatment. When therapists define the point of "stepping over the line" it creates an undifferentiated clinical stance fraught with inherent paradoxes (e.g., telling the adulterer he or she needs to better define himself or herself, while also telling him/her when monogamy has been violated).

Some clinicians apply differentiation theory to explain the adulterer's behavior (e.g., Moultrup, 1990; Mehun and Slobotnik, 2001), but we also apply it to the resolute spouse. Conventional approaches accept the resolute partner's feelings of betrayal at face value, dwell on healing and safety, and attempt to elicit apologies and recommitment from the adulterer (e.g., Pittman, 1989; Lusterman, 1998, Mehune and Slobotnik, 2001). This again puts the therapist in an undifferentiated clinical position, making it more difficult to treat poorly differentiated people (who feel betrayed the most)-even when therapists use differentiation theory to conceptualize treatment.

We have found that few therapists have the insight or differentiation to confront an anguished resolute spouse about her or his sense of "betrayal" as a way of re-establishing his or her equilibrium. (This is not the same as proposing "complicity" in the affair, which further reinforces emotional fusion.) We're not saying betrayal doesn't happen or doesn't hurt. But feelings of betrayal often reflect a reflected sense of self, and reducing the resolute spouse's dependence on their partner reduces self-flagellation and partner brow-beating. Validating clients' feelings of betrayal is an ineffective path that doesn't help and creates multiple treatment pitfalls.

In treatment we opt for a more differentiated (and more difficult) clinical approach which doesn't reinforce a reflected sense of self or the emotional fusion that often motivates Internet affairs. If you envision asking a "devastated" client, "Why do you feel betrayed? Are you taking your partner's behavior personally?", you'll understand why a truly differentiation-based approach tests a therapist's differentiation.

If (when) the adulterer seeks a better relationship with himself/herself (i.e., repairing his/her own integrity), confronting the adulterer's behavior may coincidently reduce the spouse's angst. But more often, and particularly early in treatment, progress is often accelerated by confronting the resolute spouse's reflected sense of self ("betrayal") with regard to the adulterer's behavior. The outcome is generally beneficial regardless of which partner disengages from their emotional fusion, self-confronts, self-soothes, becomes less reactive, and takes difficult-but-effective action.

For example, we have seen this occur when the adulterer is initially recalcitrant and unrepentant, forcing the resolute spouse to look to himself/herself for validation and soothing. In other cases, a resolute spouse's continued emotional regressions and punitive outbursts have pushed some adulterers to stand up for themselves instead of retreating into another affair. In yet other cases, the resolute spouse's self-confrontations and willingness to see the marriage for what (little) it was, left the adulterer little room to avoid self-confrontation if he or she wished to remain married. When the 'classic' resolution involving an apologetic adulterer and a forgiving spouse does not emerge (as is often the case), the therapist must take heart, keep working, and not loose hope. This involves no particular problem-if the therapist has maintained a well-differentiated stance from the outset.

The Crucible Approach departs from conventional practice, including shunning common emphasis on other-validated intimacy and emphasizing self-validated intimacy (Schnarch, 1991, 1997). This allows people to deal with "betrayal" in ways that do more than "heal the wound" of infidelity and Internet affairs. It helps both partners grow in the midst of crisis, preempt subsequent affairs, and fundamentally bolster their relationship. As couples and therapists are increasingly confronted by Internet affairs, MFTs can turn these deal-breaking events into stronger marriages and more resilient families.


David Schnarch, Ph.D. and Ruth Morehouse, Ph.D. co-direct the Marriage & Family Health Center of Evergreen, Colorado. They are the developers of the Sexual Crucible® and Passionate Marriage® Approaches to Integrated Sexual and Marital Therapy and Counseling. The just-published book, Resurrecting Sex: Resolving Sexual Problems and Rejuvenating Your Relationship (HarperCollins, August, 2002) provides a detailed clinical description of the case described in this article. The chapter, "The Extended Emotional System: Lovers and Friends," in Constructing the Sexual Crucible offers in-depth discussion of their theory and intervention strategy for dealing with affairs.

References

Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality on the Internet: Surfing in the new millennium. CyberPsycholgy & Behavior, 1, 181-187.
Cooper, A., McLoughlin, I.P., & Campbell, K.M. (2000). Sexuality in cyberspace: Update for the 21st century. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 3, 521-536.
Freeman-Longo, R.B., & Blanchard, G. (1998). Sexual abuse in America: Epidemic of the 21st century. Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.
Glass, S. & Wright, T. (1997). Restructing marriage after the trauma of infidelity. In Kim Halford & Howard J. Markman (Eds.) Clinical handbook of marriage and couples intervention. New York: Wiley & Sons.
Kinsey, A.C., Pomeroy, W.B., Martin, C.E. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadephia: W. B. Saunders.
Kinsey, C., Pomeroy, W.B, Martin, C.E. & Gebhard, P.H. (1953). Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadephia: W. B. Saunders.
Lusterman, D.D. (1998). Infidelity: A survival guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Moultrup, D.J. (1990). Husbands, wives and lovers; The emotional system of the extramarital affair. New York: Guilford.
Meheu, M.M., & Subotnik, R.B. (2001). Infidelity on the Internet: Virtual reality and real betrayal. Naperville, IN: Sourcebooks.
Pittman, F. (1989). Private lies: Infidelity and the betrayal of intimacy. New York: W. W. Norton.
Spring, J. A. (1996). After the affair. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Schnarch, D.M. (1991). Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An integration of sexual and marital therapy. New York: W. W. Norton.
Schnarch, D.M. (1997) Passionate marriage: Sex, love, and intimacy in emotionally committed relationships. New York: W. W. Norton.
Schnarch, D.M. (1997). Sex, intimacy, and the Internet. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 22, 15-20.
Schnarch, D.M. (2002). Resurrecting sex: Resolving sexual problems and rejuvenating your relationship. New York: HarperCollins.

Sidebar

Here are some intervention points for MFTs based on the Crucible® and Passionate Marriage® Approaches:
  1. Don't shame the adulterer, or encourage guilt, apology, or contrition, especially if attempting to appease the resolute spouse.
  2. Be wary about accepting statements that the adulterer realizes what he/she did was wrong-knowing this beforehand often didn't prevent the affair from happening.
  3. "Betrayal" is often the resolute spouse's chagrined realization that a truly "collaborative alliance" (Schnarch, 2002) hasn't existed in the relationship for some time.
  4. Not aligning with the resolute spouse is difficult for therapists who reflexively "empathize" with clients-especially with a resolute spouse who confronts you with, "Whose side are you on? Are you suggesting what s/he did was OK?!"
  5. Focusing on a collaborative alliance (or lack thereof), rather than betrayal, focuses on past and present marital interactions, rather than on old promises that have little to do with recent (causal) history.
  6. If the adulterer enters therapy truly confronting himself/herself, follow this lead. However, if treatment is dominated by the resolute spouse's angst, humiliation, and anger about "betrayal," and/or the adulterer is evasive, defiant, or feigning remorse, then lead with interventions with the resolute spouse.
  7. Apologies make the resolute spouse feel better for the wrong reason (e.g., reflected sense of self). If anything, apologies benefit the adulterer as part of self-repair.
  8. Confront discontinuities between clients' sexual behavior in marriage and cyber-sex. Helping those with strong anxiety arousal-sexual arousal patterns dare to propose sexual changes with their spouse provides the hot sex and intimacy they seek on the Net.
  9. Challenge clients' statements about "trust," "commitment," and "betrayal" to draw out underlying emotional fusion. Promise to who (self or partner)? Commitment about what? Trust to do or not do what? Faithful to who about what?
  10. Internet affairs and cybersex can have negative consequences even when undiscovered by the resolute spouse, because of inordinate time spent on the computer.