Karen* was just going about her day when she logged into her Facebook account and saw a private message from Richard*. They casually dated back in high school and he wanted to catch up.

"At the first email contact," says the married mother of three, "he was a completely insignificant person from my high school past."

After weeks of exchanging emails and catching up with each other on life experiences, Karen asked Richard to call her. When she hung up the phone after an hour-and-a-half chat, Karen’s world came crashing down.

"By the time we ended that first call," Karen says, "I was sobbing because I knew I was in deep trouble with an attraction to him and realized [my] marriage was in deeper trouble than I had admitted to myself."

Her husband accused her of unfaithfulness by having these conversations and developing these feelings. She insisted she was driven to these conversations out of feeling emotionally stunted in the marriage. Although Karen and Richard never met face-to-face, her 16-year marriage eventually came to an end.

How can a simple Facebook message lead to divorce? Because social media can set the stage for emotional affairs most people would never imagine transpiring. To help you protect your marriage, we sat down with several leading marriage experts to learn about "digital infidelity" and how you can safeguard your marriage against these subtle yet significant relationships.

What’s digital infidelity?

Digital infidelity occurs when people use social media and other electronic communication to cross marital boundaries. This can take the form of suggestive chatting or picture messaging, or when you emotionally bond through email with someone other than your spouse. Because of the physical separation, couples may not necessarily view this as "real" infidelity – but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous than a physical encounter.

"When the contact is over the phone, email or online, people don’t immediately see the warning signs of emotional infidelity," says family counsellor Kelly Chicas, author of Keep Your Pants On: Preventing Infidelity in Your Marriage.

Licensed marriage and family therapist George James, president of communication group George Talks, adds that people often use the virtual aspect of social networking and digital communication as justification for starting these relationships. That’s reason to take caution, James says, because this blend of physical separation and instant connectivity enables people to disconnect from everyday life and engage with another human being.

"The screen feels like a boundary," he says, "where people can feel like they are not doing anything wrong because the person is not there with them."

K. Jason and Kelli Krafsky, joint authors of Facebook and Your Marriage, warn about how quickly former emotions can reignite online. "With access to an old flame’s profile, contact info, pictures and private ways to communicate with one another, a brief trip down memory lane can turn into camping out, reminiscing over memories and rebuilding the emotional bonds that once existed," the Krafskys say.

Are you at risk for unknowingly encouraging an emotional affair?

Technology may expedite emotional infidelity, but it isn’t the only culprit. Emotional affairs often begin as friendships and gradually develop when trust and confidence are established.

"The initial intent [can be] to reconnect as friends," James says of online affairs. "As time progressed, the conversations become secretive, and the married person starts to think that the old flame is there for them more than their spouse."

"When you’re at home with your partner," says Chicas, "you have all the problems of day-to-day life, and it’s easy to want to forget all the responsibilities of today. It becomes easy to romanticize this ‘other life’ with someone on social media."

How can you know you’re vulnerable to digital infidelity?

  • Read how Scripture describes the exclusive nature of the very first marriage: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame" (Genesis 2:24-25). A third party – in any form – damages that exclusive unity, and intimacy becomes replaced with hurt.
  • Ask yourself if you feel emotionally connected to your spouse. If not, ask yourself if you’re making yourself emotionally available to them. "When your online network becomes more of a personal support system than your marriage is, you and your marriage are vulnerable," the Krafskys warn.
  • Take caution when you begin to look forward to digital exchanges with another person or become obsessed with getting back online to see if you received new messages, Chicas advises. These habits – as well as sharing stories, dreams or fears with someone else instead of your spouse – foster more intimacy with the outside person and create emotional distance between you and your spouse. Karen had told Richard that she felt burnt out as a stay-at-home mom and isolated from more engaging and analytical people. "It was less about the passion and more about the emotional and intellectual growth that spurred me to continue the contact," she recalls.

What actions can you take today?

The Krafksys suggest couples have "the techlationship talk," which covers the five following aspects of social media use:

  1. Is any person not acceptable? Decide if old flames, certain co-workers, employees, clients or people you don’t know personally should be part of your social network.
  2. Is any time off limits? Consider setting certain times of day (e.g., early morning or late evening) during which you won’t log into your electronic accounts.
  3. Is any channel out of bounds? Talk with your spouse about whether it’s acceptable to send private messages to every online friend or if certain contacts should be communicated with via a public newsfeed.
  4. Is any subject taboo? Ask yourself how you would feel if your spouse were to share intimate details, videos or images with another person.
  5. Is any place not allowed? Discuss whether certain places are inappropriate for accessing your account, such as family gatherings, date nights, in the car or in the washroom.

*Names changed to protect privacy

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Todd Foley is on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2012 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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