The internet has provided a whole new world of opportunities when it comes to advances in knowledge, communication, and productivity. I can still remember sitting in my 9th grade homeroom and hearing about something called “The Information Superhighway.” I had no idea back then how pervasive this “Superhighway” would soon become and what an integral part it would play in our everyday lives. A large part of our lives are lived online and most of our connections, networking, relationships, and communications happen via email, texting, or social media.

The internet has also provided a whole new world of opportunities when it comes to affairs. Let’s just state the obvious: It’s easier to find affair partners, to engage with affair partners, and to send and receive correspondence with affair partners than it ever has been before. We can even have affairs with partners that we’ve never actually met in person.

For the better part of their lives, our great-grandfathers spent most of their working days looking at the southend of a northbound ox as they plowed the fields. Today, our working days are filled with temptations and vulnerabilities that are greater than they’ve ever been before. It’s harder now to be faithful and true and one of the biggest reasons is the allure of “intimacy” that can be found on the internet. Most of us carry around in our pocket a phone sized “little black book” where affairs, pornography, and casual hookups are available at our fingertips.

Here are three truths that make online relationships so appealing.

Real-world relationships are demanding while online relationships are convenient.

Our online relationships never say, “Not now, dear.” They never tell us they’re too busy. If they don’t reply right away, we assume the best. They’re probably in a meeting or on the phone. Online partners never make demands upon our time or our character.

Online relationships require very little work. We can reply when we want, post when we want, log in when we want, and log out when we want. We can turn the relationship on and off when we want. We can minimize them or x out of them. We can make them colder or hotter. We can say things like, “I really have to go now,” when we really don’t have to go. We can say, “I have to work this Saturday,” when we really plan to play golf. We can say, “I’m wearing the bracelet you bought me for my birthday,” when we really regifted it at Christmas.

My real-world relationship with my wife is labor-intensive. It takes time. It takes effort. We have to sort through problems, issues, and disagreements about how to raise the kids, how to relate to in-laws, how to pay the bills, what to have for dinner, and how to squeeze the toothpaste tube. I can’t pretend to listen to her concerns while I continue to watch the game. I can’t minimize her or logout from her. I am logged in 24/7.

Real-world relationships are reality while online relationships are fantasy.

Attraction to an old High School flame is normal and natural, but that doesn’t mean you need to pursue it or act on it. Simply admit it to your spouse. That usually takes the fantasy element out of it. Online relationships are a complete fantasy. You might remember how Johnny made you feel in the 8th grade, but that doesn’t mean he would make you feel the same way today. You remember how nice Suzie’s body was in high school, but that was twenty years ago. Just because she posted her senior picture as her profile doesn’t mean she still looks like that.

Our online interest never has bad breath. He or she never posts about their scars or failures. They never post about skipping the gym, or sleeping in, or losing the deal. We see him or her as the perfect wife, husband, parent, worker, athlete, foodie, and decorator. They’re always going to the trendiest restaurants and taking their family on the coolest vacations. Every morning, she is up and ready to work out, with her hair pulled back, designer latte in one hand, sporting her yoga pants, and wearing her most adorable duck face. We show our approval with a “Like.”

That’s when our spouse shuffles into the kitchen with her eyes still closed, searching for a mug, disheveled hair, and wearing a huge bathrobe that looks like it was skinned from a pink buffalo. She mumbles something about it being too cold in here and complains about the way you made the coffee. Her voice is somewhere between a base and baritone.

Online relationships tend to see each other in the best possible light. They are always eager to share about their day or eager to hear about the day of the other. You’re always so sympathetic, polite, and understanding online. You take your time with what you write. You edit. You delete. You reword. You’re clear. You’re poetic. Such correspondence quickly becomes intimate.

After a few long empathetic emails, you find yourself getting more and more emotionally connected. You confide in one another. You feel safe to open up. Your emails become more like a personal diary than a letter. You find yourself saying things you’ve never said to anyone else, and wouldn’t dare to share with anyone else. You feel like you can see into each other’s hearts. You’ve finally found your soulmate. You feel needed. You do everything you can to cater to their needs and you say only what they want to hear.

There is only one problem: it’s all fake! I often say that an affair is a fantasy played out in real time. In no area is that more true than online affairs. Why are we so open online? Why do we share such confidential and personal information? Why do we feel safe? Because subconsciously, we know it’s fake. We’re living in a dream world. We’re acting in our own movie. We’re writing our own script in our own fairy tale. You can be safe in a fantasy. You can take risks in a fantasy. It’s a lot easier to be romantic when you’re putting your daydreams into an email to send off to your affair partner than it is to actually be romantic in real time ,and in real life, with a real person. Flowers cost money. Emojis are free.

Real-world relationships require vulnerability while online relationships have immunity.

Real-world relationships can hurt us. In the real world, people can see us as we are. This means they can reject us as not being enough. If I open up to my wife about my fears, she may laugh at me. If I share my stories of shame, pain, and loneliness with real people, I run the risk of rejection. Real-world relationships can be scary. If I don’t like myself, how could someone else like me? If I think the person in the mirror is ugly or fat, then that’s how other people must see me too. In my desire to protect myself from hurt, I may wall out others. I may isolate myself.

But we were created for connection and intimacy. So we settle for a pseudo intimacy online where we have immunity from vulnerability. Online, we can fake being real. Online, we can be someone we are not. I don’t have to suck in my stomach to be loved by urSantaFegirl99 in New Mexico. She accepts me “just the way I am.” Of course, I used Hugh Jackman’s pic for my online profile, but minus the knifelike claws coming out of his knuckles, we basically look the same. Of course, urSantaFegirl99 is probably a dude anyway so we’re probably even.

Online, we can be anybody we want to be. We can be funny, charming, daring, sensitive, and charismatic. I can be enough online. I can be sexy, rich, and wise. I can be the man of your dreams. I can be immune from hurt and rejection. If someone does reject me, I’ll just adopt a new persona. I can experiment. I can shapeshift.

It’s not really an affair, is it?

As far as the betrayed partner is concerned, she doesn’t see much difference between an affair on the internet, or an affair with a coworker, or an affair with a stripper downtown. Trust has been broken. Lies have been told. The betrayal is real. The trauma is the same. You can try your best to explain how it wasn’t “technically” an affair all you want. The only person’s opinion that matters on whether or not it was really an affair is the betrayed spouse.

Quiz: Is Your Online Friendship Too Friendly?

Jim O’Connor developed this simple quiz for the web site using material from an article written by Dr. Shirley Glass, Ph.D. entitled “On-line Attractions.” This quiz may help you identify some warning signs that you (or your partner) are on the slippery slope to an online affair.

  • Do you find yourself coming to bed later at night because you are chatting online?
  • Do you ever exit a screen because you do not want a family member to see what you are reading or writing to a chat room member?
  • Have you ever lied to your spouse about your personal internet activities?
  • Would you feel uncomfortable sharing your internet correspondence with your spouse?
  • Have you ever set up a separate email account or credit card to carry on a personal correspondence with an individual online?
  • Has your internet correspondence had a negative effect on your work or household tasks?
  • Have you ever lied in response to a question from your spouse about your email correspondence?
  • Have you ever exchanged photos of yourself with a secret email correspondent?
  • Since beginning a secret email correspondence, have you experienced either a loss or an unusual increase in sexual desire with your spouse?
  • Have you made arrangements to talk secretly on the phone with your email correspondent?
  • Have you made arrangements to meet with your secret email correspondent?

Scoring Key:

Two or more yes answers to questions 1, 2, 3, 4 indicate a potential internet romance is developing. You are playing with matches. It is time to share your online correspondence with your mate and break off the correspondence. It is time to examine your vulnerabilities and, with your mate’s help, create some barriers and boundaries.

A yes answer to any of questions 5, 6, or 7 indicate you are crossing the boundary from an internet friendship to an internet romance. You have kindled a fire. Acknowledge this relationship for what it is about to become and take action to preserve and enhance your marriage. Again, be honest with your spouse and create new boundaries.

A yes answer questions 8 or 9 indicate you have begun a fantasy romantic relationship with your online correspondent. Even if it never moves to a physical stage, this relationship has great potential to damage or destroy your marriage. The house is on fire.

A yes answer to question 10 or 11 indicates that you have taken positive action toward initiating an extramarital affair. Consider the impact this will have on your marriage and your children. You and your family are inside of the house you are burning down around them. You all will face tremendous loss unless you take drastic measures to come clean, call out for help, and save yourself and your relationships.

Be Warned

When we don’t take something seriously we tend to be more vulnerable to it. Often, online relationships don’t “seem” like an affair and so we don’t pick up on the warning signs until it is too late. Email correspondence was the slippery slope that led to my affair. These friendships usually start up innocently. No one is looking to do anything wrong. The first few steps down this path are deceptively easy. What starts as catching up or as an introduction can quickly lead to sharing personal and private information about your marriage, family, hopes, dreams, and desires. The next thing you know you’re writing things like, “No one understands me like you do,” and “I can tell you things that I can’t tell anyone.”

Email, texting, and social media can offer a false sense of intimacy. The secrecy, freedom from distractions, and lack of restraints frees us up to share the deepest darkest issues about ourselves that we may have never shared with any other real person our entire lives, but we will open up with someone we are corresponding with online. We feel accepted. Soon a deep emotional bond develops between two people, a bond that should be reserved exclusively for one’s spouse.

We must use the same precautions online that we would use in the real-world to protect ourselves from affairs. The internet, email, texting, social media–these are all great tools. They also provide many vulnerabilities and opportunities to sabotage your life and marriage. Take heed to the fact that emotional intimacy can develop much more quickly online and via text or email than a normal physical relationship. We can fall in love, or into lust, without ever touching one another. In fact, sexual chemistry can be fueled into flame much faster by titillating exchanges, steamy texts, and flirtatious posts than by actual sexual contact. That’s because our most important sexual organ is our brain. Once you go there in your mind, you’re there.

So watch out. Establish safeguards. Establish boundaries. Catch yourself early and remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s fun to feel attractive and interesting to a new acquaintance. It’s exciting to pick up where you left off with an old flame. It’s exhilarating to have a special friend that you can fake being real with. However, it’s not fun at all when you consider the impact that this will have on your marriage, your children, your reputation, your integrity, and possibly your career. Take your online activities seriously and save yourself and those you love a lot of heartache. Reality beats fantasy every time.