Late for work, Marie stops to give her husband, Hal, a quick peck on the cheek before making a dash for her car. She climbs into the driver’s seat, slams the door, and rummages in her purse for her iPhone, hoping a message from Robert has finally come through. Nothing.

isitcheatingonline-150x150Disappointed, she turns the key in the ignition and heads to the office, but throughout her commute she keeps stealing glances at her phone. Finally, at her desk, Marie sees Robert’s name pop up in the mailbox on her computer screen. She glances at the clock…ten minutes before her meeting and three phone calls to juggle. But she devotes half that precious time to reading and responding to Robert’s email and then entirely loses the other half in a daydream about the two of them locked in a scorching embrace. Suddenly, a wave of anxiety engulfs her. She has played this mind-movie so many times while in bed with Hal that she feels guiltier than ever.

Sounds like Marie is having a secret affair that’s already affecting her marriage, doesn’t it? But, what if I told you that Robert and Marie have never met; that their entire relationship has been conducted online? Would you consider them in a “real relationship?” Would keeping it secret be wrong?

Before we draw any conclusions, why don’t we look at this story from another point of view: Let’s say that Hal notices that Marie is not as attentive to him or as sexually responsive as she used to be. On a whim, he starts venturing into the virtual universe, Second Life, where he encounters “BootyGirl.” After a few weeks, Hal comes to think of his Second Life interludes with BootyGirl as a small island of pleasure, a soothing connection that appeases the isolation he feels at home. BootyGirl, with her curvy avatar sheathed in skintight latex, makes him feel desirable for the first time in years – even though their sexy hook-ups take place strictly on screen and in their minds.

Do you think that Hal’s activities constitute cheating? Is he doing anything “wrong?”

All of these questions are typical of those that internet sex-experts are asked about relationships. Yet, none of them can or should be answered easily, for they require us to think beyond classic notions of infidelity. Philosophically, these questions ask us to dissect the make-up of emotional experience and to contemplate where a “real” relationship takes place. Does it exist solely in our ordinary reality, in the touch-and-feel dimension alone? Or can relationships arise in that dream-like place where cyberspace, mind, and emotion intersect?

Emotion and Connection in the Virtual World

Today’s wireless universe is forcing us to rethink the old assumption that intimacy must be grounded in the physical world. As our lives expand to encompass both physical and virtual space, the nature of “relationship” is changing – therefore, the meaning of “betrayal” is changing, too.

Our infatuations and our romances draw their power from the life we live inside our heads. We could think of this as the “virtual space” of our minds. Our thoughts, imagination and memories can spark physiological and emotional responses that are as potent and “real” within our psyches and bodies as the caress of a lover’s hand, the timbre of his voice, the scent of her skin. An email conversation or a connection made in the multi-player gaming world may become as compelling as one made over cocktails or on the basketball court. Think of Marie’s anticipation over receiving a text from Robert; the distraction posed by her thoughts about him, her hopefulness…her guilt. Or ask yourself: would a rejection by an online friend that you’ve come to depend upon for advice and support feel painless just because that person’s “shoulder to cry on” is virtual?

All our relationships exist, to a vast degree, in our psyches. If intimacies that we develop in the cyber-universe and those we encounter in the tactile world all play out in the same “head-space” – if they can produce similar flights of fantasy and emotion – then, distinguishing an affair that ignites in Second Life from one that begins at the cozy inn down the road becomes increasingly difficult.

Further, the internet encourages us to stretch our sense of identity beyond the scope of our physical boundaries: we invest our attention in the varied onscreen windows that become our daily vistas, and we may develop multiple, parallel onscreen lives with separate names, personalities, even genders and ages. While this process does a great job of giving us new freedoms, it does a much poorer job of protecting our key face-to-face relationships from outside invasion. Online worlds and alter egos can filter into our ordinary lives quite easily – partly due to the boom in what MIT cyber-researcher, Sherry Turkle, calls our “always on/always on you” device culture.

Affairs in Our Wireless Culture

To the extent that we are tethered to our cell phones, tablets and laptops when we;re out in public, we transform our public spaces into private enclaves. In airports, cafes, classes and meetings we can submerge ourselves in media bubbles, barely disturbed by others in proximity. Because these devices provide open channels to the world even when we are in our private domains, anyone from the outside can intrude almost at will upon our time and space, turning the private into the public. A husband can type explicit sexual messages to an online sweetheart while watching TV with the family. His wife can check her inbox for romantic email from her online crush while the kids are IM-ing their Facebook-buddies located halfway across the globe. With the once cherished demarcation between public space and private space irredeemably blurred, someone having an affair need not utter those classic words, “don’t call me at home.” Now, he can quietly inject his new amour into the family 24/7, with no one else the wiser.

Most therapists – actually, most people – agree that an illicit romance always jeopardizes a long-term relationship. Even if the affair is conducted discreetly, even if the lovers rarely see one another, the emotions that are conjured up by an affair can upset the delicate balance of focus, attention and affection needed to sustain a primary, long-term commitment. Recognizing that intimacy is perceived largely by the psyche explains why even an exclusively virtual affair can have so much power. The mind is, itself, a virtual world; one that the cyber-dimension mimics to a greater extent than it departs from. Absorption with a lover in these two virtual domains can be like the hard-hitting “one-two punch” that delivers a knock out blow. The online relationship that began as a “meaningless” adventure can seep into one’s psych and take possession of one’s heart.

Emotional Affairs vs. Sexual Affairs

In real life, with so much time spent at work among attractive, stimulating colleagues, emotionally intense (but nonsexual) relationships that arise between collaborators can seem more compelling than routine intimacies that include sex. Experts tag these “emotional affairs,” agreeing that they can endanger marriages because, at the very least, they siphon energy and communication away from the marriage and toward the “outsider.” At worst, these can lead to physical affairs or produce cruel fractures of trust. In fact, many people say that if their partner were to become emotionally unfaithful they’d feel even more ripped-off than if he or she had a sexy fling. Giving of one’s deepest self is viewed as a greater take-away than lending one’s genitals.

Popular magazines have devoted precious real estate to these emotional liaisons – take, for example, Marie Claire’s sensationalized headline, HEAD SEX: The Dangerous New Infidelity You Need To Know About. Ironically, “head sex” is exactly what drives virtual-life flirtations. Strange as it may seem to those who have never been tangled in the web, cyber-romances encourage the deepest intimate revelations and draw upon all the classic elements of drama to keep infatuation alive.

Online Affairs: Right or Wrong?

In the final analysis, there is no doubt that online affairs are meaningful; that they count. But are they wrong? This question misses the mark. Instead, we should be asking whether an online relationship is secret; whether it detracts from the closeness, shared time, trust and openness necessary for a primary relationship to thrive.

If it does, it’s trouble.

In partnerships or marriages where secrets and lies abound, stability and even love can be lost because those with secrets stop trusting themselves. It takes only one person to create distance for two, and only one to alter the essence and durability of a marriage. For all these reasons, online hook-ups need to be entertained with great caution. Better yet, they should be recognized for what they actually are: completely real and potentially life-changing affairs.