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Cyber Sex, Real Divorce
Virtual affairs are plaguing marriages today. Two spouses reveal the pain of infidelity, and the ultimate choice they had to make.


Jim Cooper


When Lynn walked over to the car in front of her house, she thought perhaps the driver was lost. Instead, she went into shock as the man inside proceeded to tell her that his wife Becca and her husband Mike were having an affair. He said the two met on a website.

Alysia’s* husband of two-and-a-half years was always on the internet. She’d even woken up a few nights to find Tyler online in chat rooms. “He was on the internet more than I thought was normal,” says Alysia, 28, “but he’s British and said he was talking online to friends from back home, so I didn’t think anything of it.”

Lynn admits there were problems in her marriage to Mike, but she wouldn’t characterize it as unhappy. They owned a business and were happily raising three young children together. But when she walked out of their front door that fateful morning, both lives would be changed forever.

“I remember some of the references… not a lot,” recalls Lynn, 34. “But I remember he said ‘sex’, that was the biggest thing.” When Lynn asked the man in the car why he was telling her this, he said, “Your husband ruined my life, so I want to ruin his.”

These two women, in different towns living different lives, both discovered their husbands were cheating on them, and although their circumstances were dissimilar in almost every way, one thing remained consistent; both used the internet to do it.

Statistics show an estimated 649 million people use the internet. The widespread employment of e-mail, instant messaging and web surfing in our lives has opened a new corridor for infidelity to strike relationships. As individuals take advantage of the easy discreetness the internet offers, cyber cheating has developed into a frequency that is both alarming and surreal and in the end the pain and damage left in its wake is all too real.

Alysia and Lynn know now the aftermath of internet infidelity, though each has chosen their own path in dealing with it. Their ordeals are just two examples of the disturbing trend when one engages in internet infidelity, and how it reached right into their very own lives.

The anonymity and ease of communicating via the internet enables cheaters to engage in salacious conversation with another person online, even as their spouse sits in the same room. Some feel disconnected, that this isn’t “real” cheating. According to an Internet Use and Abuse survey by Greenfield and Rivet, 57 percent of people have used the internet to flirt and 38 percent have engaged in explicit online sexual conversation. For those who are married or in a committed relationship, “harmless” online flirting can be harmful to your health.

"When you stay with someone who cheats on
you, a little piece of you dies."
--Alysia
The Fortino Group reports that one-third of all divorce litigation now involves one partner’s online infidelity, and the truth often does come out. Beatriz Mileham, who researched cyber cheating for her doctoral dissertation in counselor education at the University of Florida, responded, “The internet, if it hasn’t already, will become the most common form of infidelity.” In Mileham’s research, counseling organizations cite chat rooms as the fastest growing reasons behind relationships in peril.

Rich Gordon, principal mediator and founder of A Fair Way Mediation Center in San Diego deals with a lot of couples seeking divorce. Gordon has been successful in helping many of them resolve their issues and reconcile, but says that he’s seen a rise in internet infidelity cases in his office. Approximately 10 percent of warring couples seeking Gordon’s help are due to one spouse’s online affairs nowadays.

Web of Lies

Lynn confronted her husband at the couples home, shortly after the encounter with the vengeful driver. Mike denied the affair. “He owned his own company and he claimed someone was trying to mess with him and ruin his life,” says Lynn. “And I stupidly believed him.” Still, her doubts grew.

When Alysia used the computer to log on to her instant messenger, she accidentally stumbled upon her husband Tyler’s e-mail. It was a teenage girl he had previously coached in soccer. Alysia noticed he was using an e-mail account she was unaware of. Though the exchanges seemed friendly, Alysia disliked him exchanging messages with the younger woman. Tyler, 25, swore it was completely innocent, but Alysia was dubious, sensing something was amiss. Tyler seemed remorseful for keeping it a secret, but admitted no wrongdoing.

Author of His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair Proof Marriage and Surviving an Affair, Dr. Willard F. Harley, Jr., isn’t surprised by the way these scenarios unfolded. Harley, who has a center devoted to saving marriages, Marriage Builders, warns that no matter how much evidence is stacked against them, expect spouses to deny. He points to books like The 50-Mile Rule: Your Guide to Infidelity and Extramarital Etiquette who’s theme is just that—always deny. Harley has helped couples deal with the pain of infidelity and especially outrageous incidents of denial aren’t that uncommon, recalling one where the wife caught her husband in bed with the neighbor. Though the neighbor ran out of the room in front of the wife, the husband tried to convince her it was purely a figment of her imagination. “That’s one of the hardest parts in recovering from the cheating – when your spouse looks you right in the eye and lies,” says Harley. “And of course, it makes it ten times worse.”

The morning following the confrontation, Mike, 40, tried to initiate a conversation with Lynn. She asked him point blank: “You did do it, didn’t you?” He admitted he did. Lynn was doubly upset for his initial lies, and then herself for the constant apologies for making “false” accusation. Mike admitted his struggle to confess over the last few weeks, but didn’t “have the guts.” Even when confronted, he felt the need to protect himself. “I was devastated,” says Lynn. “There are no other words for it.”

The affair began by meeting on married-but-still-seeking site AshleyMadison.com. “It’s a deplorable site,” says Lynn, who registered herself and used the sites search parameters to see if she could find Mike’s profile, but found that too was deleted.

Mike and Becca met on the site and began exchanging e-mails and instant messages. Evidence points to a high correlation between online cyber sex and a sexual affair. The Greenfield and Rivet survey revealed that 31 percent of those who have had an online conversation say it has led to real-time sex. Mike and Becca had become another statistic, as their first encounter found Mike leaving the house in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to Lynn, for a secret rendezvous in a parking lot. Other times, Mike would meet Becca at a friend’s house he had a key to. Mike admitted his weekend rendezvous at the company the couple owned that he was meeting Becca, one time undoubtedly at the company office.

“The first thing he said to me is that he loved me and had no intention of leaving me. He’d made a mistake, was sorry and wanted to try and work things out,” says Lynn.

Several months after the e-mail discovery, Alysia laid on the couch watching “Desperate Housewives.” Tyler repeatedly came into the room acting very loving towards her and repeatedly kissing her. “I thought it was because I wasn’t paying attention to him,” says Alysia. “For the longest time Tyler had been erasing the (web) history, and I thought it was just broken.” This time, Alysia got off the couch and walked into the room where Tyler was on the computer. She decided to press the history button right then and there in front of him and saw another e-mail account he didn’t tell her about. She asked him for the password and he obliged, though nervous. “He knew he was caught,” says Alysia. The account had saved every mail that had been sent, and Alysia grew sick as she read them.

Tyler had been emailing a girl who had assisted him at a soccer camp, and it was definitely not innocent. “He asked her to send pictures of herself in lingerie he had bought and wanted to mail her,” says Alysia. “It was disturbing.” As she read more, she discovered he’d contacted yet another woman he had met while out drinking with friends, though she never responded. She told him to leave; he didn’t put up a fight.
"I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling anxious every time his cell phone rang. "

--Alysia
Harley says romances are sought by those wanting their important emotional needs met. Using the internet to find such partners creates a strange combination of intimacy without real intimacy. “It’s an emotional high that is very comparable to heroin addiction,” says Harley. “Many of these online meetings do not reach a sexual affair, but it’s still an affair.” In the program he runs, Harley has found an equal number of men and women who’ve admitted to cyber cheating.

While Lynn says there is no good reason why Mike cheated, they had lived somewhat separate lives for some time. Mike had pushed her away when the stress of their business grew, and despite the emotional distance, Lynn made a conscious decision to remain in the marriage. “My mom has been married multiple times and I didn’t want that,” says Lynn. Mike said he went looking for someone to talk to and Becca fulfilled the need, which then turned physical.

Tyler also revealed he sought companionship because he felt unhappy in his marriage to Alysia. Filled with anger and hurt over the secrets and betrayal, Alysia knew it was over. Hindsight being 20/20, Alysia knows now she wasn’t being truthful to herself either. “We weren’t in love with each other. He was always on my nerves, and we didn’t have sex. I very soon realized he did me a favor.”

The Aftermath

Alysia grieved for a few weeks, the early part spent crying her entire day away. “It was hard at first, you wonder ‘am I not pretty enough?’” says Alysia. But then she rationalized, “When somebody lies to you, that is not the person I love.”

Never contemplating reconciliation, Alysia explains, “I knew I would not ever feel comfortable with him again. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling anxious every time his cell phone rang. I can’t and I won’t live my life that way.” Although Tyler claimed he never had sex with either of the women, it didn’t matter to Alysia. “The problem is there. Deception is deception.”

Some may disagree that flirtatious or even salacious e-mails do not equal infidelity or warrant the same wrath a sexual encounter might, but Harley has found that whether or not the affair was consummated, the damage is the same. Alysia adds that for her it was also about her sense of self-respect and integrity. “I think that it’s definitely an individual choice and the quality of life you want to have,” says Alysia. “When you stay with someone who cheats on you, a little piece of you dies.”

While she didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of her twice-divorced parents, Alysia divorced Tyler and couldn’t feel happier. With no children, leaving for Alysia was undoubtedly a bit easier than those who have already started a family together.

Lynn, however, was willing to try and agreed to Mike’s plea. They never opted for a separation largely because they felt they would be unable to work things out living apart, and because their three children were all 11 years and younger and the holidays were just around the corner. Mike, however, was still on a tight leash and Lynn gave the condition that if things were not going as she had hoped, she would ask him to leave.

Reconciliation

The road to recovery for couples dealing with infidelity is a long and difficult one, says Harley, and it generally consists of two parts. First, the person can never see or talk to the lover again. Since the internet has become an integral part of life for many, this is no easy feat, and Harley says while it sounds extreme, many times it comes down to getting rid of the computer altogether. “Very much like dealing with an alcoholic, you’ve got to take the source of the addiction away from them,” says Harley. He’s worked with many couples that tried to find alternative approaches, but in the end they had to eliminate the computer. In some cases, the cell phone is banned during the early stages. If throwing out the computer seems drastic, Harley also brings to light one other troubling thought: “you can go to extreme precautions to avoid contact with that lover, but many are addicted to internet affairs, not just a particular person. They may have a bunch of people lined up with who they’re carrying on with simultaneously.”

The second step in recovery, says Harley, is creating a romantic relationship in your own marriage, which is difficult to do for the betrayed spouse. “They have to develop a loving relationship with a person that has committed the most serious offense they’ve felt in life and that whole combination of things makes you wonder if it is even possible.” However, Harley says hundreds of couples overcome those obstacles every year in his program.

Without seeing a counselor, Mike and Lynn instead began reconnecting by first talking constantly. “Though there’s never ever an excuse for what he did,” says Lynn, “There were problems in our marriage.” Together for 16 years and married for 12 of them, she admits distance had grown between them. “We made a recommitment to each other, putting our marriage first rather than our jobs, our children and all the activities going on in our lives first.”

A marked improvement took hold on Lynn and Mike’s marriage. They began e-mailing each other at work, something they had never done before. Their increased communication has made Lynn reach out to Mike for anything and for Mike, he now looks forward to coming home and spending time with his wife and kids. “He’s still the man I married and fell in love with, but he’s like a different person; he’s better,” says Lynn. “We’re trying so hard to make sure everything we do is about the two of us.”

Though she’s slowly building trust in Mike, she still finds herself feeling anxious when Mike doesn’t pick up his phone. “I still have twinges and I don’t trust him completely,” says Lynn. However, she’s glad she didn’t leave the marriage. “My husband and I have both said it totally sucks that this is going to be the best thing that happened to our marriage. It’s taken us to a level we’ve never been at before.” Reluctant to say, the affair was the catalyst for change and Lynn realizes it forced them to communicate about things they had been silent about for far too long.

*Editors note: due to the sensitivity of this subject, the names of the couples have been changed.

Love and Marriage
Before infidelity strikes, take preventative measures

While infidelity runs rampant in our society, with about half of all marriages dealing with it directly, you can avoid the likelihood of it ever happening. “It takes meeting several emotional needs at once,” says Dr. Willard F. Harley, Jr., author of several books on the subject and founder of marriage counseling center, Marriage Builders. When most reveal that sex isn’t what drives the affair Harley agrees it’s absolutely true, citing the lack of a romantic relationship causing many to seek others to fulfill their emotional needs.

“There are really four emotional needs that are primarily romantic: affection, intimate conversation, recreational companionship and sexual fulfillment,” says Harley. “If you have a romantic relationship in your own marriage, an affair is much easier to resist.” If you suspect your spouse might be doing something unsavory, Harley feels you have every right to investigate, whether by installing tracking software on the computer or even hiring a private investigator. If anything is found, Harley advises saving the evidence for the confrontation. “A husband and wife should be so transparent that any effort on the part of one to look at what the other is doing should never be considered off limits,” says Harley.
--April Y. Pennington



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