Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tangled web

The Internet isn't quite a seedy motel room, but cyber-cheating is still damaging to relationships

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Last December, Sophie (not her real name) added a new activity to her regular morning routine: checking the web browser history on her home computer.

Some time after that, the 45-year-old Winnipegger also added a new activity to her weekly schedule: couples' counselling, which she attends alone.

Her common-law partner did attend the first session, she says, during which time he was "arrogant and defensive" and proceeded to inform the therapist that most of the men he knows would not consider the exchange of racy messages with a female Facebook friend to be cheating.

But Sophie sure does.

"The world crashed around me," the petite strawberry blond recalls of the winter day when she logged on to their shared computer only to discover her partner of two years had left both his Facebook and Hotmail accounts open. He'd even created a folder in which to save the "sexting" messages.

 

"According to him, fairly innocent emails between her and him went a step beyond. He thought it was harmless at the time, but claims he ended it after two months because he realized it was wrong," says Sophie, sitting on a bench in a downtown park, frequently blinking back tears as she describes her struggles over the past six months to rebuild trust and to understand why it got shattered in the first place.

"We didn't have a sexless relationship, nor was there a lack of communication, or intimacy issues. He was fishing for something else when I thought our relationship was quite stable."

Whether "fishing" is technically cheating if you don't actually land your catch is a question that has likely triggered countless discussions in recent weeks.

The traditional definition of cheating, or infidelity, is when one person in a committed relationship is physically involved with someone other than their spouse.

Emotional infidelity, meanwhile, is unfaithfulness that occurs through feeling or thought. During a 1976 interview with Playboy magazine, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, for example, admitted that he had looked on a lot of women with lust and "committed adultery in my heart many times."

Now, thanks to the technological advancement of smartphones and the Internet, there's a murky moral pond between behaviour and intent.

Anthony Weiner may have only dangled the bait, so to speak, but judging by the latest news out of Weinergate, the American congressman has been busy destroying his political career and his home life one lewd email at a time.

Technology has only "aided and abetted what has always been there historically," by providing wandering lovers quick and easy access to like-minded individuals, says Judy Haid, a Winnipeg marriage and family therapist with 45 years of experience.

But whether it takes place in cyberspace or in a hotel room, cheating is a form of "acting out" and it's usually symptomatic of underlying problems in the relationship, she says.

They may have abandonment or commitment issues, be afraid of getting older, be bored, or maybe their relationship is indeed stuck in a rut, but Haid says people who stray do so primarily to avoid facing the issues.

"They've never looked at how to invest in their marriage, to make it more alive, more intimate, more comfortable, so they just rest in certain kinds of patterns and they get stalemated in those and they want a little excitement. And it's right there" at the click of a computer mouse or key pad, she says.

Alyssa, 35, has been on both sides on the infidelity fence. Her first husband stepped out on her repeatedly (including with her maid of honour) and then she "revenge cheated" on a subsequent unfaithful partner.

But that provided only "temporary fulfilment, and after a while it just ate my heart," says the striking brunette and mother of three, sipping tea in a Tim Horton's.

By comparison, her current husband of four years was a "prince," says Alyssa, which is why she was "devastated" when, one day about a month ago, she borrowed his laptop and logged on, and up popped the home page for adultery website AshleyMadison.com.

Although she'd never heard of the site, the motto said it all. "It's there in black and white: 'Life is short. Have an affair.' My heart dropped. I was devastated."

Alyssa found her husband's profile on the website, although there was no evidence he had corresponded with any other members, or been involved in any online activity period. When confronted, he claimed he'd been looking for porn and had already filled out the registration form when he realized his mistake and couldn't figure out how to unsubscribe. (AshleyMadison.com has a $19.99 service that will erase a user's digital footprints; however, those who wish to simply to delete their free account may only "permanently hide" their profile, an option that isn't clearly advertised.)

Alyssa isn't buying any of it. "I consider looking to cheat being unfaithful. You can have a moment of weakness, but then talk about it," she says. "Before, I didn't care if he looked at porn, but now I do. It opened up something."

Trust is always the biggest casualty of infidelity, which is a betrayal, Haid says. "People obviously don't like the thought of their partner sleeping with someone else, but the real damaging part is 'you lied to me.'"

Alyssa and her husband are currently in counselling -- initiated by him -- but what's delaying the healing, she says, is his refusal to "come clean."

In fact, when she saw an article about AshleyMadison.com in the June 4 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press while driving with her husband, he pulled the vehicle over and threw the paper into a nearby trash can, insisting that they "move on."

"We're still married, but we lost our relationship over this," says Alyssa, who admits she has wondered if this is "karma" for her own past indiscretions.

And if Alyssa's husband had done more than just cast his line into the Ashley Madison pond?

She cuts off the question in mid-sentence:

"We would be done."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2011 D1

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