Friday, November 19, 2010

Infidelity in the Digital Age

Can social media break up a marriage? asks NPR in a recent feature on All Things Considered.

Not exactly. But sites like Facebook open a world of possibilities for connecting with people in a low-risk and socially acceptable way--people like old flames or co-workers whom you might not consider it appropriate to call at home or meet in person, especially if you, and they, are attached.

There's a casualness and anonymity to email, texting, and Facebook that make it easier to cross lines that felt a little more solid before communications went digital. "In fact," reporter Jenifer Ludden points out, "...a partner can easily carry on an affair in the same house, even the same room."

People often behave more boldly in the digital shadows, where rejection, as simple as hitting an "ignore" button or just failing to reply to a text, feels less threatening than an in-person blow-off. That's why it's so easy to launch the kind of online intimacy that can (as Ludden posits) quickly spiral into an affair. And relationships that begin online can often escalate a lot faster than the more traditional variety.

"When you don't have nonverbal communication, the likelihood of being able to disclose at a deeper level is greater, because there's less inhibition," says Bob Rosenwein of Lehigh University. "So it's going to feel like a more intimate relationship."

Extramarital Facebook flirting and romance have apparently become common enough that a New Jersey pastor has cautioned his church community to give up Facebook. JJ Sutherland's NPR News blog quotes Reverend Cedric Miller as saying he's seen a huge rise in couples among his flock who say Facebook is a main source of their marital problems. "The temptation is just too great," he says.

Sutherland also links to this Telegraph article, in which UK divorce lawyers claim that 20% of their clients cite Facebook as a reason for their divorce, often because a spouse has discovered evidence of sexual flirtation on a partner's Facebook site.

The rather sad upside of this for private investigators and family attorneys is that today's straying spouses often leave a digital fingerprint. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (again, thanks JJ Sutherland for this) reports that 81% of divorce lawyers say they've seen an increase in the number of cases using social media evidence.

We at [FIND] are seeing more of this kind of thing as well--affairs in which the main evidence is a log of text messages or Facebook posts of spouses photographed with their suspected illicit paramours, for all the world to see.

Frankly, you'd think folks would be a little smarter. But it seems that, sometimes, people may begin a digital affair in a way that feels almost innocent. It might even start with a simple, "Whatcha doin'?" text to an attractive casual acquaintance. But when the intimate contact is returned in kind, it can quickly become addictive. The next thing you know, you're stashing the phone under your pillow to intercept 2am texts from someone you barely knew 3 weeks ago.

Here's my personal philosophy on the matter: if it feels wrong, it probably is. I try not to say, type, or text anything I wouldn't be proud for my favorite guy to hear or read. That seems to work pretty darned well for us. But if you're determined to cheat, help a PI out: Facebook-flirt and "sext" as much as you please. We also appreciate any photographic evidence you can provide.  

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