The Internet, Your Relationship, and You

Is the Internet hurting your relationship?

The Internet is coming between many couples. It has made sexual issues more complicated. However, sex isn’t the only area where the Internet is problematic. A lot of people are playing video games until the wee hours of the morning, and their partners often feel neglected. Whether it’s sex or work-related or gambling or just time away from their partners, it’s difficult for some people to unplug. Some partners alternate between being angry, jealous, and suspicious, and Internet use can be harmful to your relationship.

The Internet and infidelity

Most couples, even those who meet online, tend not to talk about their Internet activities since they’ve gotten together. Many people expect outside sexual activity – virtual (including porn) or otherwise – to stop. For many people, stopping for a year or two is relatively easy. Being together is exciting and requires a lot of energy so the thought of the Internet is far behind them.

When the first major bumps in the road occur, things change. Some couples start a dialogue and begin to work through their differences. Plus, they turn to trusted friends or their therapists to help them communicate to their partners.

But what happens when uncomfortable feelings come up as you and your partner approach shaky ground and neither of you can talk about it?

Unfortunately, the Internet is a surefire way to take the focus off of what’s going on between you. It becomes an instantly accessible arena for escape, excitement, and eroticism. A variety of choices for emailing, photo swapping, and video exist at the push of a button.

Where’s the line?

Part of what makes virtual sex appealing is that you can get on the Internet and say to yourself, “This isn’t actual sex, so I’m not cheating.”

But it may be. Let’s look at where you may be crossing the line. Although you’re not having actual sex, the energy you’re diverting from the other person is similar to having actual sex. It’s just that the Internet provides you with a built-in rationalization.

Instead of placing the emphasis on whether it’s cheating or not, consider what your partner knows and doesn’t know about your activities. If s/he is aware that you’re having virtual sex, then the word “cheating” doesn’t apply. Cheating includes secrecy. If you’re both OK with your activities, then the focus should be kept on each of your comfort levels.

If you rationalize your way out of having a discussion with your partner, then you’re essentially cheating, regardless of your level of involvement. To digress, I want to distinguish between what’s personal from what is a secret.

Many experiences in your past are personal and therefore don’t need to be disclosed with your partner. For example, the details of a previous break-up are personal and don’t need to be shared. However, an ongoing friendship with your ex is your partner’s business. Your partner’s comfort level comes before the friendship with your ex, so if you view her discomfort as a way to justify seeing your ex without her knowledge, then it’s a secret.

Same with the Internet. If you don’t tell your partner what you’re doing because you don’t want to hurt him or her, you’re simply finding a way to justify your secretive activities. But if you keep him or her informed of your activities – maybe even doing some activities together – then it’s not cheating.

When is the Internet an Addiction?

Some mental health professionals believe that people can’t be addicted to an activity. They prefer the term "compulsive" for things like sex, gambling, exercise, and the Internet. For now, let's sidestep the issue over what to call it in order to focus on what’s happening both to the Internet user and to you as a couple.

The Internet user is involved in an activity that is providing a surge of feel-good brain chemicals – the same ones as if s/he were using drugs. Pleasure centers of the brain “light up” similarly as well. The Internet has a hypnotic quality, whether it’s being used for sex or gambling. Gambling is its own addiction/compulsion, so it may not be the Internet so much but easy access to a virtual casino that’s a problem.

Your Internet use may have become an addiction/compulsion if you:

  • Have tried unsuccessfully to stop or slow down
  • Think about it a lot
  • Can’t wait to get back into it
  • Mean to stop at midnight but stay on until 1, 2, or 3 am
  • Find it interfering with your friendships or work
  • Have fights with your partner over your Internet use

What should you do?

Ironically (or perfectly), one place to look for help is the Internet. Start at Mental Help Net.

Going forward, stop to check out what’s going on as you get online. Did you just have a fight with your partner? Were you just yelled at by your boss? The point is to gather information about when you use the Internet and for what reasons. Consider talking to your partner about the situation, whether you or your partner is the one with the problem. Talking things out can make a difference.

Of course therapy can be a good place to talk about your issues regarding your Internet activities. Many of us have experience in treating people with addiction (compulsion), and part of an exploration would include – is your activity an escape? Are you using it to regulate or escape from your feelings? Has it affected your life beyond your partnership (for example, work and friendships)? Wherever you begin your discussions, it can be very helpful to bring it out into the open and learn more about yourself and what motivates you to over-indulge in these activities.