Romantic relationships are by their very nature complicated; a huge emotional investment which balances on trust and commitment. When trust is betrayed, the whole dynamic is inevitably thrown off kilter. Secret liaisons, lipstick on the collar, unexplained expenses and a host of other dodgy goings-on which point at clear-cut treachery. But what if the ‘other woman/man’ is on the other side of the country or the globe for that matter? What if one of the partners is having a virtual hands-off affair on the internet? Does it count as adultery? In our new ever-changing virtual reality,do the traditional relationship rules still apply? We speak to Maria*, a young wife and mother who has recently found herself caught up in a virtual love triangle…
“I stumbled upon my husband’s virtual affair by accident. I was looking for a bill on his laptop and came across a folder marked by the odd name ‘The Edge’. Out of sheer curiosity I opened it and in that single moment, my world was turned upside down. There were hundreds of conversation transcripts with this woman, spanning months. It was a dumb thing to do on his part, leaving something like that ‘lying around’, just waiting to be discovered. I am not that tech-savvy, I don’t even own a social media account, so perhaps he believed that finding this particular folder would be beyond me,” she says with a sad smile, “It was the equivalent of finding hundreds of lover letters tucked away in a drawer, and just as soul-destroying.”
Maria found that her husband and his virtual mistress has spent a lot of time in each other’s company. According to the transcripts of their chats they not only explored and discussed in detail the vast and easily available array of online pornography, but also their wishes and sexual desires. And just like any other real affair, the whole thing was conducted in secrecy; only making contact while Maria was asleep, and he ‘worked’ into the night or during the few hours he was at home while she was still at work.
“There are a million ways to look at any relationship,but I could not discern any ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ for this kind of situation and I certainly was not equipped for it. To say that I was devastated by what I read in that folder would be an understatement. It could scarcely have hurt more if it was a real affair and he was physically playing away with another woman. I was torn into trying to understand the implications of all this. It felt typical of every other adulterous scenario, but was it real? Or was it just fantasy? Was I unleashing a storm in a teacup? Since this was not the typical sexual affair, did I qualify as ‘the spurned woman’? Even though this has happened in the virtual abysses of the internet, the deception was real enough,and I still felt sorely betrayed,” Maria continues.
When confronted, Maria’s husband insisted that this was only a game and he would never dream of behaving in such an atrocious fashion in the real world, something which she has found very hard to reconcile with. He finds nothing wrong in indulging with a complete stranger as long as his exploits are confined to the virtual world. “To me it smacks of the age-old arguments for an affair – as long as no one finds out, all’s hunky dory. The discovery of this secret side to the man who I have committed my life to,raises huge questions about trust. Are our moral compasses aligned in the same way? I think not,” she says fervently.
So, would Maria consider a virtual affair as adultery?“Definitely! When I took my marriage vows, I promised that I would ‘forsake all others’ and I did, whether those ‘others’ were real or otherwise. Apparently,for my husband ‘forsaking all others’ came with its own special proviso. Despite the lack of physical contact, this affair has sounded a death knell for our marriage… I cannot overcome the emotional betrayal of it all,” Maria ends on as ad note.
For the sake of this article I have asked a number of people who are currently in committed relationships for their views on situations like this; surprisingly reactions have been split. As one friend succinctly puts it, “An online affair is very different to a sexual affair. An online relationship can be very liberating – almost like a confessional. You can be completely anonymous, you can be very open and freely explore any dark aspects of your personality without any judgement. You can be as glamorous and debonair as you’d like to be. I actually can quite understand the appeal.”
But for others an online affair still counts as adultery. “Betrayal of trust does not simply boil down to having sex with someone else. Faithfulness is much more than just the physical side; there’s the emotional commitment, honesty… Besides, it brings back the age-old double standards into play – having the wife to keep up appearances and the bit on the side for sexual deviance, except that in the virtual world, the bit on the side is kept as an emotional crutch, a stopgap for whatever’s lacking in the real relationship,” says another.
Situations like Maria’s are shaping up to be big problems in the digital age. Relationships are facing new and unprecedented hurdles as the boundaries between reality and fantasy become even more blurred…but the key as always, remains honest communication of the real kind…
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee