Divorce by Facebook – why online affairs rarely end happily ever after

Heather Dugmore: Author, writer and farmer. Not necessarily in that order.
Heather Dugmore: Author, writer and farmer.

Reading Heather Dugmore’s piece reminded me of a friend who joined the mushrooming statistics of Divorce by Facebook. His partner, a long-time online junkie, progressed to the point where she seemed to be spending every waking minute in front of her computer. They even joked about her loving the laptop more than him. But he had a full life so thought little more about it. Then she started keeping her phone hidden away. Before my friend knew it, he was talking to lawyers. Heather has tapped into this elephant in the social media room, interviewing leading experts to better understand the dark side of the internet. Some interesting conclusions – including that online affairs rarely end happily ever after.  – AH      

By Heather Dugmore

When we’re on Facebook, bbm’ing, internet dating or sms’ing, we can be whoever our fantasy wants us to be and the people we meet online can become our fantasy relationship.

We can be taller, slimmer, more interesting, more intelligent, more successful and more attractive. We can also be selective about the information we give out and leave out details that don’t serve us, such as that we are married or in a relationship.

All too soon we start living out our fantasy relationship online. This relationship is far more satisfying than the one we are in, which includes shopping for groceries and sharing the bathroom.

Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Judith Ancer says counselors are seeing a rise in affairs as a result of social media. She explains that it’s not that people didn’t flirt or have fantasies and affairs before the advent of social media. Of course they did.

“But what social media has provided is a smorgasbord of options that are both seductive and immediate,” she explains. The immediacy is just too temping and it allows people to act out their fantasies at an accelerated pace.

“Online, people tend to fairly immediately translate their feelings into words or photographs and start living out their daydreams. There’s an impulsivity and exhibitionism about pressing ‘send’ and acting as if social media is private space.”

Within a few message and photo exchanges people feel close to each other; close enough to share desires and feelings they might never have shared with their partner or spouse.

Freud in his time wrote about repression as a major pathology that blocked people’s desire to express or live out their fantasies and desires.

In our time the internet breaks through this barrier, and online relationships quickly become erotic and sexual, some covertly, some overtly.

This can, at the same time, ramp up people’s dissatisfaction with their real life relationship, which does not match up to the fantasy.

Ancer discusses one example where high school sweethearts meet up again online after not having seen each other for some time. They both have full, complex lives, but suddenly they can be their 17-year-old selves again and relive their unresolved fantasy of how life could have turned out.

“The intensity and idealisation of the online relationship takes energy out of the relationship you are supposed to be in,” says Ancer.

“You start believing the person with whom you have reconnected or the person you have just met online will solve all your real life problems and make life interesting and exciting again,” adds Johannesburg-based emotional coach and author Stephanie Vermeulen.

Many people take the online relationship to the next step and agree to meet face to face or start a physical affair. Often the person is very different in the flesh, and the potential for anticlimax is high.

“The fantasy of being in love is far more powerful than actually getting to know someone,” Vermeulen explains. “It’s not difficult to be intensely focused on someone for the couple of minutes or the hour when you are communicating online.”

It gives the impression of undivided attention and caring. In real life most people cannot keep this up for too long.

Clinical psychologist Pierre Brouard from the Centre for the Study of Aids at the University of Pretoria adds a different perspective. He says: “It’s tempting to get into a “moral panic” about social media and its effect on intimate and marital relationships, and while it will invariably lead to things we don’t yet know, an interesting side to it is that it leads to a questioning of what we define as unfaithfulness.

“In the past it was predominantly defined by physical unfaithfulness but does flirting or making new connections via bbm, sms, Facebook or other forms of social media constitute unfaithfulness? Where is the dividing line? How do we know when we have stepped over the faithful barrier online, and how far do we allow ourself or our partner to explore other friendships before it becomes a threat to the primary relationship?”

These are the interesting questions that we need to ask ourselves and discuss with our partner or spouse. Brouard says we are all socialised to believe our partner is 100% ours for life but this is also a fantasy.

So what do we do about it if our partner, husband or wife starts behaving strangely around social media? They uncharacteristically start taking their cellphone everywhere they go, including to the bathroom. They start hiding it or they click onto another page whenever you approach them when they are on their computer.

“Most times the partner finds out because no one is vigilant 100% of the time. If this happens you need to talk to your partner, and the two of you might need to go for counseling,” says Vermeulen.

She cites the case of a woman whose husband kept hiding his phone. She eventually found it and read the messages between him and another woman, clearly indicating an affair. She told him she had found the messages and they thrashed it out, and went for counseling but ultimately got divorced.

“In this situation the online affair was symptomatic of a relationship that was already in deep trouble,” says Vermeulen.

Brouard says: “You can try and find that perfect person who can make you feel wonderful and fill the emptiness you might feel, but they don’t exist because we have to do the work ourselves. Love partners, husbands and wives can help you and support you, but they cannot do the work for you.”

Many psychologists say it takes two years before your fantasy of the other person subsides and you start seeing who they are, as opposed to wanting to see your ideal partner.

Vermeulen says: “Fantasies lead to false expectations that the person will complete your world, whereas a good relationship is actually a down-to-earth thing; it is about a strong friendship, support system and understanding of each other.”

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