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As far back as November 2001, CP) published an article (Anthony, 2001) describing a client's experience of her counselor being unable to take seriously a non-physical relationship she had with a man over the Internet. With the advent of websites such as Friendsreunited.co.uk (to rediscover past relationships, most infamously old school romances), and gaydar.co.uk (linking like-minded gay men and women), the potential for offline established relationships to be threatened by emotional or physical infidelity has increased. As a counselor with an online presence, I find that an increasing number of potential clients are seeking an online therapist because they believe that he or she will be better able to empathize with the concept of the emotional damage such a relationship can cause.
Intense online relationships, whether romantic or sexual, are quite usual, and yet are still considered as 'not real' by many practitioners who are unfamiliar with Cyberspace. Dr Monica Whitty is a renowned expert in the concepts of how these diverse relationships impact on a client's emotional health, and I invited her to share some of her research findings on the topic. Kate Anthony
Playing at love on the Internet can be potentially therapeutic. Cyberspace is known to be a place where individuals can feel less inhibited and safer to flirt and develop relationships (Whitty, 2003; Whitty & Carr, 2003). It is a place where diverse relationships can be developed. However, we cannot dismiss the notion that engaging in intimate relationships online can also have a negative effect on an individual's life offline. If one is already in a relationship offline, then are ads, such as cybersex, hot chatting, emotional disclosure or viewing pornography acts of infidelity? This short paper discusses this notion (sec Whitty, 2003, Whitty, in press, Whitty & Carr, in press, for a more detailed discussion).
Online versus offline
Moreover, as Julie Fitness (2001) contends: 'Essentially, betrayal means that one party in a relationship acts in a way that favors his or her own interests at the expense of the other party's interests. In one sense, this behavior implies that the betrayer regards his or her needs as more important than the needs of the partner in the relationship. In a deeper sense, however, betrayal sends an ominous signal about how little the betrayer cares about, or values, his or her relationship with the betrayed partner. Hence, it is not merely the act itself that is the betrayal, but the energy being diverted to another significant other — energy and time that the partner perceives should be given to them!
Version A: Mark and Jennifer have been going out for over a year. Then Mark realizes that Jennifer has developed a relationship with someone else over the Internet...
Version B: Jennifer and Mark have been going out for over a year. Then Jennifer realizes that Mark has developed a relationship with someone else over the Internet...
While Kitzinger and Powell found that 90 per cent of their sample interpreted their cue story, which was developed in respect of offline infidelity, to be an act of sexual involvement, this was not the case in this particular study. While all the participants understood this to be a dilemma about infidelity, some were divided as to whether the betrayer believed they were committing an act of infidelity, while others wrote that the partner was not certain they had been betrayed.
Moreover, when participants interpreted the cue story as one about sexual involvement, this was not necessarily about a sexual relationship, but in many cases was an emotional involvement.
Where participants believed this was not a case of infidelity, the reasons given were as follows:
A seductive appeal
Cyberspace is potentially a safer space to play at love — and people may perceive that it is less likely they will be caught out. As Cooper (1998) contends, three factors make the Internet a powerful medium for online sexual activities: access, affordability and anonymity. These aspects suggest that Cyberspace is not only a different place for infidelity but possibly a more attractive space.
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