12/18/2013 07:14 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Virtual Infidelity -- If I Don't Touch, Am I Still Being Unfaithful?

Defining an affair used to be relatively simple. One or both partners in an intimate, exclusive relationship begin a sexual relationship with another person without their partner's knowledge or permission. That partner, excluded from the option to vote, may not initially notice that anything is wrong, but, over time, notices that something is amiss. The time-worn obvious signs like inadequate explanations of unavailability, more critical responses, lessened energy, and diminished affection or interest begin to emerge.

In the past, affairs were most often clandestine interactions in real time with actual people. When they were eventually discovered, the previously unsuspecting partner had to deal with not only both being betrayed, but also replaced, sometimes with someone he or she already knew.

Men were more likely to be the culprits because of their greater access to other women and their reputation for more frequent sexual interest. Whether it was true or not, the motive most often cited was more exciting sex in competition with less passionate intimacy in their primary relationship. When women strayed, they more often picked someone they had known for a while who was available for a romantic relationship in concert with the sexual outlet.

Many of these affairs ended up significantly threatening the committed relationship. Also, the outside individuals willing to participate in the triangle had goals of their own which often emerged in unwelcome ways and at unpredictable times. If the sexual affair continued for a period of time, those extra-curricular complexities were more likely to emerge if the clandestine person placed a troublesome call or showed up at the door.

The emergence of the Internet has widened the playing field. Access to its many options has opened up a never-before-available world to both men and women who want to engage in secretive sexual connections. In addition, a flesh-and-blood partner is no longer necessary for that liaison to occur. People can have exciting, secretive sexual interactions via this new technology with partners they may never physically touch or see in person.

When these virtual relationships are discovered, the betrayed partner may feel heartbreak in a whole new way. Without a clear human target, he or she can be even more distressed. Now a once-trusted partner has lived in an undisclosed fantasy world that is highly likely to negatively compare the real partner to a virtual, unblemished paramour.

Internet web sites abound where partners who are seeking outside stimulation can participate in dramatic, often pseudo-authentic fantasies. Those liaisons not only may never be discovered, but are without the constraints of time away, money spent, or fear of discovery. The partners who participate can indulge themselves in virtual sexual satisfaction with much less concern they will be exposed.

As an example, a web site emerged several years ago that offered its members participation in a virtual world which encouraged them to assume a false identity. They created and lived out this alter-ego which would not only be a radically different person from who they were in real life, but a role unlikely to ever occur in that time and space.

Once signed up, they were to live this false identity in connection with other "acting" beings as if they were actually living in actual relationships with each other. They could live out that "other life" and rationalize that it would not affect their actual relationship. There was no touching or face-to-face contact, and the absence of accountability to a real partner could dramatically increase the level of excitement.

Unfortunately, people do not live in individualized, discreet compartments. They "bleed" over emotionally, spiritually, and often eventually, physically. Whatever a person does in one area of life in fact affects every other aspect. Pretending that is not the case not only doesn't stop it, but can amplify the result. Those fantasy escapes do challenge real-life partnerships, sometimes severely undermining them.

In light of these new opportunities, it is probably time to look at virtual infidelity, define its parameters, and assess its current effect on committed relationships.

Let's assume that two people in a committed relationship have agreed to a set of promises that both will honor whether in the presence of the other or not. The behaviors they agree upon can be anything that is comfortable and acceptable to both. Once those mutually chosen standards are in position, they become the foundation for the relationship's "faith", the cornerstone of the partners' trust in each other. If either chooses to act outside of those agreements and hide those experiences from the other, he or she is choosing to "break the faith." Hence the word, "unfaithful." Infidelity is only one example of a breach of that contract.

If they are to stay current, trust agreements between intimate partners must be re-examined and revised from time to time to make way for any emerging new desires either partner may want. When changes need to be made, the partners ideally work them out together. They choose inclusivity to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Once recommitted to their new agreements, the partners promise one another to honor those new guidelines and keep the relationship's faith intact.

If the partners cannot agree to new sanctions but don't want to give up the relationship, they may, unfortunately, pretend to one another that they are re-committed when they are, in fact, not behaving by the agreements they've made. One or both may then secretly act out those desires without the other's knowledge or permission. What was promised as inclusion now becomes exclusion.

Exclusion creates the compartment in which infidelity, whether virtual or real, can eventually flourish. By this evaluation, any behavior chosen by either partner that excludes the others awareness will, when known, destroy the trust they have created.

One of the most common example of inclusion/exclusion potential facing intimate partners today is the conflict about the part pornography should play in their relationship. Some couples are totally comfortable watching porn, either alone or together, while others are wrenched apart by different reactions to it. The decision as to how much and what king of porn to include in an intimate relationship is a challenge couples must face and work out together.

For example, if a man enjoys making love to his partner but, at other times, masturbates while watching porn, it isn't likely to be a problem between them unless his partner feels threatened or offended. If, on the other hand, he secretly uses porn to self-stimulate instead of making love to his partner, he is operating exclusively i.e., making decisions he and his partner might not agree upon were she to know. If the excluded partner feels sexually ignored or deprived, then sexual energy is being secretly siphoned off the relationship.

The example of the place secret porn watching holds in a committed relationship is just one way a partner can illicitly participate in sexual gratification without touching another person. Chat rooms, phone interactions, sexting and clandestine emailing to virtual partners are others. What they all have in common is the unilateral decision to exclude their partner from the chance to vote on the process and ultimate outcome before it happens.

By the exclusion/inclusion definition of infidelity, are those committed partners who secretly sexually play with others but don't touch them being as unfaithful as if they were in an actual relationship? Yes.

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