Jennifer Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, DM

Many married and committed people today view text messaging and social media instant messages with a sense of false security that allows many to engage in emotional and sexual conversations with co-workers, neighbors, former partners, and even strangers. Even more concerning, they don’t see a problem with text message or social media adultery.

Married couples have always struggled with the temptation for infidelity, but today’s accessibility presents its own challenges. Instant connectivity with anyone is alluring many people with a frequency and availability that has never been present before. Considering that 96 percent of all Americans have cell phones, those forbidden connections are easier than ever before.

In examining the marital/ committed relationship regarding text communication with someone other than a spouse or significant other, one consistent theme is the sense of false security that exists when a committed man or woman communicates through text with others outside the relationship. In this false sense of security, there is greater willingness to disclose personal and vulnerable information through texts or social media that otherwise would not be revealed in a face to face conversation.

The reason for the false sense of security is that people believe “these are just words on a screen; we aren’t physically together, so there is no impact on my relationship.” The belief is that a text on a screen does not hold the same consequences as having a physical relationship. Many people today believe that everything digital is just an illusion, that it is not real, therefore there are no consequences for communicating online.

However, studies have shown that social media and text messaging releases an enormous amount of the brain’s pleasure center chemical, dopamine. When we hear the sound of an incoming message, our body feels pleasure and we want that immediate high we get from reading the message on our screens.

In addition, today’s culture promotes a sense of “personal justification.” For example, the justification that since I am not getting what I need in my relationship, I can flirt on-line with someone and get my needs met. This is the “grass is greener” theory. Words and images on someone’s social media pages may communicate a more desirable life to someone whose own life may not look like the images on the screen. Their real life usually does not “read” like the text messages they send.

People involved in inappropriate on-line communication often justify their actions by saying things like: We were just talking, nothing physical was happening, we were joking around, etc. These behaviors can damage a relationship far worse than physical contact. These behaviors lead to breakup and divorce in over 65% of affected relationships.

In many cases, these online relationships begin when one partner is already dissatisfied in the relationship and has some desire to leave. In these cases, it is easy to become emotionally detached from the primary relationship because of the connection developed online. This detachment makes it difficult to ever recover feelings for the original partner.

Incorporating some practical guidelines helps to avoid sliding down this slippery slope:

  1. Develop guidelines
    While it is impossible to monitor every message sent, use caution when it comes to one-on-one texting. If you receive a text message from someone outside your relationship – like a co-worker – pick up the phone and call them. This will make clear your preference to communicate directly. Look at texting as a private room with the door closed and locked. Would we find yourself in a locked room with someone who could be tempting on a daily basis? Our desire for emotional and sexual connection is inherent; it is important to safeguard our own desires, whether they are conscious or not.
  2. Avoid pitfalls
    Avoid social media “friending” or “following” people you once had an intimate relationship with, were once interested in (or vice versa), or who might be a temptation due to not being in their own relationship or being in an unhappy relationship. This requires us to have an honest conversation with ourselves.
    If you are already in a social media friendship with such a person, consider deleting them. Taking preventive steps to protect your relationship should take precedence. The goal for your committed relationship isn’t to see how close to the edge of the improper cliff you can go without falling. Placing safeguards on social media habits helps to guard relationships more thoroughly.
  3. Check emotional intentions
    Be aware that you can emotionally detach yourself from your intimate relationship before even having an online relationship. It can happen simply by perusing someone’s Instagram photographs to meet your visual fantasy desires (often encouraging one-on-one private text messaging). Unfortunately, many people use Instagram to post pictures that rival pornography. Research suggests that viewing such photos can potentially lead to emotional and/or sexual detachment from an intimate partner. If you struggle visually, consider deleting social media that has a heightened focus on communicating through pictures.

It is important to recognize the potentially damaging implications to relationships that communicating through social and digital media can bring. Today, social media infidelity contributes to more breakups and divorces than physically intimate affairs. As most people have access to media on a 24/7 basis, and because of the pleasure principle that it feeds in our brains, infidelity happens quickly and often before we even recognize it. Human nature is to feel connected and understood, social media has made that concept alluring. It is important to realize the pitfalls and hurt that can occur when we hide behind screens to feel that emotional connectedness.

Jennifer Webbe VanLuven, MSW, LCSW, DM received her Master of Social Work from Saint Louis University with a concentration in family systems and law. Jennifer provides private therapy dealing with adult issues, depression, anxiety, marital and relationship issues, as well as adolescent development/ behavioral issues. Jennifer has extensive experience in family law and court room testifying. She assists couples in a peaceful resolution, where continued communication is imperative for raising healthy children. Along with private therapy services, Jennifer provides services to families who are in the midst of transition, as a Parent Coordinator, Co-Parent Counselor, Custody Evaluator and a Divorce Consultant.

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