Six months into her marriage, this Delhi-based therapist started getting suspicious about the unduly long hours her husband spent on the Internet. “He was a software programmer, so at first it seemed normal,” she recalls. “Then I began to notice that he would be on the computer in the early morning hours when I was asleep, or act shifty if I went up to him while he was on the laptop.”
It turned out her husband was into sex-ting, or conducting intimate conversations with women online. “I stumbled on to chats he had with various women, all of them sexually explicit in nature. Some of them had taken place even while we were dating. I felt utterly hurt and humiliated,” says this 40-year-old who has since remarried. “But he simply didn’t see my point of view. His argument was that since it was not a physical relationship, he was not being unfaithful and he wouldn’t stop.”
It is an excuse marriage therapists say they hear all too often. And they are hearing it plenty of late.
“About five years back, I would meet some two to three couples in a month who would meet me with complaints that their partners were in an online relationship. Now I see about 10-15 in the same period,” says Mumbai-based clinical psychologistSeema Hingorrany. “Mostly those involved in such behaviour—and women are as much a part—don’t think they are being unfaithful. They don’t see it as emotional infidelity; the tremendous hurt and a sense of betrayal felt.”
You can be what you want on the World Wide Web; the anonymity leads to an addiction that can be hard to shake off. New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, caught in a sexting scandal for the second time in two years (2011 and July 2013), is a case in point.
A common mode for entering into such relationships is Facebook (FB). In fact, emails and messages over Facebook are increasingly being cited in many divorce petitions. “I have used FB uploads of people displaying their status or pictures and taken orders from the court,” says Mumbai-based advocate Amit Karkhanis, senior partner, Kay Legal. “What you do on FB is inadmissible as evidence, but it is good enough to prove a point,” says Karkhanis. In the UK, Karkhanis adds, family courts view online relationships as infidelity. “People may think they are in the clear because they are not meeting the other person, but hooking up with someone online is seen as an intention to cheat in the eyes of the law.”
In India, there are few cases of online fidelity being cited as sole grounds for divorce. “But it is becoming an important factor,” says lawyer Kranti Sathe, who has been practising for over 20 years in the Mumbai family court. “When online communication starts affecting family life, leading to neglect of the spouse and children, it is then cited as causing acute mental agony for the partner.”
A 2013 study by the Texas Tech University, US, says online acts of infidelity are as painful as those committed in person. The study, which used data from Facebookcheating.com, a Facebook page where jilted lovers share their stories, points out that “people have the ability to be more vulnerable online, which facilitates a greater emotional response which can be just as devastating, if not more, than an offline response”.
Another widely quoted 2003 University of Florida study based on interviews with 86 married men and women who were into online relationships found that about a third of the participants went on to meet the person with whom they made contact.
While there is no India-based study, counsellors say the findings reflect their experiences on the ground. “There is sadness, hopelessness, rage and a feeling of not being good enough. Just because the other person does not have a name or face does not make it any less painful,” says Mumbai-based counsellor Harish Shetty, visiting psychiatrist, Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital.
“It definitely affects the emotional connect,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani. “No one feels it is just a minor thing. There is a sense of comparison and a feeling of inadequacy felt”.
The University of Florida study also found an “escalating quality” to these contacts, with the anonymity encouraging participants to share more about themselves with online partners than they do with their spouses. In most cases what starts off as a friendly exchange, progresses to a desire for a sexual relationship.
“The usual explanation is that it began accidentally during a spell of boredom and frustration,” says Dr Shetty. “It becomes a way of building emotional intimacy which is lacking in today’s world where couples spend long hours working.”
“Two years ago, during my sister-in-law’s wedding, I was regularly chatting with someone I met up with on Facebook,” says a 35-year-old Baroda-based stockbroker, who did not want to be named. “As the older brother-in-law, I was expected to participate in the functions. But I would make excuses and stay away.” During one such function, he made a work-related excuse and got caught sex-chatting at home. His wife left him and it took months of counselling before matters were resolved. “I liked the anonymity of it. I felt I could say things to her that my wife might not like to hear,” he recalls. “I felt a deep connection.”
“You can act out your fantasies,” says Dr Mirchandani. “You can imbue that person with the qualities and ideals you are looking for and take on any persona you want.” Adds Hingorrany: “One man told me that the woman he was involved with online made him feel so good that he started despising his wife.”
Counselling cases of online infidelity can be a long drawn-out affair. “It can be like treating an addict,” says Dr Mirchandani. “Many of them are in denial and many don’t want to change their behaviour. Sometimes there are pre-existing issues which need to be looked into.”
“On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog,” goes the famous New Yorker cartoon. In the darkness of the world wide wilderness, there is a swampy netherworld where you can get down and dirty without difficulty or disease. You could get a second life, you could buy a penis. But what you won’t get is heart.
This article also appeared in the Mint. To view click on