Virtual homewreckers FTW!

January 22, 2008 at 4:23 am (secondlife)

Worlds in motion alerted me to yet another silly diagnosis of the dangers of virtual worlds. Cyber affairs leaking over to real life.

I can understand the arguments they put forth but really… they require some extremely broad assumptions about what marriage, cheating, and other such things are. We find this in quotes like “if cyber-cheating is egregious and leads to a regular pattern of cruelty in the marriage, or causes the cyber-cheater to abandon completely his marital responsibilities”. Sounds reasonable enough, but let me explain.

Cyber cheating doesn’t legally constitute adultery, but it’s certainly trying it on for size. Someone happy in a monogamous marriage who isn’t prone to it already won’t cheat at all. Someone who is unsatisfied however, or feels the drive to, may very likely experiment with the idea – especially in the “safe and anonymous” space that VR and the internet provide. This being the case, cyber cheating can’t be the “cause” of someone giving up their marital responsibilities. Folk who choose to give them up do so despite the fact that they cheat on the internet. Cyber cheating does not cause abandonment of responsibilities as they are both symptoms of a greater marital problem.

None of this is surprising really. Helpful folk who give us tips for what to look for in a cheating spouse usually site “demand for privacy” as an indicator. Whilst this could be an indication that they have something to hide, it is also possible that they really need some space. Retreating to an online world where their spouse is not privy to their every move is a natural response to irresolvable marital pressures. This is the same sense of claustrophobia which can be a contributing factor in the attractiveness of extra-marital affairs – if not in VR then perhaps ordered out of the catalog of prospective (and discreet) partners offered by online dating agencies. Should the marriage problem remain unresolved it is highly likely that escapist behaviors, be they simple things like retreat from engagement with the partner to complex behaviors such as adultery, will continue and escalate.

Mis Kimberly Young wouldn’t agree with me though. She runs the Center for Online Addiction Recovery in Pennsylvania and has written a book on dealing with a partner cyber cheating. For her the affair as the root cause of that withdrawal from engagement with a partner that I describe as a symptom of broader relationship issues. Like the idea of too much time on the internet as an actual “addiction” (which clinically it isn’t) it creates victims out of folk, implying that some external thing outside the self is the cause of the problem. It is a dis empowering way of looking at things. For people already feeling dis empowered and trying to get away from real world problems in virtual spaces, it is an attractive but dangerous admission. Focusing on an all consuming online life or affair as some problem one can’t control is perhaps less useful than focusing on other aspects of their life that they may have been ignoring. Focus on the problem in this instance simply takes more time and energy away from solving it.

So my argument is this: having a cyber affair is exactly the same thing as having a real one, though perhaps safer and somewhat stranger. But that’s not the point really because people don’t have affairs unless they want to. “I was drunk” is not an excuse, and so neither is “I was on the internet”. Really, even completely sober and real life,the affair itself is less important than the effect it has on the individuals involved. Societal norms and the law shouldn’t be dictating how a married couple comports themselves, plays around, or forgives each other for their transgressions. That some of it might happen on the internet is neither here nor there.

There is one very sensible thing we can gain out of that article though: if your lover starts to sleep wierdly, demand privacy, ignores their chores, starts lying, changes their personality, loses interest in sex, or stops investing in the relationship then watch out! It’s time to reassess if there might be a problem with your marriage. Because if they aren’t having an affair already, and the underlying problem IS the marriage, sooner or later a holiday with someone else will start to look attractive.

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