Last week, I logged on to Facebook and saw that I had a private message from a witty guy who had posted on my wall several times. He was a friend of a friend whom I’d never met in real life. I liked him. I probably could have
really liked him, except for the tiny matter of my boyfriend, with whom I’ve lived for nine years. I hadn’t mentioned my boyfriend in any of my posts because it didn’t seem necessary to say “Great link about the pointlessness of vegan doughnuts and, by the way, I’m in a serious long-term relationship.” But now the public messages had become private (he complimented me on my profile picture), and I knew I was tiptoeing into potentially dangerous territory.

It happens all the time. You’re Facebooking, Twittering or Flickring and suddenly you make a real connection with someone you might like to meet. If you weren’t married/ engaged/involved, you’d go for it. Instead, you keep it virtual. You share mutual interests, develop private jokes, communicate more frequently and confide in each other. It seems so harmless — you’re not out buying new lingerie or making up excuses about working late — but soon you’re hooked. You’re deep in an online affair — the new way to cheat that’s destroying relationships the same way the more traditional, tryst-based affairs do.

Emotional infidelity used to take place primarily at work, where you could grab lunch with that cute guy in the cubicle next to yours every day of the week without feeling like you’d moved to the cheatin’ side of town. Now, of course, you don’t have to wait for 9 a.m. on Monday morning; you can fire up your laptop anytime and cheat to your heart’s content.

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Given the 24-7 access we have to millions of attractive human beings whose pile of dirty clothes we don’t have to pick up every morning off the bathroom floor, the rise of emotional infidelity isn’t all that surprising. What is surprising — or, at least, surprising to me — is the number of hip women I know who simply don’t want to discuss it.

Over the course of a month or so, I broached the subject with friends, colleagues and even a convivial gang of women I met at a book-club meeting. They smirked and rolled their eyes, and a few said “Oh, yeah” but refused to dish further. Some had friends whose marriages had ended because of it but didn’t want to talk about it. One woman said that her friend was dying not only of a broken heart but also of embarrassment.

Why embarrassment? Because becoming electronically involved is a testament to our bald emotional neediness. After all, when sparks fly with a guy you’ve met at a cocktail party and one thing leads to another, you can blame it on drinking one too many Crantinis or losing control in the face of animal lust. But to go online at midnight in your bathrobe to trade endearments with a stranger you met in a chat room is, well, mildly pathetic. And the reverse is also true: How awful is it to know that your partner wasn’t seduced by a hot blonde but rather some random woman whose great weapons of seduction were her LOLs?

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The most infamous (and weirdest) example of online infidelity occurred in the game Second Life, an online virtual world where people create sexy avatars with sexy jobs who interact with one another. It’s like a grown-up, hightech version of playing Barbies. Two years ago, in England, Amy Taylor caught her husband, David Pollard, cheating in the game with another avatar, played by an American woman, Linda Brinkley. Pollard claimed that he and Brinkley were just “hanging out” in Second Life, but Taylor was devastated and filed for divorce. “It may have started online, but it existed entirely in the real world and hurt just as much,” Taylor told
The Guardian.

Jessica*, a nurse in Toronto, feels the same way. She suspected something was going on with her boyfriend, Mike, when he returned from a business trip and suddenly seemed unhappy and preoccupied. “He was always on his computer,” she says. “He kept his laptop on the floor by the bed, and he’d lean over and check his email constantly.”

When she asked him what was wrong, he snapped at her and accused her of being too needy. The sparring went on for months. She considered ending it but then decided that she couldn’t leave without the full story. She taught herself how to use a key logger (a form of spyware that records keystrokes) and, one night when he was asleep, put her memory stick into his laptop and grabbed the record of his online activity.

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Jessica got more than she bargained for. She found out that Mike had been electronically cheating with a woman he had met on a business trip who lived in another city, but she also discovered discussion boards where he had posted various comments about strippers and private messages he’d sent to prostitutes. The depth of his betrayal was staggering. From the looks of it, he spent most of his time online cheating in one form or another. “I’d veer from feeling completely betrayed to thinking that it couldn’t possibly be true,” says Jessica. “I’d want to forgive him one minute and kick him out of my life the next.” (She chose the latter option.)

What’s not in question, then, is how damaging emotional infidelity can be. But how do you resist temptation when the opportunity to cheat is as plentiful as oxygen? One of the great things about the Internet has always been the freedom it offers us to connect with all kinds of people from all over the world. But now that being online has become a way of life, it turns out that what was always true about human nature is still true: We are never free from ourselves and our impulses. If we don’t want to jeopardize our real lives, we have to police our language, our subject matter and the amount of contact we have with others. We have to be on the lookout so that chatting doesn’t become cheating.

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How? Danielle Younge-Ullman, a Toronto-based novelist, gives herself strict rules. “If you’re a little too excited to be getting a message from someone, if it makes you feel guilty or if it’s something you wouldn’t be reading/saying/doing with your partner sitting [metaphorically] on your shoulder, you’re probably crossing the line,” she says. “I say this as someone who, when single, knew very well how to cross the line and hang out on the other side.”

My own rule of conduct is simplicity itself, and it hasn’t failed me yet. When I’m online, I never get involved in anything that might prompt me to minimize the screen if I hear my boyfriend coming down the hall. For email, I have taken my mother’s rule about always wearing clean underwear in case I’m hit by a bus and adapted it for the computer age.

Online cheating isn’t new, which also means that it’s a little less exhilarating than it was even a few years ago. The disillusionment and chaos it causes turn out to be a high price to pay for what amounts to projection, fantasy and hot ’n’ heavy typing. In the end, real life still has the last LOL.

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