(Peggy's contributions are in italics)
By Peggy Ann Torney
For years S., a married woman, was happy coming home from work with a bag of groceries and plans for the evening meal. Lately, though, that has changed. Now she is more likely to race through the front door empty-handed, tell her husband by phone that she will be ordering in and sit eagerly before the computer.
She is excited to learn that a particular male friend is online. Like a scene from the romantic comedy "Must Love Dogs," S. tells her cyber pal about her day, shares her hopes, fears and fantasies, and even talks about her husband sometimes.
When she hears her husband's key in the lock, S. signs off the computer and comes to the door. He asks about her day and she replies, "Fine. But I don't really feel like talking about it."
Although S. is not involved sexually with her online friend, her husband does have reason to worry. S. is having an emotional affair.
Many people in committed relationships aren't aware that emotional affairs can be equally as intense and destructive as a physical affair. According to a national survey, 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men have engaged in sexual affairs. When emotional affairs are included, the number of affairs increases by 20 percent, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.
Emotional affairs are not a new phenomenon. But the combination of more women in the workplace and the increasing use and availability of the Internet has created even greater opportunity for nonphysical closeness, according to marriage counselors and experts on gender relations.
"The Internet provides a new venue for emotional infidelity, but the underlying meaning is still the same," said Dr. Don-David Lusterman, author of "Infidelity: A Survival Guide." The Internet encourages emotional infidelity in people who may not otherwise be tempted to stray, experts say. Since there is no physical contact over the Web, the connection can be predominantly emotional.
Men usually only recognize an affair if it becomes sexual, said Dr. John Gray, author of the best-selling book "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." Since women connect love with emotional support, they generally feel more threatened by emotional affairs, Gray said.
Emotional affairs are deceptive activities that can undermine marriages and other serious relationships. Experts agree that it is the deceit and betrayal that causes the most damage.
"It is a big deal because of deception, regardless if it becomes sexual," said Peggy Vaughan of DearPeggy.com, a Web site that provides information and support for couples trying to sort their way through the aftermath of an affair.
An online connection can begin innocuously on friend-finding Web sites like Classmates.com, Friendster.com or Myspace.com. Many of these online sites serve as open personal classified ads, where people put their pictures and describe their hobbies and interests.
"There is an immediate feeling of intimacy," said Rona Subotnik, author of "Infidelity on the Internet: Virtual Relationships and Real Betrayal" and "Surviving Infidelity: Making Decisions, Recovering from the Pain."
"You are not there for the sexual, but just for the emotional," she said.
Experts say that men and women enter the danger zone when they begin to exclude their significant other, keep aspects of their friendship secret and engage in deeply intimate or sensual conversations with their cyber friend.
"If your partner knows everything about your friendship, it's probably OK. If they don't, it's probably not," Vaughan said. "If it's really just a friendship, your partner should be able to see/know about all your interactions. If it needs to be kept secret, then it becomes a potential threat."
Once partners distance themselves from the primary relationship and become dishonest, the primary relationship suffers.
What's more, people in committed relationships can only devote a finite amount of energy to their love life, said M. Gary Neuman, author of "Emotional Infidelity: How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage and 10 Other Secrets to a Great Relationship." "You may not cheat physically, but the fact that you are using energy, you are robbing your primary relationship of energy it needs," Neuman said.
In his book, Neuman describes a relationship that was threatened by an online emotional affair.
Leon had been married to his wife, Maribel, for nine years before he had an emotional affair. Although he never met the other woman, he chatted with her over the Internet every night for months. As Leon spent more time chatting with his new friend, he began to distance himself from Maribel.
"As Leon shared his struggles, laughter, fears and joy with his cyber mate, he drained his marriage of the emotional effervescence and renewal it needed to thrive," Neuman said. "Leon's emotional affair placed his marriage on the brink of destruction."
Of course, these cyber affairs do not have to be the death of a relationship. "The appeal of online affairs can serve as a signal that we need to rethink all aspects of our lives and determine what we can do to feel more 'alive,'" Vaughan said.
Gray said couples should tap the origins of the affair and infuse the marriage with some of that excitement.
If acknowledged and dealt with, emotional affairs can shake couples out of their lethargy and force them to face what's missing in their relationships, the experts said.
"Put all you've got into your relationship and you'll have it all--everything you could realistically hope for and even more than you could ever imagine," Neuman said.