Jon Austin’s wife, Amy, had a blunt assessment for her husband as the Minneapolis couple watched Rep. Anthony Weiner’s stunning confessions on television this week.
“You’d be dead,” she told him.
Regardless of his professional future, it’s Weiner’s predicament at home that seems to be launching countless discussions among couples like the Austins. And this time, it’s not a question of actual physical cheating ― a la Eliot Spitzer and his prostitution scandal ― but the murkier backdrop of Internet relationships: sexting, tweeting lewd photos, emailing.
If it’s virtual, does it constitute infidelity? Many Americans seem to think it does.
“Would you text it, post it, send it with your spouse looking over your shoulder?” asks Austin, 52, who works in corporate public relations and takes no issue with his wife’s frank appraisal of the situation. “If yes, then it’s not infidelity. If no, you’re cheating.”
In online postings and follow-up phone calls with the Associated Press, dozens of people echoed the same thought: Cheating need not be physical.
“I think the emotional betrayal is just as bad,” says Marissa Bholan, a 22-year-old student. “A married person should not be flirting online ― or in any manner, really. It demonstrates a clear unfaithfulness. You’re married. Act like it.”
For one woman in Texas, the danger of online relationships became painfully apparent when she caught a boyfriend trading amorous instant messages with an Internet friend ― at one point on her own laptop.
When Beky Hayes confronted him, he told her he never felt his virtual friend was “a real person” ― even though an actual, clandestine visit seemed to be in the planning stages.
“I think there’s a perception that what you’re doing online is somehow not real,” says Hayes, a musician. “But of course it is.”
And men, Hayes adds, may be more vulnerable to the lure of Internet relationships “because they allow them to escape the responsibilities and pressures of real relationships.” She is no longer seeing that boyfriend.
A specialist in Internet addiction agrees that many people turn to online relationships to escape the pressures of their daily lives, reveling in the anonymity ― particularly if, like a congressman, they are well known.
But some, says Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, experience a more dangerous sense of detachment, somehow convincing themselves once the laptop is closed: “I didn’t really do that. That wasn’t me.” And they don’t see their actions as infidelity.
“I’ve seen married people go to great lengths to cover things up, hiding phone bills and the like,” says Young, a practicing psychologist. “But they don’t think it’s cheating. They say, ‘I love my wife.’”
Monica Turner knew something was seriously wrong when she looked at a phone bill of hundreds of pages ― a record of text messages between her common-law husband and a female friend from elementary school that he had reconnected with on Facebook.
Over just a few weeks, there were thousands of messages, says Turner, 49, who works in communications and graphic design. Her boyfriend, with whom she had shared eight happy years, told her she was overreacting.
“He told me he wasn’t falling in love, but I wasn’t sure. And in any case, I thought she was falling in love,” says Turner, who even wrote a song about the ordeal: “Don’t Let Facebook Screw Up Your Life.”
Ultimately, Turner gave her man an ultimatum, and he ended the texting relationship, though still maintaining it was merely a friendship. “I believe him when he says that he loves me and couldn’t imagine his life without me,” she says now.
There are precious few statistics available on adults and online relationships, partly because most research has focused on teenagers.
The most recent was a 2004 ABC News poll, in which 64 percent of adults felt that “if a person who’s married or in a committed relationship has sex talk in an Internet chat room,” they would consider that being unfaithful; 33 percent would not.
There are, though, recent numbers on the prevalence of sexting among adults. In a May 2010 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 15 percent of adults said they had received “a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video” on their cell phone, and 6 percent said they had sent such a text. In the 18-to-29 demographic, the numbers rose to 31 percent and 13 percent.
“We were surprised at the prevalence among young adults,” says Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at Pew. “But if you think of it as part of the wooing process today, then it doesn’t really seem all that surprising.”
Is the Weiner scandal ― in which the married congressman finally confessed, after days of denying it, to tweeting a lewd crotch photo of himself to a woman in Seattle ― a Mars vs. Venus moment? Do men see it differently than women?
Psychologist Gail Saltz thinks so. “For men, the sexual act is much more disturbing than anything else,” says Saltz, who sees many couples in her Manhattan practice. “For women, what constitutes a betrayal is any emotional or sexual interaction.”
Of course, Saltz notes, men are more forgiving when it comes to judging other men, but not so much in judging their own partners. “A man would be extremely disturbed if his wife did any of this,” Saltz said, referring to the type of activity Weiner says he engaged in.
Chantal Dupuis, 42, thinks that men and woman are simply different creatures when it comes to all matters sexual.
“We don’t think the same way, so we don’t act the same way,” says Dupuis. “Men have to feel manly, so they flirt more.”
As for her own views, Dupuis, who is not married, is clear: “Online flirtation is infidelity, because thoughts are acts!”
Psychologist Elana Katz says there is a potentially positive note to all of this: If the online activity doesn’t go beyond the point of no return, a couple can learn from the ordeal, which in some cases is the first sign of trouble.
“Relationships can and do recover from this behavior, and in some instances the discovery is the first opportunity to ask the hard questions waiting to be addressed,” says Katz.
That’s what happened with Turner, who says the argument over her boyfriend’s texting was the first the couple had ever had.
“We ended up discussing a lot of things we’d never discussed before,” says Turner. And, she adds, he likes the song she wrote.
“He hadn’t seen her since the seventh grade,” goes the second verse.
“She sent him a friend request.
Who knew something so innocent
Would cause this big old mess?”