Online infidelity may be the next upcoming challenge facing the Orthodox world. In the last 12 months, I have seen 11 Orthodox couples where one spouse has reported an online affair that has caused serious distress in their marriage. I now believe that an epidemic of online infidelity may be causing the breakup of countless Jewish marriages.
There’s no question that online relationships are the new trend in infidelity and extramarital affairs. Unfortunately, in the Orthodox community, online affairs provide a convenient and inconspicuous cover, whereby someone who would not usually be seen in public committing an aveira will now do so in the privacy of their office or on their cell phone. Worse, I have heard of cases where an Internet or cyber affair was easily initiated and conducted from the privacy of the cheater’s home, with their unsuspecting spouse in the same room, oblivious to what was going on.
But the fact that a physical relationship hasn’t occurred does not mean that cyber affairs are not “real affairs.” I believe that they pose even more of a threat to a marriage or relationship than physical infidelity, because emotions are involved.
But what really is online infidelity?
Online cheating occurs when two people participate in online communication that is outside the scope of appropriate behavior, even if they haven’t met in real life. According to recent studies, it doesn’t necessarily involve physical relationship but it usually leads to physical cheating. Communicating intimately with someone other than your spouse is considered betrayal.
Online affairs should be treated as seriously as physical affairs, because that’s how many of them eventually end up. In fact, according to a recent survey, at least half of the people who engage in Internet chats have made phone contact with someone with whom they have chatted with online. The survey also found that:
*Only 46% of men believe that online affairs are adultery.
*80% think it’s OK to talk with a stranger identified as the opposite sex.
*Approximately 70% of time on-line is spent in chat rooms or sending e-mail; of these interactions, the vast majority are romantic in nature.
Divorce attorneys are also reporting that the number of divorces and separations resulting from online infidelity has grown significantly.
Regardless of the concealed nature of online affairs, these should be considered a serious threat to the institution of Jewish marriage.
In the Orthodox Jewish world the kedusha of marriage has always been the basic unit of the community. Our leaders have worked hard to guard the safety of the family against infidelity. Yet, currently, we find that the family unit is under more attack than at any time, and the safeguards, which had up until now served to defend it, are weakening.
How Can We Safeguard Marriage From Online Affairs?
There are many people who believe that the affairs are the root cause of divorce. According to the latest research, it’s actually the other way around. Problems in the marriage that send the couple on a trajectory to divorce also send one or both of them looking for intimate connection outside the marriage. Most marriage therapists who write about extramarital affairs find that these trysts are usually not about physical relationships but about seeking friendship, support, understanding, respect, attention, caring, and concern – the kind of things that marriage is supposed to offer.
What I’m trying to say is that infidelity is not a cause, but rather a symptom. As a marriage and family therapist helping Orthodox couples save their marriages, I believe that most of the time infidelity happens to people who want to satisfy some basic needs that are not met in their marriages. If some of these basic emotional needs are not met, people will turn elsewhere.
Over the last five years I have counseled hundreds of frum couples who are struggling with relationship and commitment issues. Not a day passes when I don’t hear about a marriage issue or a divorce in the community. Remember, divorce used to be something that happened to “other” people; not “our” family, “our” friends and even “our” community leaders. Today, it could be a cousin, friend or someone you know from shul. Divorce has become all too common. These are signs that relationships are becoming harder to solidify and more difficult to maintain.
Take the latest studies on divorce. A recent study called “The Effects of Divorce In America” showed a significant increase in divorce over the last seven decades. The report found that: “In 1935, there were 16 divorces for each 100 marriages. By 1998, the number had risen to 51 divorces per 100 marriages.”
In addition, “over a twenty year period the number of divorced Americans rose from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996.” It is true that the Torah community does not share these same statistics; our marriages tend to last longer and the viability of Jewish marriage is one of the great examples of the power and the wisdom of the Torah. However, over the last few years, we are beginning to see a new trend – one that may be difficult to reverse.
Why Do Couples Get Divorced?
Take Mordechai, 36, and Chani, 35, who were married for six years when they came to ask me for advice on how to save their relationship. They seemed to have everything going for them. They were working professionals, successful and upwardly mobile; they shared many common factors including similar religious beliefs, intelligence levels – and both were pleasantly extroverted. Yet, soon after marriage, it was apparent that Mordechai and Chani didn’t get along very well. Little things like the cleanliness of the house, or who made dinner, became mountain-sized issues that were often blown out of proportion.
The quality of their relationship was going downhill and their marriage was in crisis. Only six years had passed since their chuppah and they were beginning to feel unequipped to deal with each other’s emotional needs. Instead, they tended to withdraw from one another and were avoiding taking the obvious step of working together to solve their issues. Eventually, Chani also discovered that Mordechai was spending time accessing inappropriate websites and chatting with other women.
What was causing their marital stress? Did they share some deeply-rooted negative patterns? Was it a question of personality differences? Did they have trouble managing their anger? Before I offered them some emotional first aid, I asked them to draw an imaginary circle in the middle of the room, to represent their relationship. I then asked them to take their chairs and sit in the middle of the circle if they were committed to their relationship. My feeling was that if they weren’t able to sit in the circle together, their marriage would have little chance of succeeding.
I also made it clear to them that, statistically, the overwhelming majority of failed marriages (between two emotionally healthy individuals) end because couples are having trouble building and staying committed to their overall relationship. In fact, many of the negative statistics appearing about marriage boil down to the prevalence of couples losing interest in developing the quality of their marriage.
A 1995 survey examining why marriages end in divorce, found that the lack of commitment to the relationship was the top reason for the growing phenomenon. Specifically, the survey asked couples who had been divorced to answer the following: “There are many reasons why marriages fail. I’m going to read a list of possible reasons. Looking back at your most recent divorce, tell me whether or not each factor was a major contributor to your divorce. You can say, ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’ to each factor.” The following responses show the percentages of those respondents who answered “yes,” to each factor that they felt was a major contributor to their divorce:
Lack of commitment: 87%Too much conflict and arguing: 48%Financial problems or economic hardship: 31%Lack of support from family members: 21%Little or no helpful premarital education: 19%Domestic violence: 22%
The findings of the survey revealed what couples who have experienced divorce perceive: that the lack of commitment was the number one contributing factor to their divorces. Commitment often involves making one’s spouse and relationship a priority, investing in the marriage and having a long-term view of the relationship.
That’s why the most important issue in marriage needs to be the couple’s focus on the quality of their relationship. Couples like Mordechai and Chani are a perfect example of a relationship that had migrated onto the back burner and was now facing the detrimental effects of internet infidelity. Mordechai and Chani needed to learn more about how to negotiate their emotions, how to communicate in a more effective way and how to begin to recommit to their relationship.
So if you’re concerned about your relationship, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do you view building the relationship a central principle of your marriage?
2. Do you set aside time each day to nurture your relationship?
3. Do you look for the good qualities in your spouse?
4. Do you appreciate the small, kind acts your spouse does for you on a daily basis?
5. Do you spend time thinking about the good moments, and limit time and energy spent focusing on the bad ones?
Most couples who evaluate their relationship find that the biggest hole in their marriage is the fact that they don’t spend time and effort building their relationship. They allowed themselves to become complacent. Complacency in marriage allows emotional weeds to grow out of control. It’s catching and it spreads, silently and invisibly, and by the time you realize what is happening, much damage has been done.
However, in a case where online infidelity is detected it is a sign that couples need to deal with their underlying problems and seek advice and guidance from a marital therapist. With proper guidance, many more marriages could be saved.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is a marriage and family therapist and maintains a private practice in Brooklyn. He is the author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages”. For a free parenting book or to make an appointment call 646-428-4723, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch