Is a Virtual Affair Real-World Cheating?

"A virtual affair is when a man or woman cheats by proxy," says Carole Lieberman, MD, author of Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets.  "The person would like to have a real-life affair, but is just too scared at the moment."

A wife, for instance, may not want to risk an actual affair because she might lose her financial security, Lieberman says, while a husband who thinks he isn't "good enough" sexually to please a mistress may not be ready to give up his wife because she accepts him as he is, Lieberman says.

If you're not sure whether an online relationship constitutes an affair or not, here are some things to consider:

1. If it would bother your partner, you are probably doing something wrong by proceeding with your online relationship, says Stacy Kaiser, LMFT, the author of How to Be a Grownup. "You may want to keep your partner happy so you are hiding it," she says. "But if you know it would make him unhappy, it is probably wrong."

2. A romantic online relationship with someone other than your partner is "emotional infidelity," says Lauren Mackler, a life and relationship coach and author of Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life. And, she adds, once you involve yourself emotionally with someone other than your partner, you're putting your relationship with your partner in jeopardy. Some of the energy that would normally be channeled into your relationship with your partner is being siphoned off and going toward your online relationship. "All forms of infidelity erode the sense of safety and trust between partners, both of which are important underpinnings for a healthy monogamous relationship," Mackler says.

3. This drain of energy can be a damaging distraction from your real-world relationship. If you are running to your computer frequently to check your email, your heart and mind are being pulled in the direction of someone else even if you're not getting physical with each other, Kaiser says.

4. If you're thinking of actually meeting this person face to face, the safest way to go about it is to take your partner along. "Say you want to have a relationship with an old boyfriend or girlfriend," Kaiser says. "Integrate your partner into it. Say that you can all meet for dinner. If your mate is included, in my view it is not cheating." However, she says, if even this level of involvement with someone else bothers your partner, then it's best to just cut ties with the online relationship.

5. One danger in carrying on a virtual relationship with someone is that the chances are good that it will turn into the real thing, Lieberman says. "Once someone has had a virtual affair or several of them, they are more likely to muster the courage—or desperation—necessary to take such a risk in the real world," she explains.

Carole Lieberman, MD, reviewed this article.