Q: Is it OK to take a break from my relationship by flirting and confiding in online friends?

A: Quick: Which of these thoughts, if any, can be harmful to your intimate relationship:

1. When you get home, you really look forward to chatting online with new friends who seem to understand your problems better than your partner.

2. So what if you develop an online "thing" with people who turn you on sexually?

3. You know the difference between reality and fantasy, so it's no big deal that you've created a virtual self to use in chat rooms and other sites.

4. Hey, everyone has a hobby, and yours happens to be surfing for hot-looking partners. Just looking, of course.

5. There really isn't anyone you can talk to, so there can't be anything wrong with sending in your life story and problem to lots of relationship advice sites.  he more information, the better.

If you guessed that all of these are big red flashing warning lights, you are right. What exactly is wrong with the scenarios above? The answer is simple:  Each one erodes your intimate relationship--and risks putting you in an emotionally compromising position.

Virtual relationships that involve connecting romantically or over-confiding in someone other than your partner --whether there are romantic overtones or not--have as much potential as real-life affairs to harm you and your mate. 

Almost all intimate relationships experience stress, and when they do, they handle it in predictable ways.  Productive approaches include working as a team and developing solutions.  Non-productive methods rely on actions that allow you to "check out" of the relationship.  These methods include abusing substances, spending too much UNNECESSARY time at work, OVER-bonding with your kids or--as in the examples above--OVER-connecting with others.  When you put your emotional love eggs in another's basket, you risk UNDER-investing in your partner.  Problems tend to fester because you are not resolving what's bothering you.

It's not surprising that people tend to "check out" of their relationship when the going gets tough and when love seemed to have died. However, if you want to save and strengthen your intimate relationship, read the tips below about reigning in these extra-relationships.

1. If you're not sure if you are over-invested emotionally in these outside relationships, vow to "take a break" from them for at least ten days. Keep a journal of how you feel and what you are thinking.  For example, do you feel lonelier?  More hurt or angry?

2. If you resume these other relationships, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I suddenly feel better about myself? 
  • Do I feel less lonely?
  • Am I spending less time thinking negatively about my partner?
  • Do these relationships serve as "medicine" to get me through my life with my partner?

3. Look at your answers to the questions in both numbers 1 and 2. Now make a list of the things you say to these other people. Are you complaining about the children?  Your partner's lack of affection or support?

4. Now develop your "dream solution" to changing and improving the problems that bother you. 

5. Look over your list and solutions, pick one or two that are most important to you.

6. Imagine if your partner came to you to discuss one of these issues.  How would you like your partner to speak to you?  What would you like them NOT to do or say?

7. Imagine in your mind that you are now discussing your new solutions with your partner. How do you think he or she will react? Why? What are his or her "hot" buttons?

8. Hopefully, you now see that both you and your partner have "hot" buttons.  Set your goal to bring up one of your issues and solutions with care, empathy and teamwork in mind. Look again at your responses to number 6 on this list.  The Golden Rule is a great guide for relationships of all kinds. 

9. When you discuss the problem, play it forward and focus on solutions.  Gong back over the past will only kill the good will and empathy.

10. Brainstorm and try out your solutions.  If they don't work, develop together ways of adjusting them.

The overall goal is to prevent you from avoiding the often difficult work of getting back in the relationship ring and fighting for your love.  Putting an end to creating the emotional escape valves of having "back up people" can jump-start life with your mate.