You may have heard that roughly half of all marriages end, or will end, in divorce. While the actual statistics concerning the divorce rate in America are more complex than this, the fact remains that many marriages do end in divorce. Once rare, divorce, and the broken homes that result from divorce, are now common. They've become part of the societal landscape, taken for granted as simply the way things work out sometimes. While there have always been considerable pressures brought to bear on marriage in this country, there is one you may not have considered: technology.
For obvious reasons, a frequent cause of divorce is extramarital affairs. Once, spouses with wandering eyes were limited to those temptations they encountered in their daily lives. Now, however, they have arrayed before them a limitless array of potential partners. These individuals are found and courted online, using the myriad venues technology affords the modern married man and woman.
Guardian.co.uk reports that "cyber affairs" are being cited with greater frequency in disruptions of real marriages. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are, according to divorce lawyers (as cited by Jill Insley), increasingly used to facilitate adultery.
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The ramifications of social networking should be obvious. A site that allows you to find people you used to know, and to stay in touch with friends and acquaintances across the country, can be used for good or for ill. It can be used to find and chat up people with whom you went to high school ... or it can be used to find ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends with whom the would-be cheating spouse might still be able to strike a spark. Chat rooms, bulletin boards and discussion forums can be used to discuss hobbies, argue politics and post pictures (both benign and racy) – or they can be used to meet like-minded would-be cheaters who aren't afraid to meet in person the people with whom they talk and flirt online.
This doesn't even begin to take into account sites that are explicitly devoted to sexual trysts, such as Adult Friend Finder, and it pales in comparison to the perhaps much more reprehensible Ashley Madison.com, which is designed to facilitate affairs among married partners. The site's slogan is, "Life is short. Have an affair." It's even trademarked. The Guardian.co.uk article mentions two others, meet2cheat.co.uk and affairsclub.com.
Cyber-affairs need not necessarily be physical. A spouse can use technology – such as e-mail, instant messaging, text-messaging and social networking sites – to conduct an affair that never culminates in a real-life sexual encounter. "Cyber sex" has existed for as long as people have interacted using text through computers, becoming much more common with the advent of online chat rooms as access to the Internet first became widely available. Exchanging naughty fantasies and even acting out pretended sexual encounters is one way that emotional affairs can deepen, worsening the betrayal in which the cyber-cheating spouse engages. It isn't necessary to have a computer to do so, either; previously in Technocracy, we discussed the dangers of "Sexting," in which lewd talk and nude pictures or video are exchanged using wireless phones.
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Technology never stands still, however, and text-based sex talk is not the limit of a cyber-affair. Online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, which allow players to create virtual versions of themselves, enable players to act out in graphic detail their sexual fantasies. This is, of course, not the original or the ongoing primary purpose of these games; World of Warcraft is a fantasy sword-and-sorcery environment in which players engage in quests and kill monsters, while Second Life is a virtual world that can be used to act out anything from Western and Star Wars gunfights to recreations of real-life locations and religious orders. This doesn't change the fact that a thriving virtual sex trade, including webcam services and other links to online pornography, exists in Second Life. It also doesn't change that fact that World of Warcraft players have met and conducted virtual, emotional and sexual affairs using the game as a starting point, or that some addicted players lose their connection to reality in favor of the online fantasy.
Sara Staggs, in College News, asserts that cyber-cheating does culminate in a physical affair in roughly three out of every 10 cases. She lists a variety of warning signs that a spouse may be conducting an online affair, including staying up using the computer in private until very late at night, heading for the computer again first thing in the morning, and constantly changing passwords and access codes to laptops, desktops and previously shared accounts.
Marriage, even at the best of times, is never easy. Many very earnest husbands, wives, fathers and mothers find their lives spinning out of control as their connections to their spouses strain and even break. Given this, it is extremely important to understand the various and sometimes insidious pressures and temptations that can lead to the fracture of an otherwise stable marriage. It may not be possible to save some marriages, despite the best intentions of both spouses ... but we can at least remove the temptations of technology from the equation.