Case Study

Hot Chat

Virtual affairs can become very real emotionally

Linda S. Freedman
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From the May/June 1997 issue

The Internet has entered the consulting room in ways that few therapists could possibly have anticipated. Today, Internet chat lines allow individuals to express themselves intimately with strangers and to engage in relationships (and fantasies) bounded only by the computer screen and modem. Universal access to chat rooms has expanded our interpersonal world, and many people who are having difficulties with their family and friends are drawn to their computers for companionship.

This case study is about an extramarital affair that exemplifies how people struggling with their marriages can seek out on-line relationships to see what else is out there. When they become intimate, these virtual affairs can become very real emotionally, stressing a marriage every bit as much as a flesh-and-blood infidelity.

I believed Jerry when he told me he was so furious that he wanted to kill someone. I had seen Jerry and his wife Beth briefly about a year before. At that time, their HMO authorized only six sessions, in a see ’em and fix ’em kind of therapy that leaves many goals unmet. Now he had come back to tell me that he was enraged at his wife, Beth, because he was convinced that she had at least one on-line lover. He had found a computer printout of a picture of a naked man and knew that Beth was having explicitly sexual conversations in computer chat rooms. Jerry said that Beth’s computer habit and on-line friendships were threatening their marriage. She stayed up all night and spent her days on-line, as well. According to Jerry, their two children played in the streets as Beth pecked at the keyboard, “talking” to her new Internet friends.

When they had initially come to see me, Beth was the identified patient–depressed and dissatisfied with her husband, offering a litany of individual complaints, including her weight, her PMS and her job. Her only interest and area of pride seemed to be her growing aptitude for computers. Beth had been married to Jerry for 15 years, and came into therapy, she said, because they had grown apart emotionally and sexually. She felt Jerry spent too much time with his boss, a surrogate father to him. Beth felt trapped and isolated by marriage and motherhood, and wanted more attention from Jerry. Their worst conflicts were about Beth’s spending–both agreed that Beth had driven them into bankruptcy–and Jerry’s lack of attention.

While Jerry had helped support her when she was a teenager, and had served as both father and lover to her, Beth now resented his possessiveness. When they were teenagers he hadn’t let her go out with her friends, and this pattern continued into adulthood–she could go out with him and his boss, but not with women from work. He had made the rules when they were young and hadn’t changed them in 15 years.

I focused the brief therapy on changing the marital relationship to help relieve Beth’s depression. Together we identified generational patterns that underlay Jerry’s possessiveness. We also addressed Jerry’s own abandonment fears and Beth’s spending. We discussed Jerry and Beth’s making life-style changes so that they could spend more time together. Soon they were spending romantic evenings together and having sex again. Jerry was bringing home flowers. In this honeymoon atmosphere, Jerry was eager to leave therapy, but Beth wanted to continue. After their insurance ran out, she and I met several times. Beth talked about issues with her overbearing mother and with being a parent herself. When Beth ended therapy because she felt she couldn’t afford it, she was a little concerned that Jerry had become inattentive again, but she didn’t feel shut out. I didn’t hear from either of them again until Jerry called, enraged.

In his session with me, Jerry told me that his wife had found new friends and a lover on the Internet. Afterward, I called Beth and set up an appointment. She came in alone and said that Jerry had become increasingly distant and that, starved for friendship, she had fallen in love with a man on-line and even traveled to see him, although she had lost interest after she met him. She had remained true to Jerry, she said, and had not had sex with the boyfriend. She agreed to begin marital therapy again. In the next session, they agreed that Beth would “stop the on-line stuff for a while” and work on their marriage. But they missed their next appointment.

Three months later, Jerry called to see me again. This time, Beth had left Jerry and her kids and told him she wanted a divorce. He gave me a letter from Beth, who was living with her sister. She wrote that she was afraid of Jerry because he had threatened one of her on-line boyfriends. Although she realized she should break her chat-room habit, she wasn’t ready to go back to Jerry. She said her on-line friends were just that, friends, and she asked me to call her.

When I told Jerry that Beth claimed that her computer relationships were just good friends, he laughed and said that he had caught her at the computer with her clothes off, face flushed. He said that he knew about net sex because he had tried it himself, with Beth in the room, to see what the great attraction was, but he found it embarrassing. He wanted me to help him get his wife back, and get her out of the chat rooms. He had lost weight and cut back the time he spent with his boss to prove his sincerity.

I agreed to call Beth. On the phone, Beth told me that Jerry had threatened to kill her and she wanted to see me alone. We set up an appointment and didn’t tell Jerry when it would be. She showed up, confused about her feelings for Jerry. She missed him and wanted to come home, but she also liked her new freedom. She dreaded the possibility that he would make her give up her on-line friendships. She said that she knew these relationships had gone too far, but explained, “It’s like being in high school! Twenty-three best friends talking all night long. To Jerry I was some kind of possession, and now that he’s lost me, he’s freaking out.”

Jerry and Beth came for three sessions. Jerry worked on his anger and need to control his wife. Beth pointed out how he bullied her when he got jealous of her friends. Jerry agreed to be patient while Beth’s love for him grew gradually, but said he wouldn’t tolerate her being sexually inlvoved with anyone else. Beth refused to stay out of the chat rooms altogether, however; she said she needed adult conversation and doubted Jerry would ever be able to replace what she got on-line. After the third session, they abruptly dropped out of therapy and their last two checks bounced. They had moved and left no forwarding address; their phone number was disconnected.

I still wonder if I missed the clues that might have led me to treat this case differently. Beth did have early childhood experiences with pornography, and had some shame associated with it. Perhaps she did obsess about sex privately and was ashamed to tell me she had a sex addiction. If we have learned nothing else about addictions, we know that shame is the operative emotion. It is the therapist’s task to neutralize it, and I failed.

What we’re seeing on-line is a natural extension of life beyond the boundaries of home and family. Adults who can, will set healthy boundaries and balance their private lives with their virtual relationships. I am sure we will see many future cases in which that desire for a healthy boundary is superseded by a compulsive desire for attachment, both emotional and sexual. Virtual reality is no longer a game. Its impact is real and we, as consultants and experts on human relationships, may increasingly be asked to help our clients cope with their virtual lives.

Case Commentary 1

By David C. Treadway

The Internet invites us to transcend the limitations of race, gender, age, even our names and personalities, to enter a world where we are free to become whomever we want to be. One of my clients, a 42-year-old schoolteacher, surfs the net as “Sarah.” He explained, “I’m just looking for the kind of intimate friendship and openness with other women that my wife has with her girlfriends. That’s all.” Another client, Annie, a shy, plump 13-year-old, said to me, “Don’t take me wrong, but you’re old. It’s so great to be able to just be yourself without worrying whether you have a zit or people are going to think you’re too fat. I get to be me. At school, I’m a loser, but now I have friends from all over the country.”

I thought of “Sarah” and his poignant, but contradictory, yearnings for openness and connection and Annie’s youthful exuberance when I read Beth and Jerry’s story. Beth seems to be lost between being an innocent young girl just looking for friends and a confused woman mistaking hot chat and masturbation for freedom and intimacy. Clearly feeling very threatened, Jerry tried to solve his marital crisis by taming the technological beast, becoming a modern-day Luddite.

The main difficulty in Jerry and Beth’s story isn’t the Internet, but their painful struggle to open their marriage and break free of their teenage father/daughter dynamic. Although that dynamic worked at one time, it clearly broke down long before Beth was captivated by the cyberworld. Given the description of Jerry’s dominating, controlling behavior, which included not allowing Beth any friends of her own, I think it’s safe to assume that this marriage would have imploded sooner or later. The struggle over Beth’s use of the Internet was the match, not the munitions factory.

It’s always easy to offer an armchair critique of someone else’s work. (I shudder at the thought of some of my cases being reviewed on these pages). However, I do want to address a few of the key dilemmas in this case. The first difficulty was the handling of the original managed care, six-session limitation and the “honeymoon” that resulted. The therapist seemed to make considerable progress with them, and yet I’m always suspicious when a hierarchically unequal couple snaps back into romance. Spacing out sessions, teaching the couple how to manage conflict, restraining them from too much change and working extra hard to hold Jerry in the therapy could have made a difference. They needed time, and practice, to learn how to manage the inevitable tensions that would result from the healthy developmental changes they were experiencing. The way they drifted out of therapy was a major warning sign that their progress was too fast. While it’s always difficult for us to know when to pursue a case, more often than not, going the extra mile, e.g., calling Jerry and asking for a closure session, is well worth the work.

Once Jerry called the therapist and accused his wife of having an affair, the therapeutic challenge was to sustain Beth’s emerging independence, while avoiding a destructive adolescent rebellion, and simultaneously support Jerry enough so that he could make room for Beth’s increased autonomy. It’s important to note that Beth did not act out the cyber-relationship in the flesh and was still appropriately committed to the marriage. I would have encouraged them not to rush back to working on the relationship until they had confronted in therapy their feelings about what happened. It was premature to make rules about Beth’s time on the Internet because that just reinforced the old pattern of Jerry’s being in control and Beth’s being submissive.

The case really veered out of control once Jerry was threatening violence and Beth left home. The trade-off that they tried to negotiate–that Jerry promised good behavior if Beth did what he wanted–was part of an escalating abuse cycle in this couple and a dangerous moment. I believe it would have been more helpful for the couple to remain separated at this point, rather than trying to again negotiate a compromised solution to their conflict. Beth was clearly not willing to return to her old one-down position and Jerry should not have been rewarded for his threatening behavior. A separation might have provided enough safety for them to have the time to fully explore themselves and their marriage.

I don’t think the most serious problem in this case was Beth’s hidden “sex addiction.” The Internet did, however, allow her to explore her sexuality in relative safety and thus enabled a dramatic acceleration of her pulling away from her marriage. It’s unlikely that Beth would have so easily found hot chat on the soccer field or in the car pool. Yet, suddenly, intense sexual experiences were readily available in the privacy of her own home. Clearly, both Beth and Jerry were overwhelmed by the suddenness of this change in her and in their relationship. The complexity of Beth’s compulsions and Jerry’s fears needed a lot of time to be addressed safely and without coercion.

The most difficult issue in the case, however, was not the sex play on the Internet, but the dominant/submissive structure in the couple and the emergence of the abuse, once Beth began a shift toward more independence. The true villain in the case was the extreme limitations we are all working with under managed care. I thought the therapist did an excellent job under very difficult circumstances.

Facilitating change in couples like Beth and Jerry can be like patching a gaping hole in the bottom of a boat being tossed about in a force-ten gale while the water is gushing in. Sometimes our best effort isn’t good enough. Sometimes the boat just doesn’t make it.


Case Commentary 2

By Emily M. Brown

Anonymous sex is commonly regarded as sleazy, shameful and dirty. Cybersex has a different aura–one of titillating respectability. There’s a veneer, a surface polish, to cybersex that goes with all things computer these days, especially the Internet. Cybersex is a “high brow” form of anonymous sex.

The motivations for cybersex and extramarital affairs are much the same: avoiding conflict or intimacy with one’s spouse, using sex as anesthesia or filler or finding the fantasy partner who will bring you back to life. (Cybersex, however, is usually less effective than a real affair if your intent is to get your spouse to kick you out the door.) With both affairs and cybersex, there’s a yearning for something different. However, a real affair involves some degree of emotional risk.

The case of Beth and Jerry is classic. Beth’s on-line affair is similar to the typical affair in which the spouses engage in ritualized fights and can’t identify or talk about what hurts or has them scared. In the face of Jerry’s inattention, Beth acted out her dissatisfaction. She tried overspending first, which got them to therapy briefly, but the positive results didn’t last long. She yelled, Jerry controlled and the dead space between them developed into a monster. Beth’s next attempt to get attention was the chat room and on-line sex.

If Beth and Jerry had remained in their father/daughter dynamic, their marriage might have continued to plod along. But marriage is not static. It’s likely that Jerry’s role in fathering Beth since she was 15 helped her grow out of her need for the kind of father a young child needs. As Beth reached “adolescence,” the dynamic between them changed, but Jerry’s possessiveness continued to be extreme. Adolescents with possessive and controlling parents rebel. Beth did just that with her spending and chat-room habit.

Beth wanted change, but it appears that Jerry saw no need to change. He seemed to take it for granted that the control he had in the marriage would, and should, continue. Also, he was getting some of his emotional needs met with his boss. Why would he want to change anything? After all, with a little therapy, Beth would get back in line.

If I were the therapist, I would frame the situation as a couple’s problem from the beginning, not just Beth’s problem. I would assert, “Jerry, it seems to me that Beth is trying to get your attention with her spending, since she hasn’t been able to find a better way that works. And Beth, Jerry seems to be trying to keep everything under control all by himself, and he’s having a difficult time doing so, especially with your spending.”

Neither Beth nor Jerry is emotionally self-aware, both are tremendously dependent on each other, they lack communications skills and seem frightened of real intimacy. I assume each has deep ego wounds from childhood. Moreover, I have concerns about whether Jerry is potentially violent. My priorities for the work would be:

* To address the current crisis, which is, at its heart, about whether the marriage will resume its old pattern or whether substantive change will need to occur. This is a huge issue that needs more than the flowers and sex that managed care allows.

* To teach Jerry and Beth how to pay attention to their emotions and how to effectively give them a voice.

* To prevent potential violence.

Addressing the crisis starts with encouraging each to talk while I listen and acknowledge both. I would translate between them and frame their issues as reciprocal. I would explore the feelings underlying their complaints, and in so doing, shift the work to a deeper level. What is each one most afraid of? What does each one need to feel safe enough to talk honestly?

In the presence of both, I would ask about family history. How did Beth learn to stuff her disappointment and her anger? What was the nature of the abandonment that Jerry experienced that he counters with such control? What were the ego wounds to each? Was there abuse? What ghosts of the past are alive in Beth and Jerry’s relationship?

I would be gently persistent in asking, “What are you feeling at this moment?” adding a touch of humor to take the edge off my persistence, so that I didn’t push Jerry over the edge into feeling powerless. I believe that staying with emotions is the most effective way to work, as opposed to laying on a “fix.” In exploring emotions, I would be on the alert for instances in which Beth and Jerry have similar feelings–maybe loneliness or fear. I would highlight these commonalities to help them connect emotionally.

Jerry’s fanatic need for control strikes me as covering a “brittle” personality: low self-esteem, little awareness of his own emotions and motivations, terror of feeling powerless and a resulting difficulty in controlling his anger. Not everyone with these characteristics is abusive, but everyone who is abusive has these characteristics. Once we had enough rapport for honest answers, I would ask if they had gotten “physical.” If not, my antennae would still be up, because an ego wound to a “brittle” personality can precipitate violence.

I would ask Jerry to monitor himself to identify what scares him or makes him feel powerless, and to identify how he reacts to those feelings. What behavior of Beth’s could trigger his rage? Beth is not responsible for Jerry’s behavior, but being provocative (as opposed to expressing her needs and feelings) could be dangerous.

As Beth spoke more about her needs, Jerry’s sense of control would be threatened. This would be difficult for them. The temptation would be to flee therapy and go back to the old ways. Or Jerry might explode in response to Beth’s increased demands, if he hadn’t learned ways to cope with feeling powerless. So a brief anger group for men would be a useful adjunct to the couple’s work. Not wanting to make him the “problem spouse,” I would refer Beth to a brief therapy group for women focusing on self-esteem.

Jerry’s rage at Beth’s on-line affair is normal. However, his difficulties with anger mean that he could easily lose control. I would take Jerry’s threats seriously, checking out how much is talk and how close he is to losing it. If safety was assured, I would bring them together to talk about whether the marriage is going to continue or whether a trial separation might be in order. My guess is that Beth has not grown up enough to successfully leave home. However, if she stays in the marriage and continues with the chat room, the risk would be great that Jerry’s anger would become physical. It would be essential to structure supports and ways to distance, so as to prevent violence.

Just as with affairs, cybersex is a symptom and not the problem. Good, old-fashioned therapy that focuses on awareness of emotions, on taking responsibility for choices and on giving one’s self a voice–in person, not on the Internet–is what is needed. 


Linda S. Freedman, L.C.S.W., is a social worker in private practice in Chicago and a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Address: 3754 West Irving Park Road, Chicago, IL 60618.

David C. Treadway, Ph.D., is a marriage and family therapist in private practice. His latest book is Dead Reckoning: A Therapist Confronts His Own Grief. Address: 228 Boston Post Road., Weston, MA 02193.

Emily M. Brown, L.C.S.W., is director of the Key Bridge Therapy and Mediation Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment. Address: 1912 North Lynn Street, Suite 700, Arlington, VA 22209.