Katherine M. Hertlein, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program, University of Nevada, Nevada; Fred P. Piercy, PhD, is a Professor of Family Therapy in the Department of human development, Virginia Tech, Virginia.
Essential Elements of Internet Infidelity Treatment
Article first published online: 9 FEB 2012
© 2012 American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
Journal of Marital and Family Therapy
Volume 38, Issue Supplement s1, pages 257–270, June 2012
How to Cite
Hertlein, K. M. and Piercy, F. P. (2012), Essential Elements of Internet Infidelity Treatment. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38: 257–270. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00275.x
- Issue published online: 6 JUL 2012
- Article first published online: 9 FEB 2012
As the worldwide usage of the Internet tops 1.6 billion people, problems related to its use such as online Infidelity are becoming widespread issues for couples and, consequently, for their therapists. The purpose of this qualitative study was to understand how practicing therapists treat Internet infidelity through exploring the basic themes used in Internet infidelity treatment. We conducted in-depth interviews of 15 therapists with experience in treating Internet infidelity. Our findings indicate that therapists go through a variety of steps in treatment, including: (a) develop physical boundaries, (b) develop psychological boundaries, (c) manage accountability, trust, and feelings, (d) increase client awareness around etiology of the Internet relationship, (e) assessment of the couple’s context and readiness for change, (f) assess the presence of unique circumstances, and (g) work toward forgiveness. Implications and future research are discussed.
Treating infidelity can be a difficult process for even the most seasoned therapists (Weeks, Gambescia, & Jenkins, 2003). Both traditional and Internet infidelity can be composed of both sexual and emotional elements (Henline, Lamke, & Howard, 2007; Parker & Wampler, 2003; Whitty, 2003). However, internet infidelity generally refers to scenarios with a sexual and/or emotional component, but the interaction is facilitated online rather than in person (Parker & Wampler, 2003). Because of the intimate nature of the connections online, a sample of college students in a study by Henline et al. (2007) considered online affairs as a precursor to a physical encounter, a threat that may not be present or as easily articulated in traditional infidelity cases. Resolution can be difficult because it is hard to define the problematic behavior (Parker & Wampler, 2003). However, cybersex has considerable impact on relationships, including feelings of betrayal, a decreased desire for relational sex with one’s partner, and the betrayed partner making critical self-comparisons with the fantasy online partner (Schneider, 2003).
Therapists need to consider seven specific aspects unique to Internet-related intimacy problems (Hertlein, 2011; Hertlein & Stevenson, 2010). Specifically, the Internet: (a) is acceptable to be used as a communication moderator (King, 1999), (b) is widely accessible (Cooper, 2000, 2002), (c) is affordable (Cooper, 2000, 2002), (d) has the ability to render users anonymous (Cooper, 2000, 2002), (e) facilitates an approximation to real-life interactions (Ross & Kauth, 2002), (f) provides ambiguity in defining problematic behavior (Hertlein & Stevenson, 2010), and (g) allows people varying degrees of accommodation in terms of their real versus ideal selves (Hertlein & Stevenson, 2010). With increased mechanisms for developing interpersonal connections and with companies like AshleyMadison.com (which advertises itself as a four million-member-strong discreet dating service for married persons and has released its own application for the iPhone, http://texyt.com/iphone+manufacturer+supplier+assembler+not+apple+00113), it is not surprising that Internet infidelity is becoming more common place.
Therapists disagree about the definition and treatment of Internet infidelity. Nelson (2000) reported: “… there are few critical issues, interventions, and gender differences in cases of extramarital infidelity upon which expert therapists can agree and find consensus” (p. 137). He asked therapists to determine treatment based on three vignettes of Internet infidelity cases. Among others, therapists did not agree on how to manage secrets and the extent to which a clinician should focus on individual or relational treatment. Similarly, Goldberg, Peterson, Rosen, and Sara (2008) found that a majority (73%) of marriage and family therapists did not believe they were trained in how to deal with this problem. These findings accentuate the need for therapists to be well-informed when working with clients in which Internet infidelity is an issue.
Little published work is focused on the actual treatment of Internet infidelity. What literature there is generally focuses on clinical case presentations. Concepts are introduced, explained, and then clarified with a case example (see Atwood & Schwartz, 2002; Maheu & Subotnik, 2001; Mao & Raguram, 2009; Millner, 2008). The purpose of this research was to understand the basic themes in Internet infidelity treatment from practicing therapists.
Our purpose was not to compare treatment strategies in Internet infidelity and traditional infidelity treatment practices; rather, it was to shed light on the practices that are currently used by clinicians treating this issue. We set out to understand what existing therapists have experienced and believe about the treatment of clients that struggle with Internet infidelity. Further, the therapists self-selected as to whether they wanted to participate in the interview. We believe it unlikely that any participants who did not feel comfortable or knowledgeable about the topic would have volunteered to participate in the interviews.
Studying practicing clinicians is useful as evidence as a stepping stone toward our more rigorous and systematic investigation. We wanted to build a body of knowledge beginning with clinical evidence that describes what we know about Internet infidelity treatment in practice, what strategies are clinically effective, and how therapists make decisions in treatment. Therefore, we conducted a discovery-oriented study to attempt to learn from the insiders (that is, the therapists) working with this clinical population. We wanted to be certain that we did not unduly restrict their description of their treatment. To accomplish this, we inquired about treatment strategies and evaluated whether there were commonalities in the reports. Questions were formed based on clinical evidence from therapists’ reports as well as from research on Internet infidelity demographics and trends. We also provided therapist participants a forum to discuss why they treat couples the way they do as well as describing in detail their assessment and treatment procedures.
Because we were interested in opening the dialogue on this issue, we embraced a postmodern perspective (Creswell, 1998) where reality is experienced differently by each individual. Postmodernism helps individuals to understand that experiences are influenced by the culture in which they live (Hoffman & Kurzenberger, 2008). One of the ways in which sexuality has been deconstructed is in the meaning of pathology. Some sexual behaviors that were previously perceived as pathological are now viewed by researchers and some segments of the general population as not pathological (i.e., Lawrence & Love-Crowell, 2008). With many variations regarding the meaning of different online behaviors, we were interested in how each therapist defines what occurs in Internet infidelity cases and how they construct meaning to intervene most effectively. In pairing a discovery-oriented approach with a basic interpretive qualitative study as described by Merriam (2002), we relied on therapists’ own voices about what their perspectives regarding the phenomenon of Internet infidelity were to understand their definition and treatment philosophies.
It is also important to note that we did not use a sample of “expert” therapists to discuss the treatment of Internet infidelity cases for two main reasons. First, Nelson, Piercy, and Sprenkle (2005) had previously interviewed experts regarding their Internet infidelity treatment via a Delphi method and found little consensus; therefore, it seemed reasonable to conduct interviews with practicing therapists who did not necessarily identify themselves as experts to add new knowledge about this issue. Second, we were interested in learning how therapists treat these cases and having them walk us through their decision-making procedures.
Participants and Procedures
The first author (AU1) chose the participants from a larger survey that asked therapists to rate their assessment and treatment of Internet infidelity cases (Hertlein & Piercy, 2008). Participants were 15 clinical members (seven men and eight women) of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. One of the participants was same-sex oriented. Patton (2000) writes an ideal number of interviewees to reach saturation (where no new information emerges) is eight (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Therefore, 15 participants are a reasonable number.
In the larger survey from which participants were drawn (Hertlein & Piercy, 2008), participants read three Internet infidelity vignettes about heterosexual couples in treatment and responded to eleven assessment and treatment items. These vignettes were the same ones used in the Nelson et al. (2005) study and were used because Nelson (2005) found the vignettes were identified by experts as the three most common Internet infidelity scenarios: (a) one partner found flirtatious emails toward the other partner in the trash, (b) one partner had a physical encounter with someone they met online; or (c) one partner’s pornography viewing online was problematic to the other partner. The gender of the identified client in the vignettes varied—some participants received the vignettes with a male-identified client while others received vignettes with a female-identified client. In the second (interview) phase, a portion of the participants were selected for more in depth interviews regarding their survey responses. In the total interview sample, three of the female therapist participants read vignettes where the identified patient was a woman and the other three read vignettes where the identified patient was a man; likewise, five of the male therapist participants read vignettes where the identified patient was a woman and four read vignettes where the identified patient was a man. Interview data were collected in 2004 and added to with more interviews in 20101.
Because of the variety of geographic locations of the participants, the AU1 conducted semi-structured interviews over the phone. In each case, we provided the informed consent to the participant via fax or email received signed copies prior to the interview. Consent was also secured through the interviewer reading the informed consent document and recording the participant’s indication that they did want to participate. This study was approved by two universities’ Institutional Review Boards. Each interview lasted approximately 45 min with one lasting 60 min. During the interview, the AU1 asked participants to elaborate on their thinking related to their assessment, perceptions, and treatment decisions in Internet infidelity cases as well as in regard to the particular vignette they received in the larger study.
Development of the interview protocol. We used two strategies to develop our interview protocol: (a) our research question attempting to understand how therapists treat Internet infidelity; and (b) literature on therapists’ decision making and case conceptualization in sex-related cases. Guanipa and Woolley (2000) found that gender biases in treatment can originate from several social background characteristics—cultural, biological, social, and political standards. A number of studies have also demonstrated treatment of sexual problems differs depending on the gender of the therapist and/or client (i.e., Liss-Levinson, 1979; Schover, 1981; Schwartz & Strom, 1978; Hertlein & Piercy, 2008), religiosity of the therapist, client marital status (Hecker, Trepper, Wetchler, & Fontaine, 1995), and other elements of the self-of-therapist (Nelson et al., 2005). Illustrative questions included:
- •In the vignette regarding … (one of the vignettes here). What would you do? Why?
- •How would your treatment be different from the other vignettes (summary of other vignettes was provided at this time).
- •Would you do something different if it was a husband complaining about a wife instead of a wife complaining about a husband’s behavior? If so, what? Why?2
- •Would your treatment be different if the couple was two men? Two women?
- •Would your treatment be different if the couple was not married? Older?
The first author audiotaped and transcribed the interviews and subsequently looked for themes within the data through analytic induction and constant comparison (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). This involved noting key words, terms, ideas, and processes identified by the participant. The items noted were considered within the context of the interview as a whole. Items noted were compared and contrasted to determine their similarity and named. Once named, the AU1 employed a bracketing procedure (Patton, 2001) to identify more themes based on the ideas noted in the second reading. She next examined the ideas stemming from each area or interview question (e.g., “What are the main ways a therapist conducts assessment in Internet infidelity cases?”) and re-read the data to determine whether the themes supported her initial list or needed modification. Then she reviewed, collapsed, and modified themes, generating a final distillation of themes, placing the themes under overarching categories. Themes were collapsed when their ideas were indistinguishable and the language of themes was modified to encapsulate the basic concept within a theme. Categories were constructed through grouping themes based on similarities. The AU1 wrote each theme on separate note cards and arranged the cards based on similarity. After each category and theme was noted, the AU1 looked for connections among the categories and themes.
The second author (AU2) cross-coded for verification of the presence of particular themes as well as the placement into categories. He read the interviews and identified themes he saw present based on a constant comparative method. While the AU1 generated themes and overarching categories, the AU2 focused on themes in general without specific thought to categories in which the themes were embedded. We reached agreement about which themes belonged under which categories through discussing any disagreements in the placement of themes and agreeing on a common placement. Once we established categories and themes, we reviewed the themes and categories and rechecked the fit with the data.
Credibility was achieved through triangulation and member checks (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002). Member checks were conducted via email: the first author sent the draft of the themes and categories to the participants and inquired as to whether she was representing what they had reported (Merriam, 1998). Participants reported that the information was accurate to their interview. Triangulation was achieved through the comparison of interview responses to previously completed survey responses. Specifically, once we identified the themes, we went back to the assessment and treatment items in the quantitative portion to ensure what we heard in the interviews was consistent what was found. For example, if the participants discussed their belief that the internet infidelity was a symptom of a larger relational problem, we revisited the item on the quantitative portion to see whether there was consistency across both. Transferability was supported through the rich, thick description and presentation of findings. Dependability was supported through peer examination (having multiple coders examine the findings) (Anfara et al., 2002). As a final fidelity check, the AU1 distributed the interviews to three master’s-level graduate students in a southwestern marriage and family therapy program with the instructions to read the interviews and generate a list of themes that they saw emerging from the data. Each student received five interviews. The research goals were not disclosed to the students, and they were asked to complete the theme generation independent of one another. The themes they found corroborated with one another as well as with the themes identified by the authors.
Because the purpose of this research is to highlight the treatment themes used by practicing marriage and family therapists, we are presenting the qualitative data in a direct and applicable way. Therefore, the data are presented along these key themes: (a) develop physical boundaries, (b) develop psychological boundaries, (c) manage accountability, trust, and feelings, (d) increase client awareness around etiology of the Internet relationship, (e) assess of the couple’s context and readiness for change, (f) assessment of the presence of unique circumstances, and (g) work toward forgiveness. The manner in which the therapists accomplish these steps is detailed below. For an overview of the findings and strategies, see Table 1.
|Therapeutic Tasks||Specific Strategies|
|Develop physical boundaries||Less accessible location, restriction on pages, monitoring software, presence of partner while using computer|
|Develop psychological boundaries||Review relationship contract, review definition of infidelity|
|Manage accountability, trust, and feelings||Validate and normalize, hearing the betrayed partner, acknowledge the sexual and/or emotional nature of the relationship, discuss the actual events and their impact on each person|
|Increase client awareness around etiology of the Internet relationship||Explore motivations, explore potential relationship needs, work on boundaries, insight-oriented questioning|
|Assessment of the couple’s context and readiness for change||Ask about negotiation skills, previous positive relationship experiences, previous history of infidelity throughout the generations; evaluation relationship expectations; identify goals for both individuals and the couple; assess commitment|
|Assess the presence of unique circumstances||Determine whether it is an addiction; evaluate whether there are physical issues contributing to the problem; evaluate expectations of gender and if or how they play into the relationship; circular questioning; take problem out of context; clarify presence of third person|
|Work toward forgiveness||Communication; assess willingness to move toward forgiveness; psychoeducation around forgiveness as a decision|
Develop Physical Boundaries
Participants believed developing physical boundaries was a key step in treating Internet infidelity because it promotes safety within the relationship. According to one participant, “setting up physical boundaries becomes extremely important … they have to develop some mechanism so that she begins to feel a bit more secure in the relationship.” Another participant wanted to know “What rules are associated with the problem? … When is [computer use] appropriate? Some of the examples include moving the computer to a less accessible location, placing a restriction on the sites that are problematic, purchasing monitoring software that tracks a partner’s online activities, and having the betrayed partner present when the involved partner gets online. Another participant agreed that “One of the common things is removing the email from the situation—get people to get offline” but added that in so doing, “you are only putting a temporary solution on the problem.”
Develop Psychological Boundaries
Before the Internet, most couples were able to remain with their original contract throughout much of their marriage; a significant physical and/or emotional relationship with another person was considered infidelity. With the advent of phones, the Internet, and other communication devices, couples may have to revisit their original contracts and become more specific as to what they consider to be a betrayal of their commitment. Important to twelve of the fifteen participants was to determine definitions each partner has about what constitutes infidelity and to work toward a common definition. One participant stated: “I want to ask questions about what are the definitions for both. They could be different for each individual.” Another participant stated: “The first stage is more definitional. How do people define this experience? “This behavior meant X.” Another participant stated:
One spouse may consider chatting in a chat room with anybody infidelity, where the other person may not have that script at all as infidelity. One partner for example may see presenting sexual play on the Internet as infidelity where the other one just considers it no different than buying a Playboy magazine.
Further, most couples do not revisit their original contract until events occur which force them to do so. One participant describing his treatment stated:
It pretty much focuses on doing a couple things, one making sure we work with common definitions … for example, one partner may not consider what they’re experiencing is infidelity … and so there’s a process of establishing a common ground of whatever the breach of the relationship is and definition.
In other words, participants revisit the couples’ original contract and adapt the contract to include Internet relationships.
Manage Accountability, Trust, and Feelings
Nearly all of the participants in the study described the importance of managing the feelings of the betrayed partner and having the partner who participated in the online activities understand the feelings of betrayal by the non-involved partner. Betrayal was characterized by a breach of the relationship contract in any way that made sense to the couple, including both sexual and/or emotional ruptures. One participant stated:
Infidelity happens if someone feels betrayed in a relationship … I think that Internet infidelity is the same thing … if one party in a partnership feels betrayed because of someone else’s Internet activity, flirtatiousness or beyond, then that’s infidelity for them.
Another participant stated:
it’s not so much the sexual contact that makes any difference. I think it’s the secrecy and betrayal of trust and the splitting of something.” Part of the way to address the betrayal is to “allow the betrayed person to have a voice”, and “make sure that [the betrayed partner] was heard”. Another strategy was normalizing the feelings of the betrayed partner. One participant stated the way to accomplish this was to examine: “What do you know actually happened? What was the actual behavior? How did you feel? How did it impact you? Then the partner reflects on this and the therapist needs to validate.
Develop Awareness Regarding Etiology of the Problem
Twelve of the fifteen participants classified Internet infidelity stemming from a symptom of a larger problem in the primary couple’s relationship and believed an important part of treatment was having the clients develop some awareness as to the motivation. These participants included a piece in their treatment that addressed what “led up” to the affair, the “motivation” for the affair, or “gave rise to the affair in the first place.” Most participants identified the motivation as a “larger problem” in the relationship, characterized specifically as a deficit of fulfilled needs which led to the infidelity in the relationship. One participant described it as this:
An affair is usually a symptom of lack of trust and I would try to find out where that all stems from … marriage should be made up of … two people who are open, [honest], and sharing with each other regardless of the risks and regardless of vulnerability. If that’s not taking place and someone had to go elsewhere, it meant that the person felt they had to go underground.
Other motivations reported by participants included breakdowns in communication, boundaries, low-self-esteem, and commitment. One participant put it as:
I think Internet infidelity is simply the same thing as reading porno magazines or the same thing as flirting with someone at the office. It’s a symptom of an unfulfilled relational need. And when we didn’t have the Internet we have other ways of doing that.” One participant, however, noted: “I don’t like to prejudge where I have too many categories of motivations, although I’ve seen quite a few because for each individual it seems to be somewhat different.
Once the motivation is understood, the therapist addresses it. One participant stated: “We work on boundaries, what was missing, what was needed, how to change their way of communication so that they can begin to look at what each other’s needs are and try to meet them.” Specific to Internet infidelity treatment, he later stated:
we work on trying to figure out what need he felt … and if his wife can’t meet it, so the Internet is trying to meet it.
Unlike the actual action of engaging in a relationship with another individual, these unmet needs were typically not identified as the result of one person’s actions, but instead of both people in the relationship. One participant explained this by stating:
Although they both share events leading up to the affair, one person made the decision to actually have a physical affair.” Nine of the fifteen participants stated that Internet infidelity was the result of one person attempting to have their needs met: when they were not able to do so from their partner, they would look to another person to meet these needs. For example, phrases such as “had to go elsewhere” and “his wife does not meet his needs” imply that those individuals who cannot be sexually or emotionally gratified from their partner may be justified in seeking other options.
In addition to understanding the etiology, six of the fifteen participants stated that each partner should be able to identify needs and develop ways to meet those needs. Such needs included those that the betrayed spouse sees as necessary “in order to stay in the marriage,” as those which are needed “to help the [uninvolved partner] feel safe and secure in the marriage,” and those aspects that “need to change in the relationship.” One participant described her treatment as “insight-oriented” in the sense that both partners have to understand the context in their relationship at the time of the affair to develop strategies to move forward.
Another participant examined if:
[The partners are] willing to look at what needs to change within the relationship … so that he doesn’t have to look at the pornography, or can they figure out a way for it to be OK with her, for him to look at the pornography? Can they look at it together?
This is one example of many comments by participants which describe examining what a couple needs in the moment, while taking into account the couple’s broader context.
Assess Couple’s Context and Readiness for Change
Relationship history and context. For thirteen of the participants, taking a relationship history was critical. Some factors that participants highlighted included exploring a couple’s negotiation skills, the level of enjoyment, the kind of marriage they had, what they did with each other when their marriage was in a happier place, how they felt about the relationship and how long they have been together. Participants reported that they may also choose to take a complete relationship history and/or to identify the relationship history as it relates to infidelity, exploring:
if this was a pattern … have they ever been in a relationship before and had this issue … around Internet infidelity.” One interviewee wanted to know: “If there’s some, any kind of history or patterns of … similar or same behaviors … Just because they’ll present for current infidelity doesn’t mean that it’s not happened multiple times in the past or in different forms or different circumstance.
Additionally, ten of the fifteen participants stated that they would evaluate expectations of the relationship for each person. One participant put it as:
[It is] about them being able to see where they learned about stuff and what they want their couplehood to look like. They base their couplehood on role models they want to have.” One participant exemplified the readiness for change by stating the therapist must discover “What is the level of change that they are interested in?
This would help direct the therapist to outlining the goals and process of treatment.
Identify goals. Seven of the fifteen participants wanted to know the couple’s goal as this would dictate the course of treatment. This was characterized by assessing individual goals both individually and relationally. One participant stated it is critical to identify:
where each partner is, what their status is, whether they want to break up or continue … I just want to see what their kinds of goals were, what did they want to see happen.” Nine participants also reported they assess the couple’s level of commitment to one another. Though this theme was prevalent throughout the interviews, it was especially pronounced when the AU1 asked the participants whether their treatment would be different if the couple presenting with Internet infidelity was not married. As one participant explained, “I would challenge them to look at whether they want to be committed in a relationship where a person has shown no commitment.
Assess the Presence of Unique Circumstances
Determine presence of addiction. Some participants (seven of the fifteen) did explain Internet infidelity as a manifestation of compulsive behavior. For example, some said that it may originate from either a computer compulsion or a sexual compulsion with the Internet as the vehicle. Conceptualized this way, the compulsions are considered within the individual and may shift treatment strategies to a more individualized focus. One participant clarified the distinction:
If it’s a person that he’s connected with, that he’s repeatedly seeing, online, then that’s more like an affair. That’s more like how I would treat a couple where somebody’s having an affair, whereas if its, just lots of people and different … places, then I would treat it more like an addiction, which would mean that I would want to be seeing him alone some of the time.
One participant described her treatment as similar to treating an alcohol addiction:
in the sense of having his wife explain to him why it’s a problem for her and what the consequences are of continued indulging in the addiction.
Identify any Medical or Physical Health Issues
Seven of the fifteen participants reported with older couples they would explore more of the medical and physical issues which might affect their overall well-being as well as the presence of any sexual dysfunctions. One participant noted:
If the woman perhaps is menopausal, if the man has erectile problems or physical problems that stops sexuality for either one of them, that might be a factor that causes the other one to look for sexual [interactions], albeit on the Internet.
Another participant stated:
I should probably check in on any medical or arousal disorders, which I didn’t mention before.
Evaluating gender considerations. Ten of the fifteen participants indicated that their strategies might differ in terms of the gender of the person involved online, beginning with their conceptualization of the case. Treatment strategies included a discussion of expectations regarding men and women’s sexuality when a woman was engaging in the infidelity. For example, one participant described how he would alter treatment based on the gender of the client:
Men are the ones that I would be less concerned about … and I know this sounds like a double standard, but with a woman I would treat it like an addiction and wonder if she can ease down.”
Several of the participants (eight of the fifteen) specifically reported a difference in their treatment when pornography was used by a woman in a heterosexual relationship and the husband considered it infidelity. One participant revealed:
So if you ask me if my treatment would be any different, I think I would be flabbergasted. If a couple came in and the husband said, “I am feeling, you know, terribly hurt. My wife is watching porn,” I don’t know what I would do. I think I would call the state and hand my license in.
This statement reveals two significant implications. First, therapists may have difficulty understanding the betrayed person’s point of view if it does not fit with their worldview or expectations about how men and women should behave. Secondly, pathologizing of a woman’s behavior might direct the treatment toward more of an addiction and individual focus rather than a relational focus (Hertlein & Piercy, 2008).
In applying gender to treatment, one participant asked:
Are your expectations different? Are we taught in society that men can watch [porn]? … I might break down some of the gender expectations in order to understand the problems.
Another participant stated she would ask “what it means for a woman to be sexual?” and explore this meaning in treatment.
Participants also reported a potential difference between men and women in how betrayal is viewed. One participant stated:
two women together will often subscribe betrayal in behavior that, to me as a male, [I] would not necessarily see as betrayal.
This difference in how men and women view betrayal may also affect their understanding of their relationship contract. One participant stated:
It is more common for men to have multiple affairs and … certain men, whether personality or whatever, you know, just have the habit and propensity to have multiple affairs and … to address that issue and to see whether its something that the woman is going to accept for their marriage or not.
On the other hand, two of the participants noted how men may view a woman’s infidelity as “being a more serious violation.” While the infidelity rates for men and women seem to be converging, the point as it applies to this research is to develop clear expectations for the couple as to what is expected and acceptable within the relationship.
The Presence of an Identifiable Third Person
The participants generally reported additional treatment strategies when there was an identifiable third party involved. Participants referred to this as “stepping across the boundaries” or “stepping outside of the relationship.” Participants perceived porn use as less serious and would affect their treatment strategies. One participant stated:
[Pornography] is a little bit different because it’s not another human being involved … there’s not a third party … just pictures or movies … I think I would [treat looking at pornography differently from chatting online] because there’s not communication there. It’s just purely … an individual, internal sort of thing going on.
One participant stated:
I think stepping out of the marriage with a third party is a lot more serious than just watching a 15 or 17 inch screen, albeit frequently.
Another participant conceptualized an identifiable third part as more extreme and stated:
Whether they’re just flirting … with a bunch of people at once, you know, I see that as almost harmless compared to someone who engages in a more intensive flirting relationship with one person … It seems to make a difference in … the treatment of the person as well as dealing with the spouse.
Because the involvement of a third person was viewed as a more intense experience, participants also indicated that the involvement of a third person would potentially require more forgiveness for the couple to move forward.
Work Toward Forgiveness
Forgiveness was also an important piece described by eleven of the fifteen participants. The participants reported forgiveness can take a variety of forms, but should begin with the partner who engaged in the Internet infidelity taking responsibility for their actions. One participant stated:
[the healing process] will involve some form of recognition of the wrong.
In addition to an acceptance of responsibility for the event by the unfaithful partner, five participants also indicated that communication was central to the process of forgiveness:
I don’t think they can ever deal with forgiveness and work this incident through unless they can communicate and connect with each other, especially on an intimate level.
One participant reported she followed the DiBlasio (2000) model of forgiveness, including educating the couple on the distinction between forgiving, forgetting, and describing forgiveness as a choice.
One participant explained:
People need to build up and process and make a decision to forgive, especially the partner who has been unfaithful.
Some questions therapists asked to move the client in this direction of focus included: “What do you need to rebuild trust?” and “What will you contribute to you being able to make the decision to forgive?”
Internet infidelity is a complex issue (Maheu & Subotnik, 2001). It is incumbent upon the therapist to work with the couple to define the Internet affair in a way that is respectful of the feelings of the betrayed partner, identify a framework to develop change, and attend to any unique circumstances in the case that may arise (e.g., personality disorders, addictions, etc.). The development of the physical boundaries (e.g., moving the computer) and psychological boundaries (i.e., defining infidelity) seemed to be the first priority that these family therapists identified in beginning the process of treatment and re-building trust. The challenge is that the physical boundary issues may not be all that realistic because of the multiple functions and locations of the Internet. In a study on married men’s online sexual behavior (Dew, Brubaker, & Hays, 2006), the use of the computer for sexual purposes was not mitigated by the presence of partners or children. Further, men reported that they were accessing these sites at both home and work. Therapists may need to develop better strategies if they choose to work with couples to establish physical boundaries.
One factor emerging as critical in managing trust, accountability, and the expression of feelings in the betrayed partner is the ambiguity in the definition of Internet infidelity. Some of the participants in our study identified sexual behavior as a primary criterion in the definition, an observation consistent with some literature (e.g., Shaw, 1997). Yet, there were other participants who believed Internet infidelity could be characterized by emotional intimacy including secrecy and breach of trust. Cooper and Sportolari (1997) found that Internet relationships tend to have very strong emotional connections. Further, the advancements in online communicative technologies such as software programs to exchange movies, photos, and Skype (which allows free voice and video calling through the Internet) can enhance one’s connection to the other over cyberspace. Clarifying the definition of Internet infidelity will help the person involved in the relationship acknowledge the hurt and betrayal felt by the non-involved partner because of the level of emotion and physical connection involved.
For example, the Internet can approximate a real-world sexual situation without having to involve the partner (Ross & Kauth, 2002). Webcameras, video streams, and even some computer hardware such as RealTouch™ (Real Touch, 2010) increase the reality of the computer-mediated communication, thus making the experiences all the more powerful. Therapists who attend to how the Internet approximates a real-life situation for an individual may be more successful in treatment because they are addressing one of the vulnerabilities potentially sustaining Internet infidelity. The inclusion of this topic might include developing ways for the couple to incorporate what was being approximated into their offline behaviors. For example, McKenna, Green, and Gleason (2002) found that Internet users who develop meaningful relationships online integrate those changes into their self-concept. Therapists can dedicate a portion of treatment to how one’s self-concept is altered by the online relationship and address this through developing flexibility within the relationship roles within the new self-concept, seeing how the new self-concept generated through the process of therapy can be positive in the new couple’s relationship, and finding things about the new self-concept that are enjoyable (Weeks & Treat, 2001).
The belief that Internet infidelity is a symptom of an underlying problem (as opposed to an independent event held by many of our participants) is consistent with observations by other theorists and clinicians (Glass, 2003; Leiblum & Döring, 2002; Shaw, 1997; Young, 2006). This perspective also seems to be true for traditional infidelity cases (Nannini & Meyers, 2000). Yet as one participant stated, there are a variety of reasons (including non-deficit) which motivate online involvement including curiosity, self-esteem issues, personality disorders, anxiety management, etc. This divergent view is critical to include in the findings because it represents some tension in the field on the etiology of infidelity. The fact is that infidelity of any type is a multidimensional problem (Weeks et al., 2003). As one becomes involved online, the pattern of online behavior may become increasingly problematic and create more problems within the couple’s relationship including visiting sexually explicit websites or chatrooms, engaging in unprotected sex with those met in chatrooms, and conducting online activities in secret (Dew et al., 2006). Therapists need to carefully evaluate whether the deficit model or another motivation is the most appropriate to avoid pathologizing the uninvolved partner.
While there were several circumstances in which the therapists would add something to their approach, it would be accomplished through a discussion and clarification of expectations. It is also worth wondering whether the gender of the therapist might have any bearing on the treatment strategies. (Hertlein & Piercy, 2008) found that female therapists tended to be more relationally oriented and male therapists more individually oriented in treating Internet infidelity cases, but participants in the present study were not asked to speak about their gender as it related to their cases. In fact, only one participant in the present study overtly stated she considered the self-of-therapist in relation to whether clients would talk to her. Further, most of the participants reported they would not alter their treatment based on gender when specifically asked, yet their statements within the interviews as a whole did reveal differences in treatment.
As we examine our data for how it can inform best practice in the treatment of Internet infidelity, we recognize the need to consider how the gender of the therapist and gender of the client influence decisions in the assessment and treatment of Internet infidelity cases. Therapists need to actively reflect on their personally held beliefs about gender, gender roles, and expectations to appropriately direct treatment (Hertlein, 2011). Further, because the field does not have specific best practices in the treatment of Internet infidelity or how technology in general impacts couples, this article is a step toward defining what therapists do that can be used by researchers to test best practices with this presenting problem.
Finally, forgiveness is a critical final stage in the treatment of Internet infidelity. The participants described forgiveness as a decision made during the course of treatment. The accessibility of the Internet (Cooper, 2000) may impair the betrayed partner’s ability to move toward forgiveness because of the persistent presence of the problematic affair vehicle (the Internet) at home, at work, and on portable devices. Ambiguity (Hertlein & Stevenson, 2010) can also impair forgiveness as long as the involved partner clings to the belief that their lack of physical involvement negates the definition of an affair. As mentioned earlier, therapists need to consider how accessibility and ambiguity (as well as other unique properties of the Internet) may affect the process of forgiveness and develop strategies to manage these factors to facilitate the forgiveness process. Specifically, the therapist should help a couple generate a common definition and be sure to include that definition in the forgiveness phase, and work with the betrayed partner to develop a plan which will provide a context for forgiveness within an environment of escalating accessibility.
There were several limitations in the present research. One is our lack of questioning about the participant’s direct, personal experiences with computers, Internet infidelity, pornography, etc. This may have been important information because therapists’ personal experiences with the Internet and computers may have influenced their assessment and treatment of such cases. Future questions might have included an assessment of the therapists’ computer skills (other than knowing they had email to participate), assessing how much time clinicians spent online, and other questions about their online habits. Further, although we were rigorous in our approach and achieved saturation in our themes, our sample was not a group of experts in the field of Internet infidelity treatment, but rather those with experience treating Internet infidelity who agreed to take part in a second phase of our study. Consequently, there are likely many other therapists who have more experience with Internet infidelity cases whose views were not represented. Other limitations included the scope. As mentioned in the purpose, this was not a research project developed to identify best practices and therefore was not a representation of how the experts practice; rather, it was intended to shed light on how therapists are treating Internet infidelity cases. As a result, we specifically asked about Internet infidelity rather than focused on how these treatments compared with traditional infidelity treatment. This is something to consider when claiming that differences between the two treatments are found.
Dodini (2000), in his thesis on therapists’ assessment of hope and justification in cases of Internet infidelity, wrote:
Future research on therapists’ biases and beliefs in treating extramarital involvement will need to include a qualitative component that will enrich the understanding of the quantitative data” (p. 82).
Strong qualitative data would enhance the results of research by learning what works for those individuals involved in Internet infidelity treatment and lead to better models and questions regarding Internet infidelity. We did not ask the participants to specifically reflect on how their gender might contribute to their conceptualization and treatment process. This might be a question for future investigation in addition to research on the gender of the client and is relation to assessment and treatment. Additionally, we can improve Internet infidelity treatment by better developing and fine-tuning the strategies identified by couples and therapists themselves. Other areas of inquiry include studying how therapists determine the “underlying issue” for which Internet infidelity is a symptom. As mentioned throughout the results and discussion sections, there were several instances where differences existed in assessment and treatment in the pornography vignette than in the other two vignettes involving online communication, so another research question might include the differences in the assessment and treatment of the pornography vignette versus the other two vignettes. Future research might also seek to understand under what circumstances Internet infidelity might be justified in the view of clinicians and what impact this perception would have on treatment, or how forgiveness in treatment of Internet infidelity cases is facilitated. Finally, future researchers might explore differences in how therapists see individual and relational treatment, using this information to further treatment frameworks for Internet sex cases.
The author also expresses an incredible amount of gratitude to the reviewers for their dedication to this article, their helpful and detailed suggestions, and their ideas about how to best represent the material. This article is so much stronger with such great feedback.
- 2002). Qualitative analysis on stage: Making the research process more public. Educational Researcher, 31(7), 28–38. , , & (
- 2002). Cyber-sex: The new affair treatment considerations. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 1(3), 37–56. , & (
- 2000). Cybersex: the dark side of the force. New York: Brunner-Routledge. (
- 2002). Sex and the internet: A guidebook for clinicians. New York: Brunner-Routledge. (
- 1997). Romance in cyberspace: Understanding on-line attraction. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 22(1), 7–14. , & (
- 1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (
- 2006). From the altar to the Internet: Married men and their online sexual behavior. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 13, 195–207. , , & (
- 2000). Decision-based forgiveness treatment in cases of marital infidelity. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 37, 149–158. (
- 2000). Treating infidelity: Therapists’ rating of hope, threat, forgiveness, and justification. Unpublished Masters thesis, Falls Church, VA: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. (
- 2003). Not “just friends”. New York: Free Press. (
- 2008). Cybersex: The impact of a contemporary problem on the practices of marriage and family therapists. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(4), 469–480. , , , & (
- 2000). Gender biases and therapists’ conceptualization of couple difficulties. American Journal of Family Therapy, 28, 181–192. , & (
- 1995). The influence of therapist values, religiosity and gender in the initial assessment of sexual addiction by family therapists. American Journal of Family Therapy, 23(3), 261–272. , , , & (
- 2007). Exploring perceptions of online infidelity. Personal Relationships, 14(1), 113–128. , , & (
- 2011). Therapeutic dilemmas in Internet infidelity treatment. American Journal of Family Therapy, 39, 162–173. (
- 2008). Treatment and assessment of Internet infidelity cases. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34, 481–497. , & (
- 2010). The seven “As” contributing to Internet-related intimacy problems: A literature review. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 4(1), article 1. Retrieved March 28, 2011, from http://www.cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2010050202. , & (
- 2008). Premodern, modern, and postmodern ways of interpreting the miraculous and mental illness from religious and psychological perspectives. In H. Ellens (Ed.), Miracles: God, science, and psychology in the paranormal. (Vol. 3, pp. 65–93) Westport, CT: Praeger. , & (
- 1999). Internet gambling and pornography: Illustrative examples of psychological consequences of communication anarchy. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 2, 175–193. (
- 2008). Psychotherapists’ experience with clients who engage in consensual sadomasochism: A qualitative study. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 34, 63–81. , & (
- 2002). Internet sexuality: Known risks and fresh chances for women. In A. Cooper (Ed.), Sex and the Internet: A guidebook for clinicians. (pp. 19–45) New York: Brunner-Routledge. , & (
- 1979). Women with sexual concerns. The Counseling Psychologist, 8(1), 36. (
- 2001). Infidelity on the Internet. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Inc. , & (
- 2009). Online infidelity: The new challenge to marriages. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 51(4), 302–304. , & (
- 2002). Relationship formation on the Internet: What’s the big attraction? Journal of Social Issues, 58, 9–31. , , & (
- 1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (
- 2002). Qualitative research in practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (
- 2008). Internet infidelity: A case of intimacy with detachment. Family Journal, 16(1), 78–82. (
- 2000). Jealousy in sexual and emotional infidelity: An alternative to the evolutionary explanation. The Journal of Sex Research, 37, 117–122. , & (
- 2000). Internet Infidelity: A modified Delphi study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, West Lafayette, IN, Purdue University. (
- 2005). Internet infidelity: A multi-phase study. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 4(2/3), 173–194. , , & (
- 2003). How bad is it? Perceptions of the relationship impact of different types of internet sexual activities Contemporary Family Therapy, 25(4), 415–429. , & (
- 2000). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (
- 2001). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage. (
- Real Touch. (2010). Retrieved August 31, 2010 from: http://www.realtouch.com/dispatcher/home.
- 2002). Men who have sex with men, and the Internet: Emerging clinical issues and their management. In A. Cooper (Ed), Sex and the Internet: A guidebook for clinicians (pp. 47–69) New York: Brunner-Routledge. , & (
- 2003). The impact of compulsive cybersex behaviours on the family. Sexual & Relationship Therapy, 18(3), 329–354. (
- 1981). Male and female therapists’ responses to male and female sexual material: An analogue study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 10(6), 477–492. (
- 1978). The social psychology of female sexuality. In J. A. Sherman & F. L. Denmark (Eds), The psychology of women: Future directions in research. New York: WES-DEN. , & (
- 1997). Treatment rationale for Internet infidelity. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 22(1), 29–34. (
- 1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc. , & (
- 2003). Treating infidelity. New York: W.W. Norton. , , & (
- 2001). Couples in treatment. New York: Routledge. , & (
- 2003). Pushing the wrong buttons: Men’s and women’s attitudes toward online and offline infidelity. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6(6), 569–579. (
- 2006). Online infidelity: Evaluation and treatment implications. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 5(2), 43–56. (
Completed at the request of the reviewers; 11 were conducted in 2004; four more interviews with additional participants were conducted in 2010. Interviews in 2010 had the same themes as interviews conducted in 2004 per the AU1 and graduate assistant codings to ensure saturation of findings as well as to demonstrate confirmability.
This question pertains to changing the gender in the original vignette and did not ask about each vignette through the switched gender roles.