I have a special interest in helping women and men whose lives have been affected by their partner’s compulsive Internet sexual behavior (cybersex). I find that in the treatment of cybersex-related problems, the therapeutic attention is often focused on the user, while the distressing effect on the partner is frequently overlooked.
1. What Is Cybersex?
Cybersex activities include: viewing and/or downloading pornography (in snapshot and video formats) along with masturbation; synchronous (live) communication such as visiting sexually oriented chat rooms and interactive home pages as well as engaging in interactive online affairs which may include real-time viewing of each other using electronic cameras hooked up to the computer. Cybersex may also include reading and writing sexually explicit letters and stories, placing ads to meet sexual partners as well as e-mailing to set up meetings in person. Finally, pornographic software and files may be distributed on diskettes or compact discs. Many people allow themselves to engage in sexual behaviors online which they would never do in the real world (e.g., S&M, cybersex with adolescents or children, presenting themselves as persons of the opposite gender, etc.). Spin-offs of cybersex activities are phone sex with people met online, and online affairs that progress to real or offline affairs.
2. Is My Partner Addicted to Cybersex?
Some signs your partner may have a problem with cybersexual addiction. Your partner:
- loses sexual interest in you and makes excuses to avoid sex.
- introduces unusual/objectionable sexual practices.
- appears distant, emotionally detached and passionless in relational sex.
- withdraws emotionally from the relationship.
- blames you for your sexual problems.
- forms new relationships with fellow online users and receives strange phone calls from “online” friends.
- feels restless, depressed, anxious or nervous when he/she can’t log online.
- demands privacy when online and lies or tries to hide what he/she does online all night.
- tries to sneak online against your wishes.
- snaps, yells, or acts annoyed if bothered while online.
- neglects household chores and the rest of your family to spend more time online.
- becomes socially isolated and misses work because of the amount of time spent online.
If these signs are present in your relationship, there may be a problem. If you suspect but are not sure whether there is an issue of cybersex use, it is appropriate to communicate your concerns to your partner.
3. Your Reaction to the Disclosure of Cybersex
In any relationship, disclosure of compulsive cybersex use by one person creates an immediate crisis for the other. Discovering your partner’s use of cybersex may happen either accidentally or as a result of deliberate investigations or his/her decision to reveal the cybersex activities to you. In either case, it is usually a very painful experience accompanied by a variety of mixed emotions, thoughts and responses. You may experience: anger, rage, betrayal, rejection, confusion, self-blame, shame, disgust, humiliation, hopelessness, fear, guilt, despair, abandonment, bitterness, resentment, devastation, feeling unloved, distrust, worthlessness, alienation, and perhaps denial.
These feelings/reactions are expected and normal and you have every right to experience them. They are a natural reaction to a devastating and painful discovery. It is helpful to find a therapist or a friend who can be supportive and validate your distress at this difficult time.
4. Is It My Fault?
People often wonder if their partner’s use of cybersex is their fault. There is a tendency to believe that indeed it is. Feelings of self-blame, responsibility, not being sexy, pretty, or attractive enough are quite common. These feelings may prevent you from talking with others or reaching out for professional help.
It is important to keep in mind that your partner’s behavior has nothing to do with you. It is not your fault and you are not responsible for his/her decision to choose to engage in cybersexual activities. What’s more, you do not have to tolerate such behavior.
5. The Healing Process
Instead of taking action to resolve your partner’s cybersex problem, you need to accept that you did not cause the problem, you cannot control it nor can you cure it yourself. Your goal needs to move from fixing your partner to working on yourself, especially your damaged self-esteem. You need to learn to pay attention to your own needs and desires, set appropriate and healthy boundaries as well as empower yourself to be in a position to make real choices regarding the relationship.
These and other issues are best explored in therapy where you are “heard,” guided, encouraged, and accompanied on your journey to find healing and balance in your life.