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By: Stephanie Nelson-Gerhardt, LMFT

You sit down at your computer and log on to Facebook. In the top right corner, you notice a “friend request.” You click on it anticipating a co-worker or college roommate, hoping not to find your high school biology partner. When the new page opens, your heart skips a beat. It is your ex. You glance over your shoulder to see if your spouse noticed, but you are all alone. Now what do you do?

Years ago, we learned the Internet is a dangerous place for our professional lives. Remember the email about your fire-breathing boss you intended to send to a friend and accidentally sent to your boss instead? It turns out the Internet is dangerous for our relationships as well.

As a therapist, I see more and more couples with some issue related to social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook. These sites are giving rise to a new type of infidelity that I refer to as “e-ffairs.”

E-ffair means any on-line behavior with another person that is disloyal to a couple's current relationship. Depending on a person's belief system, this could be anything from secret communication with an ex-girlfriend to flirting to cyber-sex with a stranger. E-ffairs are just as damaging to relationships as real life affairs, and thanks to the ease and discreteness of technology, many more people are falling into them.

Why would someone have an e-ffair?

Simply put, because it feels good. As with traditional affairs, many people find they are in one to get a need met, to feel better about themselves, to feel wanted or to boost their confidence. The same goes for e-ffairs.

Why not just have a real affair?

E-ffairs have a lot going for them in the “convenience” department. No sneaking around, no trying to find places to meet up. People can engage in them while at the office, the bookstore or at home. Plus, it can be easier to deny an emotional relationship than a sexual one. I often hear people dismiss on-line relationships as “just talking.”

Why are e-ffairs so dangerous to relationships?

As with all affairs, it is not the sex but instead the emotional connection that causes lovers to attach to each other. E-ffairs are high in emotional connection, especially if people are communicating with lost loves. Early love relationships have a way of imprinting on the brain so that reminiscing over memories can stir up old emotions, making us feel sixteen again. If your current relationship is suffering at all, it will have a difficult time competing with the potent cocktail of fantasy, nostalgia and those feel-good love hormones, like oxytocin.

How do I protect my relationship from an e-ffair?

One of the best ways to protect yourself is through prevention. Tell your partner if an old flame contacts you and ask them to do the same. Set up ground rules: decide what communication is acceptable and how often. Make sure you and your partner are clear on what type of disclosure you expect from each other. Some couples even decide to share passwords or email accounts to ensure complete transparency.

Be honest with yourself. If you want to look up a lost love to catch up, it may be fine. The key is to know your own motive. Is your heart racing when you see the profile picture? Stop and pay attention: you are in dangerous territory. If you are having difficulty in your current relationship, it is best to steer clear of your ex altogether and avoid temptation.

In addition to this, avoid logging on to networking sites when you are fighting with your partner or have been drinking. These situations can cause you to act impulsively, which you will later regret. If you fear you may have crossed the line and you don’t know what to do, seek out assistance from a therapist with experience in these types of issues.

What should I do if I suspect my partner of having an e-ffair?

While it may be tempting to try and hack into on-line accounts and snoop around, this is not the best course of action. Sit down with your partner and start a conversation about your concerns. Go in with an open mind, without accusations or blame. Talk about setting up guidelines for on-line relationships that you can both feel comfortable with. If an e-ffair is disclosed, consider contacting a trained couples’ therapist to navigate both the aftermath of the e-ffair as well as any pre-existing issues that may have contributed to the problem.