by Candace Taylor
Christina*, 24, recently began an affair with a married man. But instead of skulking to seedy motels, she conducted the majority of the relationship in the bedroom of her Clinton home - at her laptop.
"It started with IMing," says Christina of the recently ended relationship, which, like a growing number of extramarital affairs, came to fruition on the Internet.
The two met on an outing with mutual friends, where Christina learned his AOL Instant Messenger screen name. The next day, she sent him a message.
"From there, we talked [on IM] pretty much every night, for hours," she says. They started as just friends, but within a few weeks, he told her he loved her and was planning to leave his wife.
It was pretty intense," Christina recalls. "I was a little taken aback."
Christina is one of millions of people across the country who have gotten swept up in extramarital, online relationships without intending to, says Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Recovering from Affairs. At a time when it's harder than ever for couples to stay together, Vaughan says, the internet and new technologies like text messaging have made infidelity easier and more accessible to a broad range of people. Meanwhile, the gadgets are adding new dimensions to the already confusing, ever changing definitions of infidelity.
Many adults think of the internet as a harmless source of flirtation or companionship, says Vaughan, who founded Beyond Affairs Network, a collection of support groups.
But a recent survey Vaughan conducted showed that 59 percent of some 1,000 respondents eventually met their online confidants in person, and nearly half of those said they had a "physical, sexual relationship," Vaughan says.
"We think an online affair isn't serious," says Vaughan. "We don't realize how often it can become sexual."
Even more telling, Vaughan says, is the fact that 79 percent of survey respondents who had online affairs said they weren't planning to be unfaithful.
"What I found is that a lot of people who wouldn't normally be vulnerable [to an affair] think it's safe to go into a chat room, even if it's about gardening or bridge," she says. "Inevitably, you meet someone who's interesting, who seems to think like you."
Those online conversations quickly escalate to intimate sharing, Vaughan says.
"You feel safe," she says. "You share things with people online that you wouldn't if you were talking to them face to face."
Meanwhile, the anonymity of electronic communication makes it easy to present yourself in the best possible light, or to reveal previously hidden parts of your personality.
"We can be funnier, smarter, cooler than we are in real life," Vaughan says. "It's heady stuff."
As a result of these intoxicating interactions, online relationships tend to get serious with "lightning speed," Vaughan says - far quicker than in-person relationships.
Christina's relationship with the married man became physical about two weeks after they met for the first time. At that point, they'd been instant messaging "pretty much every single day," says Christina, who has accounts on Yahoo Messenger and ICQ, but usually just uses IM.
If it weren't for instant messaging, Christina says, they likely "wouldn't have talked at all, until the next time we met [at a group social outing]."
Technology such as text messaging made the relationship a lot easier to hide.
"I could never call his house without him first texting me and saying, 'call me,'" she explains. Text messages were ideal because the sender and recipient don't show up on phone bills.
As the relationship progressed, the couple spent a lot of time discussing things "we never would have talked about in person," Christina recalls. IM makes it "much easier to let loose. You might be blushing, but they can't see that you're blushing."
In fact, she says, "all of the big conversations in our relationship were pretty much done on IM." That is, except for the breakup that came when he decided to stay with his wife and daughter.
Christina was heartbroken.
"I've never felt so close to a guy," Christina recalls. "He said things like, 'This is the girl I've been looking for my whole life.'"
Relationships that begin online frequently fail because online personas "don't fit with our normal, responsible lives," Vaughan says. "You're living in a fantasy land. People actually feel like they've met their soul mate, sometimes before they've even met."
Meanwhile, internet-fueled infidelity, and the heartache that frequently follows, is affecting more and more people each year, Vaughan says.
The ease of electronic communication means "this is hitting a population that [infidelity] would not otherwise happen to," Vaughan says. In the past, work or travel situations had to align for an illicit affair to take place. Nowadays, anyone can do it from their home computer. "It expands the opportunity to virtually everyone," she says.
But because infidelity - especially online infidelity - is still a taboo subject in many circles, few people realize how widespread the problem has become. "It's so much more pervasive than people think," Vaughan says. "They don't have any concept of just how dangerous [the Internet] can be."
In the opinion of New Haven's Carolyn Hax, a writer for The Washington Post whose syndicated column Tell Me About It runs in PLAY, internet infidelity plays into preexisting problems with marriage in society.
"There's an incredible amount of loneliness within relationships," Hax says, arguing that people frequently don't do a good job of choosing their mates. "A lot of people get into a relationship thinking 'this is a nice person and we get along and I'm 28, so let's make this work.'"
When things don't work out as they'd hoped, Hax argues, they're much more susceptible to having an affair on the Internet, which is "just there."
"It's so easy," Hax says. "It's easy to go about your normal life on the surface and have this other thing going on, which can stir up feelings that an established relationship can't."
Ironically, as technology makes extramarital affairs easier to come by, infidelity has become more of a deal breaker than ever, according to David Popenoe, a sociology professor at Rutgers University and co-director of the National Marriage Project.
"I think infidelity is probably more likely to break up a marriage today than in the past, because marriage and fidelity are so closely entwined in people's minds," he says.
In times past, he says, divorce was frowned upon, while people married younger and expected to have fewer sexual partners in their lifetimes.
Under those circumstances, he says, "an occasional dalliance might have been overlooked."
But in today's culture of high-profile celebrity marriages and speedy divorces, people have come to view adultery as an insurmountable obstacle, he says.
"People are constantly seeing that with Hollywood stars ... the first act of infidelity is the breaker of the marriage deal," Popenoe says.
In a world where couples are constantly bombarded with temptation to stray, new technology is also confounding traditional definitions of infidelity - which weren't particularly clear to begin with.
"There have always been differences of opinion about cheating," says Hax. "Some people argue that any interaction with people outside a relationship, anything from harmless flirting to affairs, can bring excitement to the original relationship. Some people argue that any interaction is a betrayal."
As new technologies proliferate, it's more confusing than ever, experts say.
"We have all these gray areas now that didn't exist before," says Popenoe. For example, he says, pornography - considered by some people to constitute a form of infidelity - is more prevalent "in double, triple spades" than it used to be.
"Fifty, 100 years ago, it was an occasional dirty postcard from France, and even those were hard to come by," he says. "Now [porn] is everywhere, accessible to everyone."
Mike, 23, of East Lyme says pornography could be considered cheating on a girlfriend if "you're seeing more of it than you're seeing of her."
He adds that he "probably" also would consider an online relationship to be cheating.
"It depends on the extent," he says. "It's a gray area."
But Mike said he would want to know "pretty much immediately" if a girlfriend was involved in an online relationship, or a real-life friendship with a member of the opposite sex. "If my girlfriend's looking forward to seeing some other guy, even if he's just a friend, I'd be a little skeeved out by that."
To make things more confusing, men and women generally seem to have different ideas about what constitutes cheating, especially when it comes to electronic mediums, experts say.
Most women consider online relationships to be a form of infidelity, and men tend to disagree, says Tasha Joseph, creator of the website Dontdatehimgirl.com, which allows women to post the names and pictures of men who have cheated on them.
"A lot of guys will say, it's just an IM, it's just a text message, it's nothing," Joseph says. "They think if you're not sleeping with someone, it's not cheating."
It's evident that the women who post on Dontdatehimgirl.com disagree, Joseph says.
Vaughan says women are more vulnerable to Internet-fueled infidelity than men.
Men are less likely to take an online relationship seriously, sometimes conducting two or three at the same time, Vaughan says.
Though, Vaughan says, there are some exceptions: "Men don't think of anything as an affair unless there's a deep emotional and physical investment. Anything that's just titillation, it's not serious to them. It's like porn or strip clubs. They're not thinking this is going to be their lifelong partner."
Women, on the other hand, tend to "assign a lot of meaning" to online romances, in part because they're more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships, Vaughan says.
Women "tend to go whole hog into the role of wife and mother, even if they work full time," she says. When they become involved in an online relationship, "they see this new connection as a substitute for whatever dissatisfaction they feel [in their other relationship.] It's like a breath of fresh air."
Popenoe agrees. While many women tend to think of pornography as a form of infidelity, "men typically don't," he says. Meanwhile, most women think "an online, chat-room sex relationship with another person" is cheating - most men don't.
He says the reasons are complex and rooted in evolution.
"It's a long story, but, in general, men are more interested in a variety of partners," he says.
While having a drink at Hot Tomato's in New Haven, Ken, 50, says online relationships are "absolutely not" cheating.
His friend Dave, 49, disagrees slightly, saying cheating is defined by intention.
"If you know going in that something's going to come of this, then that's cheating," says Dave, who's seen marriages end over online affairs. But he says a little IMing while "checking Yankees scores," doesn't count as infidelity.
Greg, 50, says he wouldn't mind if his wife was involved in an online relationship, as long as she "was just chatting."
"As long as nothing physical ever happens," it's not cheating, he says.
When asked if he'd mind if his wife shared secrets with someone else, he says, he has "no problem with that."
"That's like having a confidant," he says.
But Kathleen, 31, and Lynn, 30, of Milford have quite a different take on the situation.
Lynn says infidelity begins when "you're having emotional feelings for someone else."
Kathleen agrees. "There's a point you reach - when you anticipate that person emailing you - that's cheating. You're going to want to meet them in person."
She compares online romance to a workplace relationship she was once involved in.
Engaged at the time, she developed a crush on a coworker, then started flirting and emailing with him.
"When I got dressed in the morning, I was so excited to see him," she says. "Even though we were just friends, to me, that's cheating."
Eventually, she broke things off with her fiance and started dating the coworker. The relationship lasted a year.
Vaughan says a majority of people - 72% of women and 70% of men - who had been cheated on reported it took them longer to recover from the lies than it did the physical infidelity.
"It's harder to recover from the deception," she says. "It cuts the legs out from under [someone who's been cheated on] and turns their world upside down."
She tells couples that if they're hiding anything from their spouse, they may find themselves on a slippery slope toward infidelity.
"It's not like you have to get rid of the computer," she says. But she recommends that couples to stick to behaviors they can be honest about. "As long as you don't do anything that is secret from your spouse, you're safe."
Hax says the most important definition of cheating is the one that can be agreed upon by two people in a relationship.
"The best couples, the happiest couples, are the one who know each other the best and accept each other the most," Hax says. When it comes to cheating, "you should have a pretty good guess about how the other person's going to feel [about what you're doing.]"