The blurred lines between fantasy, reality and virtual reality can take a marriage down the slippery slope of a cyber affair. A divorced man tells the story about how a virtual relationship cost him his marriage, but how there can be a light at the end of the tunnel.

John* (48) and Lisa* (45) were high-school sweethearts who dated throughout college, until they got married when John was 27 and Lisa was 25. Less than two years later, they welcomed their firstborn child – an unplanned surprise – to their family. Lisa wanted a big family, but John wanted to travel a bit more first. Despite his wanderlust, he and Lisa had four kids together.

Even though everything looked great on the surface, John harbored feelings of frustration and boredom. “I love my kids more than anything or anyone in the world. But our marriage quickly became very predictable. I wanted to be able to see the world and experience new adventures with Lisa, but we were parents and had a different role to fulfil,” says John.

“She is just a colleague . . .”

John went away for a week to attend a work conference. “I work for a multi-national corporation. A colleague from an overseas branch joined my team at the conference and we really hit it off at the event.”

The two experienced an immediate connection and they sought each other’s company when they had to work in groups. Their shared professional interests also complemented each other and enhanced their connection.

After the conference, the female colleague went back to her office and John to his. He immediately contacted her on Skype, while convincing himself that this was an above-board interaction.

“We are colleagues that had to work together, so I could rationalize the interactions as work-related,” said John. But John didn’t want to admit to himself that he might be experiencing more than just a platonic work interest in the woman, and their interactions morphed into a full-blown cyber affair.

From light-hearted to intimate

Initially, their conversations were light-hearted. As John’s frustration with his marriage and home life grew, their conversations became more intimate. They spent hours chatting online and John was able to convince Lisa that his virtual friend was a colleague who was working on a work-related project with him. “This was obviously not true,” says John.

At the peak of their cyber affair, they had phone sex. “I knew that we crossed a line, but because I had never touched her physically – she was on the opposite side of the globe – I convinced myself that I wasn’t really doing something wrong.”

John was very careful to avoid getting caught. “I always carried my phone with me and I never left my laptop unattended. This carried on for about a year.”

One day, Lisa popped in unannounced at John’s office because she wanted to take him out for lunch. He was in a meeting and his laptop was left open on his desk. Lisa saw what had been going on and she was heartbroken. A few months later, they were divorced.

Stepping back into the real world

“A cyber affair looks different than a ‘normal’ affair,” says psychologist Carien du Toit-Joubert. “But the damage that it can cause isn’t less severe or painful.”

Carien says it’s easy to engage in low-stakes cyber contact without fully realizing how the relationship is gaining momentum and getting stronger. “The initial stages of a cyber affair look so innocent and it’s often due to curiosity and boredom, but the apparent innocence can quickly evolve to something much bigger, especially if both parties feel an attraction.

“And the psychological energy that you are supposed to be giving to your spouse slowly gets drained from your marriage and makes its way to the inbox of another person!”

According to Carien, many people who have been involved in virtual infidelity don’t want to admit to themselves that they “cheated”. “The internal dialogue they keep telling themselves sounds like this: ‘I’m at home with my husband or wife, I do my part and fulfill all my responsibilities. I’m not sleeping with anyone else . . . we are just chatting!’

“Unfortunately, the reality of what is going on is much different because the online ‘friendship’ is both an emotional exit from your marriage as well as a way to keep a back door open for another romantic connection.”

Another dimension of cyber affairs is that it’s easy to live in a fantasy world with a person who doesn’t have to face the usual challenges of a real-life relationship. “Your online partner doesn’t have to change diapers with you, and they don’t have to discuss how you’re going to get the leaky furnace fixed. You’re living in a fantasy that a real-life relationship can’t compete with,” says Carien.

The cyber affair then develops and grows in the privacy of your psyche, because there is no way for you to verify the idea of a person that you’ve built up in your own mind with reality.

“The peak of a cyber affair is when a partner starts blurring the lines between reality and fantasy by making sexual contact online. This can happen through phone sex or sexting. The dangers of this are as clear as daylight.”

However, a marriage can survive a virtual affair and it can even flourish afterwards. Carien says that a couple in this situation needs to investigate the gaps in their relationship that could have led to the cyber affair.

“You have to investigate the root of the problem individually, as well as together. Maybe your relationship has stagnated. Maybe one or both of you are bored with the status quo of your marriage.”

Secondly, says Carien, you have to start rebuilding the trust that was broken by keeping secrets from each other. Get rid of the obstacles. “To simply start policing your partner’s phone and Internet activity, isn’t the solution because it’s rooted in distrust.”

Lastly, it will help to remind yourself that no “perfect” partner exists. “Rather try to bring the fantasy world and playful curiosity to the safe space of your marriage.”