Assessment in the context of internet infidelity

Published in Online Affairs Practitioners by Janice Hiller from Tavistock Relationships on October 20th 2021

How to undertake an assessment in a case of internet infidelity

Assessing the impact of internet infidelity requires sensitivity and care as emotions are likely to be very high. Partners dealing with a violation of the relationship boundaries often come for an assessment in a state of shock and anger, especially if the infidelity has only recently been discovered or is a repeat of previous incidents. Research has shown that using language that is non-critical and non-judgemental can reduce an atmosphere of blame and help effective communication.

Despite attempts to understand what has happened and what it means to each person, the clinician may be faced with a ‘firestorm of judgment’ against the engaged partner. At the same time, the receiving partner often expresses shame, shock at discovering what the partner has done, and fear of losing everything they have built together.

The clinician may be faced with a ‘firestorm of judgment’ against the engaged partner

Another dimension to consider when assessing internet infidelity is whether there’s agreement that a breach of trust has taken place. Denial of dishonesty by the engaged partner, and insistence that an online relationship does not constitute an act of betrayal, can be common. Research has shown that when accused of exaggerating a non-event the receiving partner may then doubt the validity of their own feelings.

Points to cover

Initial questions should explore what those in the relationship understand about the situation that has brought them to therapy. The aim is to find out how they view each other’s behaviour without being moralistic or appearing to over identify with one person. Infidelity, whether online or in real life, is a topic that can evoke powerful emotions in the therapist, either through their own experiences or those of friends and family. Awareness of connections with past events is essential to avoid projection of the therapist’s own issues onto those seeking help.

You may want to discuss the following points in the assessment:

  • How long the engaged partner spends on the internet, and whether it interferes with daily life.
  • Do those in the relationship agree that the online behaviour violates the primary relationship?
  • Has the infidelity has stopped, or is there a plan to stop?
  • Does the infidelity compensate for underlying issues and missing aspects of the primary relationship?
  • Can those in the relationship identify ongoing dissatisfactions that have contributed to the development of online engagement with another person or persons?

Does the infidelity compensate for underlying issues and missing aspects of the primary relationship?

If the online infidelity was abruptly ended when discovered, the engaged partner might be grieving for the other person, or for the excitement of a secret activity. It helps for the therapist to remember that the engaged partner could value the external relationship very highly, despite there having been no actual meeting. Regret is then about being found out rather than about the behaviour itself. Frequently the receiving partner will have little sympathy with the sense of loss in such circumstances, but if too much anger is expressed this might push the partner away. Achieving a balance between managing expressions of distress and creating an atmosphere of empathic listening is an ongoing challenge that begins during the assessment phase.

To see the full list of research references which have informed the content on this page, please see our research references section.

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