Cyber-relationship addiction: Part I

Behavior becomes potentially problematic when virtual online friends start to be the focus of more communication and become more important than real-life family and friends.

Internet dating (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Internet dating
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, the term “hi-tech” did not exist. It was the post-World War II baby boom generation, and the most advanced technology that we were exposed to was early television, Polaroid cameras, and Sputnik (the 1957 satellite that the Russians launched into space that precipitated the Space Race and the Cold War).
Fast-forward to Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation, and we live in a global world where the Internet is the information portal that holds everyone and everything together.
What never ceases to amaze me is how much is out there in cyberspace and how quickly one can travel through it with the touch of your fingers on your keyboard and click of the mouse. Today, there are reported to be 2.8 billion Internet users on planet Earth.
We read papers, articles, watch movies and sports, join social interactive sites like Facebook, hunt and apply for jobs, stay in touch with the world, and can speak to people while looking at them as well. So, one may ask, “Is there a downside to any of this?” The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” Thousands of articles have been published on the many psychological correlates and psychopathology that is expressed through Internet use.
In this article, I will take a look at the problem of cyber-relationship addiction.
A cyber-relationship addiction has been described as the addiction to social networking in all forms such as Facebook, online dating services, chat sites, etc. This behavior becomes potentially problematic when virtual online friends start to be the focus of more communication and become more important than real-life family and friends. In addition, the participant’s Internet involvement is so compulsive that he/she can’t stop returning to the site and this behavior undermines and risks damage to family and friend relationships, studies and/or career.
Cyber-relationships are in essence a virtual relationship or form of communication between two people. Sometimes visuals are absent, with communication through text only. All you know about the person is what they are communicating to you and what is displayed on his/her profile. People suffering from social anxiety, loneliness, depression, shame and guilt may be drawn to text relationships because they cannot be seen. In other types of forums, people meet online and can see and communicate with each other.
Cyber-relationships can be more intense than real-life relationships, often fulfilling some underlying emotional need, acting as a powerful reward incentive to develop an addiction to the relationship.
With the ability to create whole new identities, people can often deceive the person they are communicating with. In fact, it is quite easy to fool someone online, since they really don’t know with whom they are actually communicating.
Rather, what they know about the virtual person is what they have been led to believe about this person. In fact, for the participant, this virtual subjectivity is part of the excitement. You can be who you want to be online. Deceit at least by one person in a cyber-relationship is the rule, not the exception.
Joe, 29, and his wife, Susan, 26, have three young children. Joe was not motivated to work, doing meager work in the community just to bring in some money.
Susan was a professional and made a steady income. They appeared to be the perfect ultra-Orthodox couple and none of their friends would have even suspected that a problem existed. Joe had a secret that he kept from his wife.
He was a member of an online virtual social forum where people met from all over the world. For the past five years, Joe had been returning to this site every day when his wife was at work and developed a deep and caring relationship with Linda, probably not her real name.
Joe would change out of his conservative black wardrobe, take off his kippa, and put on a pair of jeans, a shirt with rolled up sleeves, and a small cap. He later acknowledged to me in therapy that the alternate look was part of what excited him.
Joe had no understanding of why he was so addicted to this site. He often felt more compassion and empathy for Linda than he did for his wife.
One day, Susan discovered the site and was able to learn from the computer’s history how often Joe visited it. She was both furious and deeply hurt and ready to break up the marriage. It was at this point that Susan reached out for professional help.
As I got to know Joe, I learned that he was clinically depressed and at times even thought of ending his own life. What followed was an understanding that the computer forum activity was a way of self-medicating his depression. This activity was always during high periods of energy which allowed for the endless hours visiting the forum and interacting with Linda. Joe was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, put on a mood stabilizer, and together with both individual and marital therapy, Joe and Susan gradually got their life back on track.
There are many Joes that find themselves turning to the computer and Internet rather than facing their problems head on. Clearly, professional treatment is needed. As one can see with Joe and Susan, it was a life-saving measure for their marriage. 
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist, with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. He also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy., This column is part of a three-part series. The next installment will appear on August 14.