has the internet stolen your mate?

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Section: healthy looks
relationship

If he seems to enjoy the computer's company more than yours, it's time to make some changes.

CECILIA BRUNAZZI DOESN'T SURF the Web much. A graphic designer, she'll zip in and find what she wants, then click out. When she goes home at night, she likes to read or cook. "I stay off the computer," she says definitively. The real Web fiend in the house has turned out to be her husband of eight years, Erkan. A real estate agent who works from home, he subscribed to AOL two years ago and quickly discovered a far-flung Turkish community online. At first Cecilia was happy for him. "Like a lot of expatriates, he has a lingering nostalgia," she says. She also recognized the benefits for herself. "It's certainly easier than having a constant stream of guests."

But soon Erkan was logging on first thing in the morning to check the Turkish news. When Cecilia returned from work, she'd find him hunched over the computer, too buried in chat with other expats to talk to her. Before they got Internet access, the couple's after-work conversations had been a daily ritual: short, not particularly deep, yet important--at least to Cecilia. Now she'd gaze at her husband's back, feeling hurt. "Wouldn't you like to talk to a real live person?" she'd crack.

Petra Kyle,(*) an English professor at a large private university, resents being an Internet widow as much as Cecilia did. Roger, her partner of eight years, is working as a lawyer while studying for the Nevada bar exam. Some days he's so busy that Petra meets him at the curb with his dinner packed in a brown paper bag; he drives up, they smooch, and he's off again. Yet Petra has found herself signing for a string of FedEx packages: Roger's eBay purchases. He can't spare a moment for her, yet he has time to scroll through the auction sites for rare CDs? "It's like he has this whole secret life," Petra complains. "I know he's really stressed out and this is an outlet for him." But still.

None of this would surprise Hilarie Cash, a therapist based in Redmond--aka Microsoftville--Washington. Cash first treated an Internet-obsessed patient six years ago, which makes her a veteran in the new field of cyberpsychology. Now she runs a clinic called Internet Computer Addiction Services for Web overusers and the people who love them. Many of her clients would qualify as genuine compulsives: men and women who spend so much time visiting chat rooms and porn sites that they become moody and secretive, stop sleeping, ignore their jobs and other responsibilities, lie to their loved ones, and lose interest in sex. If research presented to the American Psychological Association last year is correct, 6 percent of Internet users fit in this category.

But many of the clinic's clients are like Erkan and Roger--normal people who spend more time than their mates would like researching their family tree or catching up on office gossip. It's not exactly a scenario you'll be seeing on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Yet to Cash and a growing number of experts, this type of computer habit is not without its potential dangers, especially for relationships.

Consider this: In April 1999, the average Internet user spent 2 hours and 13 minutes online per week, according to the Nielsen//NetRatings. Fifteen months later, that figure had risen 45 percent, to 3 hours and 13 minutes. Why worry about a measly hour? Researcher John Gottman of the University of Washington has found that marriages are more likely to be successful if partners spend at least six hours a week talking about day-to-day issues, vegging out, and just doing couples things. "That may only be five minutes at one time, half an hour at another, and a date once a week," says Cash. "But once that critical time is lost, couples start to disconnect."

Indeed, a recent poll by NPR, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government found that 58 percent of respondents think that the Internet is leading us to spend less time with families and friends. Even people you'd expect to understand the importance of maintaining such relationships aren't always immune to the Web's allure. In 1998, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University wired 73 Pittsburgh homes, then barraged computer users with psychological tests. Among those who started withdrawing from their families was a rabbi. (Reading the Jerusalem Post and chatting with other rabbis were taking up too much time.)

But is frittering away hours on the Web really any different--or any harder on relationships--than spending your weekends watching pro football or slaving away at the office ? In some ways, probably not. "The Internet is just the latest way that problems in marriage manifest themselves," says Deb Levine, author of The Joy of Cybersex and an online relationship advice columnist for nine years. "People used to throw themselves into work. Now they throw themselves into the online world."

But in other ways, the differences are striking. On the home front, even couch potatoes can hang out together; Web surfers, by contrast, are mostly solitary. And football is pretty much limited to weekends and Monday nights for a few months, thank God, while the Internet beckons 24 hours a day. "It's so insidious," Cash says. "It makes it so easy not to have boundaries--whether that means bringing work home or surfing recreationally."

And if your mate's smitten with the Dallas cheerleaders--so what? After all, they're in Dallas. But on the Internet, silicone-enhanced cowgirl clones are just a click or a chat room away. In fact, this may be the biggest difference between the Internet and other time stealers: the potential for illicit sex and, more broadly, for a secret life that excludes loved and erodes true intimacy. Even if that "secret life" involves something as innocent as surfing eBay or playing chess, it can still seem threatening to the partner who s left out.

Plenty of people respond by developing an Internet habit of their own. Lora, a journalist, says of her fiance, Matt: "He thinks I'm compulsive about checking my E-mail, but I think he's completely compulsive about his fantasy football leagues on Yahoo." Matt, for his part, doesn't think there s a problem. "Oh, Lora's just as much into this as I am," he says.

But the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join'em approach doesn't solve the Internet problem for many couples--and may just exacerbate it. For these people, the key to restoring balance in the relationship is negotiation, which means communication, Cash says.

Rather than blaming your mate for neglecting you, she recommends talking about how you feel: For example, try "I'm jealous of your computer time" instead of "You don't care about me anymore." She also encourages clients to be very specific about the changes they don't like. "We used to go on hikes on Saturdays, but now you tend to be on the computer" works better than "You never spend time with me anymore." The next step, she says, is to ask for what you do want. But be reasonable; in many households, banning the Internet is just not realistic, no matter how pleasing the fantasy.

Susan Kostal, a computer widow since she was married in 1987, says it's taken her years to understand and accept her husband Marlowe's obsession. "He doesn't fish, watch sports, or fix cars in the garage," she says. "This is the last 'guy' thing out there."

This doesn't mean she lets him off the hook, though. After many hours of discussion, they've come up with a few compromises. They keep their computers side by side so they can work together. They have a DSL line so that the Internet doesn't interfere with calls. Most important, they set aside times when they turn off the computers and phones to talk and concentrate on their three kids.

Cecilia Brunazzi found her own solution: patience and diversion. She knew her husband's pattern with new techy toys--utter fascination followed by waning interest. Sure enough, within a few months his attachment to his online friends was starting to fade.

To nudge along the process, she also bought Erkan a subscription to Turkish cable TV. Sometimes they even watch it together. Most days, though, they'd rather cook dinner and talk.

unfaithfully yours
Affairs used to require sex, or at least touching. Now they may involve nothing more than a lot of hot and heavy typing. But can two people who never meet, much less make love, really be cheating on their partners? Absolutely, experts say--and the threat to an offline relationship can be serious indeed.

No one knows how many people are cyberadulterers, but anecdotal reports suggest the number is large and growing. The computer makes infidelity easy: no bars, no sleazy hotels, no credit card bills or smudges to explain. You don't even need to change your clothes or brush your teeth.

But still, why risk a flesh-and-blood relationship for an electronic one? For starters, the Web fosters a degree of intimacy that's rare in real life. "People just tell all," says online columnist Deb Levine. Such soul baring can be powerfully seductive. The more an adulterer discloses, the more emotionally involved he may become--and the more violated his partner is apt to feel if she finds out.

Then there's the deniability factor. Cyberadulterers often equate their actions with masturbating or watching porn. "The Internet lets people kid themselves," says Portland, Oregon, psychiatrist Esther Gwinnell, author of Online Seductions: Failing in Love with Strangers on the Internet.

So what should you do if you find your life rocked by virtual infidelity? Start by facing the hard truth, says Pittsburgh psychologist Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Online Addiction. "The first thing a couple needs to do is overcome the rationalization that the Internet affair wasn't real because there was no touching."

Marital therapy is often needed to rebuild trust, and the process may be as difficult as coping with an old-fashioned affair. Trying to ban the cheater from going online is bound to fuel resentment (not to mention often impractical), but Young says it's quite appropriate to set ground rules for surfing the Web. Many couples decide to put their home computer in a public area.

Laura M., whose husband had a three-month flirtation, found that the affair's nebulousness made it hard for her to seek comfort from friends and family. "I haven't told many people about it because it's not like he actually met somebody." Her biggest source of support is a chat group, www.cyberwidows@egroups.com. "They tell you that you are not losing your mind and that you are not the one with the problem."

Six months later, she's still angry and suspicious. Will she ever trust her mate again around a computer? Maybe--but not for a while.

--Lis Margonelli

(*)This name has been changed.

You used to chat about your day together; now he visits chat rooms instead. Even if your partner is just swapping country music lore online, it's tough not to feel a little cheated.

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By Lisa Margonelli

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