In light of the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-30, how does a “virtual” affair differ in any significant way from a real-life affair? If it isn’t different, does my spouse’s involvement with cybersex give me grounds for divorce? I recently discovered that he’s been involved in an ongoing “relationship” via the Internet. He claims that there’s nothing adulterous about this kind of activity. According to him, it’s just another form of sexual fantasy. I strongly disagree. What do you think?
It seems to us that you’re actually wrestling with two separate issues. First, does so-called “cybersex” differ in any significant way from simple sexual fantasy? Is it really a more serious problem than, say, addiction to online pornography? To put it bluntly, can it be regarded as adulterous sexual behavior? And second, if it is adulterous, does that mean that it gives the violated partner biblical grounds for divorce?
As we see it, there are no straightforward, cut-and-dried answers to either of these questions. You can see this clearly if you stop and think for a moment about the first part of your problem. Because “virtual reality” is such a new and relatively untested phenomenon, it’s difficult to know exactly what it means to different people. How is it perceived and experienced, physically, mentally, and emotionally, on the individual level? It’s possible that the “reality” of “virtual sex” is largely in the eye of the beholder. Some participants may approach it as a genuine interpersonal encounter with meaningful relational overtones. Others may think of it primarily as a kind of “game” or a high-tech form of masturbation. It’s not easy to categorize these perceptions or sort out their various psychological implications.
That doesn’t change the fact that “cybersex,” unlike pornography or masturbation, usually involves another human being. This, as we see it, is the big twist. This is where “virtual” sexual activity takes participants to a deeper and more troubling level. In some cases, “virtual” technology enables online lovers to live out their passions in a vivid and all-consuming way. By using a “virtual reality suit,” for example, they can stop just short of the physical act itself. This is not a passive experience. It requires participation and interaction. To that extent it can’t help but take on a certain “relational” aspect. And the word “adultery” naturally comes to mind when one of the parties involved in such an illicit and sexually oriented “relationship” happens to be a married man.
That’s just one reason for suggesting that “cybersex” may be a more serious problem than mere lustful fantasy. There are clinical factors to be taken into account as well. According to Focus on the Family’s professional counseling staff, the road to recovery is likely to be much longer and more complicated for an individual engaged in an ongoing interpersonal cyber-affair than it is for a porn addict. That’s because “relationship” at any level implies a degree of emotional entanglement. When the heart gets drawn into the web, there’s a greater potential for pathology. It’s true that many “virtual” sexual encounters are kept strictly anonymous. But sometimes this is not the case. Sometimes participants, egged on by the intensity of their feelings, take the next step by exchanging personal information. When this happens, there is a strong possibility that the affair will eventually take a very real and physical turn indeed. At that point the question of adultery will no longer be merely theoretical.
That leads us to the second part of the problem you’ve posed. You’re correct to point out that Jesus equates lust in the heart with the act of adultery. What’s more, He follows this up, just five verses later, by making allowances for divorce where porneia or extra-marital sex has invaded a marriage relationship. You’re also on target in supposing that what is true of mental fantasy is probably even more directly applicable in cases of “virtual” activity. But having said this, we feel compelled to ask – is “grounds for divorce” really the point? Even if you had caught your husband in bed with another woman, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you divorce him. Much depends on the degree to which he regrets his actions. Is he repentant and willing to change his behavior? That would make all the difference in the world.
You should also find out if your spouse’s involvement with “cybersex” is part of a larger pattern of behavior. If it is part of a bigger syndrome, there are other questions you should be raising before jumping to the conclusion that it’s time to get a divorce. Have you been subjected to abuse of any kind? Is the abuse so severe that you feel as if your personal safety (and that of your children, if you have any) is being compromised? If so, we would advise you to separate from your spouse as soon as possible. But we still wouldn’t be in a position to tell you whether you have legitimate grounds for divorce or not.
Meanwhile, we’d encourage you to confront your husband about his unacceptable behavior. Insist that the two of you seek professional marital counseling together. It’s especially important that he come to the place where he can acknowledge that “cybersex” is anything but “innocuous.” Let him know that you’ll do everything in your power to heal the relationship as long as he’s willing to cooperate. Talk to a trusted friend, pastor, or spiritual advisor. If necessary, arrange for some kind of intervention. Hold the line, keep your dignity, and stay on your knees. Whatever you do, resist the temptation to get caught up in petty arguments about “grounds for divorce.” That will only cloud the real issue.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss your situation at greater length, call our counselors for a free phone consultation. They’ll be happy to assist you in any way they can.
The Last Addiction: Why Self-Help Is Not Enough
False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction
Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Marriages in Crisis
Breaking Free: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Healing Power of Jesus
Nothing to Hide: Hope for Marriages Hurt by Pornography and Infidelity
Hope Restored® marriage intensives
Pornography and Virtual Infidelity
Dealing With Pornography and Internet Addiction