Friending Former Lovers on Facebook: Unknowingly Cheating Online

Can you Facebook “friend” an ex-lover and still remain faithful?

The American poet Robert Frost wrote: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” about choosing a life that was not in keeping with the majority. He was referring to the life he chose as an artist, an outsider, a rule breaker or at least a rule questioner.

When people first meet a new romantic interest they fantasize the possibility of choosing them as a long-term partner and imagine what a life together would be like. These fantasies fuel the erotic and emotional feelings that are normally very strong at the outset of a new relationship. As couples mature past the initial phases of romantic couple-hood and settle into predictable rituals, patterns of daily life and sexual connection, the differences between them become more salient. The sexual ferocity that ignited their passion initially has worn off and they have most likely moved into a sexual connection driven by mutual love and respect, hormonal desire, a need to de-stress and a thirst for comfort. Many couples I see speak about missing that initial passion that drove them initially to tear each other’s clothes off first chance they could get.

Either due to boredom or increasing tension or stress in a monogamous relationship or marriage, sometimes partners begin to fantasize about the “road not taken” and the person(s) with whom they might have taken that road. In the pre-internet days one might have run into an old flame at a high school or college reunion, or if they happened to return to the neighborhood or town in which the two people had dated. However, with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook or professional sites like Linked In, it’s easy to click on a name of an old boyfriend or girlfriend and ask to friend them. If one takes into account that the growth of Facebook users in the year between January 2010-2011 among the 55+ demographic has grown 58.9%, one can assume that there are many folks in their mid-life looking up old friends and perhaps old flames as well.

While the friending of an old boyfriend or girlfriend seems innocent enough, especially if they are living in a far away city or if they are married, it is the crossing of the boundary of connecting with someone who you fantasize about that might be the seed of what some would call emotional cheating. By contacting them one is opening a door to more contact with someone on whom one has projected all sorts of happy ending fairy tale stories when there has been stress or anger in the primary relationship. One might say there leaves open the room for even more emotions to start flowing if there is intimate information shared about the marriage itself because this lead to quasi-real intimacy. I say quasi because there is so much to the larger context of the other person’s life that one is not seeing when communicating over Facebook, phone, Skype, or text. It’s like reading a novel in which one can fill in the blanks left by the author with one’s own details. Looking at the photos a person has selected to share on Facebook can also mislead about the reality of their lives.

A person may not think this is “cheating” per se and most people might say staying in touch with old friends is part of their right to have an independent, private life. However logically equating an old romantic partner on Facebook with a friend you go have lunch or a drink with once in a while, the critical difference to keep in mind are the sexual and romantic fantasies that have been attached to this person. In this way keeping up the relationship and sharing more and more with this person is crossing a boundary. The boundary of keeping the emotional, romantic, and sexual intimacy within the marriage or monogamous relationship is one that can and should be discussed with a partner at the outset of a relationship so that both partners are on the same page at the beginning, and side relationships are not “discovered” later with an explanation of: “I didn’t think it was such big deal!” I have seen many a couple enter my therapy office feeling terrible pain, hurt and shock when a side relationship in which there has been an intimate connection is discovered online. The damage to the trust bond when an online emotional relationship is discovered with an old lover takes a long time to heal.