It often starts simply, even innocently.
A woman sits down at the computer to play cards with others online, or to converse about gardening, dogs, or antiques. Among the friends she makes is a man who appreciates her wit and depth in a way few people do.
Or, after a long day, a man who can't sleep checks out an online chat room, not intending to get hooked.
Romance, and just plain sex, is in the air online 24/7, where parties, chat rooms, and pornography proliferate. It's an alluring medium. Never has it been so easy to fool around without leaving home.
"There's an explosion of Internet pornography and affairs because it's very accessible, cheap, and it's anonymous," says Janis Abrahms Spring, a Connecticut psychologist specializing in infidelity and a clinical supervisor in Yale University's psychology department.
Adds Peggy Vaughan: "I see online affairs as the next huge crisis involving affairs and there's a great deal that everyone needs to know about this issue." Ms. Vaughan has done surveys about online affairs, written books, and created the Beyond Affairs Network meetings and dearpeggy.com, an online warehouse of information about infidelity. "It will continue to grow because the most vulnerable people are the new people who come online."
In the murky world of cyber ethics, a cheating spouse may think what she or he is doing is harmless fantasy, tantamount to perusing magazine pornography. But the mate, upon finding out, is likely to be deeply hurt and confused about whether it constitutes infidelity.
Most psychologists say it's cheating, and it can shatter a relationship.
"The bottom line is, your partner deceived you," says Ms. Vaughan. "My world is not what I thought. My marriage is not what I thought."
Ms. Spring, who has written After the Affair (HarperCollins, 1997) and How Can I Forgive You? (HarperCollins, 2004), agrees. "I say an affair isn't necessarily sexual at all but about secrets and a violation of trust."
Online affairs tend to start quickly, advance with warp speed, and generate turbocharged emotions, experts say.
Years ago, a Bowling Green man who asked not to be identified to protect his family was planning a professional conference with a woman in another city he had never met. Exchanging daily e-mails for a month, they discovered common interests and became friendlier.
"They were light, upbeat, a little flirty," he says of their communiques. "I wasn't going to have an affair, but I looked forward to meeting her as a new friend."
But when he arrived at the conference, she inexplicably didn't want to talk to him. "After that I never heard from her again."
Years later, his wife showed him an e-mail she had received from a former boyfriend; he thought it looked as if the man was fishing. He was right: A month later, his wife left for her old flame.
And now, with some trepidation, the middle-aged man is beginning to explore Internet dating. He knows people may not be who they say they are online, but he understands the Internet's allure.
"It's easy to do. It's immediate. It does create the illusion that someone is there," he says. Among the sites he's come across is the Ashley Madison Agency, a Web site targeting married women with the slogan, "When monogamy becomes monotony."
It's almost impossible to quantify how many people have engaged in Internet affairs, experts say, and figures vary.
On any given day, about 94 million American adults use the Internet, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which studies the social effects of the Internet. A Pew sample says that 5 percent reported visiting a chat room or online discussion group, 2 percent said they go to Web sites to meet people, and 1 percent said they visited sites with adult content.
In 1998, 13,529 people (86 percent were male) responded to an MSNBC survey about online sex led by Alvin Cooper of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center, who published the results in the Professional Psychology journal.
Among the conclusions: women prefer chat rooms and online relationships, while men prefer pictures. Most said that visiting sexually oriented sites doesn't have a negative impact on their lives. And while 64 percent said they were in a committed relationship, 87 percent said they didn't feel guilty about their online activity. Half reported spending more than an hour a week surfing for online sex, and 8 percent said they spend more than 11 hours a week, which psychologists consider compulsive sexual behavior.
Sixty-one percent said they sometimes lied about their age.
To the lonely, the Internet can provide companionship.
"I think there's a lot of isolation and loneliness that draws people," says Rona Subotnik, a Palm Desert, Calif., marriage and family therapist. Without a visual barrier, it provides the freedom to shed the strictures of age, weight, and looks, and to become who you'd like to be.
"There's an acceptance online that many people do not find in the real world, where they're often perceived on how they look," says Ms. Subotnik, who co-wrote Infidelity on the Internet: Virtual Relationships and Real Betrayal ( Sourcebooks, Inc., 2001) with Marlene Maheu.
It's essential people are aware of the often-reported dangers of a face-to-face encounter with a person one meets online, she notes. Couples need to discuss their views on infidelity and what they will not tolerate, she says. She suggests they build communication by having weekly meetings to go over their schedules and plan their time.
Part of the unique character of an online relationship is that it focuses on the individual, separate from any of her or his roles as spouse, parent, adult child, employee, neighbor, or church member.
"The real attraction is you're getting back in touch with you, just you," says Peggy Vaughan, noting that in committed relationships, women tend to have a harder time than men holding onto their identity.
Often there's a powerful sense that one has found their "soul" mate, which can be intoxicating but false. "Without a real person, you create a perfect person. You're starting with a blank slate. It's like creating a person in your head, but that may have very little in common with the real person."
With an aura of safety, people are more likely to believe they won't be discovered, says Ms. Vaughan of San Diego. "You're more likely to go further."
Moreover, online affairs can be carried on anywhere at any time - in the next bedroom or at work.
Many women don't intend to tumble into an affair when they go online and don't think they're vulnerable, says Ms. Vaughan, who has written about and researched infidelity since she and her husband, psychologist James Vaughan, published a 1980 book about his seven years' of affairs and the impact that had on each of them. They recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
A typical pattern after meeting somebody is to chat privately, exchange increasingly frequent e-mails and photos, talk on the phone, and often meet. And it can all occur within weeks.
"It changes your life in ways that you never anticipate," she says. The cheating partner is likely to be distant with their mate. Time flies online, which means the cyber affair or addiction steals time and energy from the family.
"You're living in a parallel universe that feels very different," says Ms. Vaughan. "This is a fantasy world. You can be anybody you want to be. It's very exciting. It's very satisfying."
Whether or not the cheating mate meets the object of her or his affections, the spousal relationship can be shattered, she says. Nevertheless, she figures about 72 percent of couples are able to save their relationship.
Marc Dielman, president of the 60-member Toledo Area Academy of Professional Psychologists, says affairs in which a partner shares intimate thoughts and emotions with another can be more difficult to heal from than a purely physical relationship.
"Sometimes it seems people are more forgiving of a sexual affair," says Mr. Dielman, a psychologist at the Center for Solutions in Brief Therapy, Inc., in Sylvania.
A betrayed spouse will expect accountability, such as insisting that their spouse share a password, installing a spyware program on the computer, taking a lie detector test, or even getting rid of the computer altogether. "There has to be something dealing with [computer] access. If trust is going to build, the person has to be honest," he says.
In her studies of people rekindling long-lost loves, Nancy Kalish has seen infidelity grow. She surveyed 1,001 people between 1993 and 1996 who had tracked down old flames (or who had been tracked down) mostly via telephone or letter, and found that of those who wound up having an affair, 30 percent were married.
She repeated the survey in 2004 and 2005, when almost all the connections were made via the Internet. Of the 1,025 people responding, half who had affairs were married.
"This couldn't happen if not for this technology," says Ms. Kalish, psychology professor at California State University in Sacramento and author of Lost & Found Lovers (William Morrow, 1997).
Contact Tahree Lane at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6075.