- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jon Austin’s wife, Amy, had a blunt assessment for her husband as the Minneapolis couple watched Rep. Anthony D. Weiner’s stunning confession on television this week.

“You’d be dead,” she told him.

Regardless of his professional future, it’s the predicament at home of the New York Democrat that seems to be launching countless discussions among couples like the Austins. And this time, it’s not a question of actual physical cheating — a la Eliot Spitzer and his prostitution scandal — but the murkier backdrop of Internet relationships: sexting, tweeting lewd photos, emailing.

If it’s virtual, does it constitute infidelity? Many Americans seem to think it does.

“Would you text it, post it, send it with your spouse looking over your shoulder?” asks Mr. Austin, 52, who works in corporate public relations and takes no issue with his wife’s frank appraisal of the situation. “If yes, then it’s not infidelity. If no, you’re cheating.”

In online postings and follow-up phone calls with The Associated Press, dozens of people echoed the same thought: Cheating need not be physical.

“I think the emotional betrayal is just as bad,” says Marissa Bholan, a 22-year-old graduate student in Syracuse, N.Y. “A married person should not be flirting online — or in any manner, really. It demonstrates a clear unfaithfulness. You’re married. Act like it.”

For one woman in Texas, the danger of online relationships became painfully apparent when she caught a boyfriend trading amorous instant messages with an Internet friend — at one point on her own laptop.

When Beky Hayes confronted him, he told her he never felt his virtual friend was “a real person” — even though an actual, clandestine visit seemed to be in the planning stages.

“I think there’s a perception that what you’re doing online is somehow not real,” says Ms. Hayes, a musician in Austin. “But of course it is.”

And men, Ms. Hayes adds, may be more vulnerable to the lure of Internet relationships “because they allow them to escape the responsibilities and pressures of real relationships.” She is no longer seeing that boyfriend.

A specialist in Internet addiction agrees that many people turn to online relationships to escape the pressures of their daily lives, reveling in the anonymity — particularly if, like a congressman, they are well known.

But some, says Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, experience a more dangerous sense of detachment, somehow convincing themselves once the laptop is closed: “I didn’t really do that. That wasn’t me.” And they don’t see their actions as infidelity.

“I’ve seen married people go to great lengths to cover things up, hiding phone bills and the like,” says Ms. Young, a practicing psychologist. “But they don’t think it’s cheating. They say, ‘I love my wife.’ “

Monica Turner knew something was seriously wrong when she looked at a phone bill of hundreds of pages — a record of text messages between her common-law husband and a female friend from elementary school that he had reconnected with on Facebook.

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