Internet infidelity?

Rep. Anthony Weiner addresses a news conference in New York, Monday, June 6. (Associated Press)

When U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner confessed to sending lewd photographs and messages to women other than his wife, he not only set off a barrage of late-night jokes.

He sparked a debate over what constitutes infidelity in a world transformed by the Internet.

With more people connecting online - and conveying intensely personal details about themselves on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook - it's a debate that is likely to continue long after the Weiner jokes fade away.

In a press conference last week, the congressman from New York declared that he loved his wife, Huma Abedin, whom he married just last summer. Weiner insisted he never actually met any of the half-dozen women to whom he had sent sexually explicit messages and photos.

His implication was clear: His online antics did not equate to marital infidelity.

And former President Bill "Clinton wasn't having sex with that woman, either," noted Lancaster psychologist Kim Rosenberg, wryly.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, one academic contended that electronic affairs were not akin to adultery.

"I don't believe that Weiner cheated on his wife, not at all," said John Portmann, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and editor of the anthology "In Defense of Sin."

One Lancaster County couple, encountered at Park City last week, strongly disagreed.

Don Garber and Kori Shuck, of Manor Township, said they believed, unequivocally, that Weiner's online escapades amounted to cheating on his wife.

"There's mental cheating. Physical cheating is obviously more severe, but it's all cheating," Garber said, maintaining that people just try to adjust the definition of infidelity "to fit their lifestyle and their selfish wants."

"We're living in a society where there are no moral guidelines anymore," Garber said. "We've either lost them or we don't care about them anymore."

Shuck said that Weiner was acting in "sneaky and distrustful" ways, hiding the truth because he didn't want it to be revealed to his wife. "All of that is infidelity."

Sending racy photos of his body was Weiner's attempt to tell himself, Shuck asserted, that " 'I'm still hot. I've still got it.' "

If Weiner required "that much attention," he should have worked on getting his needs met within his marriage, Shuck said. "But no one wants to put in the work. They want instant satisfaction."

Dishonoring vows?

Joan Sherman, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said that "if you have taken a vow to honor your spouse," you're not honoring that spouse by "sexting" - sending salacious messages or photos - or having Internet affairs. "It's really a dishonor."

Sherman and other Lancaster County therapists interviewed last week said that infidelity doesn't necessarily involve physical contact.

Sherman put it plainly: "If you have to hide what you're doing from your spouse, it's probably cheating."

Catherine Hastings, also a licensed marriage and family therapist, said that couples may define fidelity, and infidelity, in different ways. But "if you're in a relationship and engage in behaviors where there's a loss of trust, that's certainly going to be an issue."

Rosenberg pointed out that people can have emotional affairs when they put energy they should be putting into their intimate relationship into "a relationship in which it doesn't belong."

And when a person is talking about his intimate relationship with a third party, and "sharing deep emotional feelings" with that third party, "that's emotional cheating," Rosenberg said.

She said a good gauge of what constitutes an affair is this: "If your partner knew you were doing this, would your partner like it?"

Or, if you are reluctant to introduce a new friend to your spouse, that may be a danger sign. Another test, Rosenberg said, is this: "If your partner is objecting, and you're continuing … why?"

Sometimes, a partner may not grasp the potential danger in a spouse's online relationship. But tweeting photos of "body parts - most partners would get that this is a problem," Rosenberg said.

Old flames reignite

The local therapists interviewed said they routinely see people who are engaging in emotional affairs - and these affairs, increasingly, are facilitated by technology. These people may be texting intimate thoughts to someone outside their marriage, or chatting incessantly with old flames on Facebook.

This is new terrain for many people, so the rules may not seem clear-cut. "Technology has advanced farther than our decisions about what's OK and what's not OK," Rosenberg said.

She advised couples to negotiate what's acceptable to both partners. "There are partners who can deal with, for instance, porn on the Internet. … Then there are those who feel it is taking this energy out of the relationship," Rosenberg said, adding that if one partner objects to something, "it needs not to happen."

The Internet makes cheating so easy, Sherman said. "This stuff is not going to go away. It's only going to get bigger."

Social media enables those who are phobic about committing to one person to hedge their bets and connect with others, Rosenberg said.

And the Internet affords "the protection of anonymity" and enables people "to convince themselves that it's virtual, so it's harmless," Hastings said.

Sherman said the Internet offers "so many pathways to excitement" and so many exits "from the dullness of life."

And because a virtual affair offers an ethical ambiguity that sleeping with someone else in a seedy motel room does not, a straying spouse may be able to downplay - or at least, seek to downplay - the significance of the straying.

Often, when people are engaging in any type of affair, "They're not thinking rationally. They're not talking rationally," Sherman said. "They're thinking, 'Either I can hide this, or deny this.' "

When it comes to an online cheating, a straying spouse "tends to write it off as nothing," Sherman said, noting that it can be very frustrating for both parties, as the injured spouse tries to make the other spouse "understand what they've done wrong."

This can feel "pretty crazy-making" to the cheated spouse, who may think,

" 'Maybe I shouldn't be bothered by this,' " Rosenberg said. "I've watched many people trying not to feel bothered … They feel very lonely, and [feel] a lot of self-doubt. Often, also, their egos are wounded. 'How come I'm not enough?' "

Sherman said that those who engage in emotional affairs may use the I-didn't-sleep-with-anyone defense, "but there's definitely a shift of allegiance, a shift of excitement, that goes from the spouse to the third party, and it's devastating."

Spouses generally say to their straying mates, " 'If it's taking time away from me, and if you're telling that person things … you normally would tell me, it's an affair,' " Sherman said.

And "for most of the people who are being cheated on, they feel just as violated as if their husband or wife has gone out to sleep with someone else," Sherman said. "It's very powerful."

So why, given the potential pain involved, would Weiner - or anyone -play away from home, even electronically?

When politicians and celebrities engage in misbehavior, they may feel they're entitled to that misbehavior, Hastings said.

Among the not-so-famous, there is no single type who's more prone to sexting or engaging in online dalliances, Hastings said. "It can vary from people who are really shy, who need to stay anonymous but are trying to reach out, to people who have more exhibitionist qualities."

Rosenberg said she's seen both men and women engaging in electronic cheating, "and both men and women [feeling] betrayed by it."

Some people are straying online because they have a sexual or adrenaline addiction. (On Saturday, it was reported that Weiner was taking a short leave from the U.S. House of Representatives and seeking professional treatment.)

"One act gives permission for a following act and is usually upping the ante for a greater violation," Rosenberg said.

There is a certain fantasy that comes with texting and exchanging lascivious photos and messages via the Internet, Sherman said.

But it should be "enough to have your wife or your husband," she said, noting that someone should not need "that feedback from a fantasy person."

If someone feels that what he has in real life is not enough, he should ask himself what he's looking for, and why, Sherman said.

And it would be a good idea, she said, to regard Anthony Weiner as a cautionary tale. "I think we have to learn by looking at the people around us. We certainly have seen much of Weiner."

Contact Sunday News staff writer Suzanne Cassidy at scassidy@lnpnews.com.

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