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What's love got to do with it? How online flirting destroys relationships

Relationships are generally thought to lead to increased well-being, life satisfaction and even longevity. Passion, love and romance seem to be particularly present at the early stages of most relationships. As time passes by, other factors such as mutual respect and trust begin to play an even more important role in ensuring the survival of any relationship. In fact, mutual respect and trust seem to be the foundation for long lasting relationships.

It is difficult to talk about relationships without talking about separation, divorce and infidelity. Unfortunately more than 50% of first marriages fail! While many reasons have been identified as the leading causes of breakups/separations/divorces, the one that has received the most attention is infidelity. Little explanation is necessary to explain why infidelity can lead to a break up/separation/divorce. Most who have been victims of infidelity experience a feeling of betrayal due to a lack of respect from one member of a couple towards the other. Such disrespect can lead in turn to a lack of trust and subsequently to a breakup/separation/divorce. In reality, the causal relationship between infidelity, disrespect, distrust and divorce is rarely that simple or straightforward. What is certain though is that, without mutual trust and respect, most relationships fail one way or another.

As a clinical psychologist, it seems to me that many young couples fail because they hold unrealistic beliefs such as: 'a relationship should be effortless, fun and passionate' or 'if you love your partner, you will not disrespect or hurt them, or cheat on one another'. However, once faced with the brutal truth that one needs to constantly invest time and effort to make a relationship work, many disengage psychologically to some extent. This is when an individual becomes most likely to engage in behaviours that are likely to be viewed as disrespectful towards his/her partner.

Whereas infidelity is considered the most obvious act of disrespect, other less extreme flirtatious behaviours are much more common and need to be attended to. Most individuals admit flirting while dating or married. Although many believe that 'anonymous' flirtatious acts directed at a stranger can be harmless or insignificant, when such acts are repeated or come to the attention of the individual's partner, the psychological impacts can be significant.

In today's electronic era, it has become much easier to socialise in real time with others around the world while remaining in the comfort of one's own home. Several social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have changed our social culture. While these sites have essentially been developed to help individuals stay in touch with their friends and family members, their use has changed over the years as they have become, for many, online tools for flirting with and meeting new people. When used tactfully, these social sites provide an alternative way to meet new people, especially for busy singles who may not have the time to go out to meet people in different social venues.

Unfortunately, the use of social sites by 'attached' individuals seems to lead to many arguments, breakups and even divorces! In fact, such sites have given the illusion that it is acceptable for attached men and women to become 'friends' or to flirt with total strangers (e.g. friends of your friends of your friends). As "friends", users end up sharing personal information and pics. They often come to believe that they know each other and can trust sharing more personal information. In many cases they become overly friendly and even flirt with one another.

If you're in a relationship and wondering if your online socialising is within acceptable limits or disrespectful towards your partner, then ask yourself a very simple question: Would you feel comfortable if your partner "socialised" online as you have been doing? Most individuals know the answer to that question but many end up nevertheless taking the risk by continuing to flirt secretively online until such acts end up hurting their relationships. It is important to remember that online flirting is no different than face-to-face flirting. Although less extreme than infidelity, flirting (online or face-to-face) remains disrespectful and can lead to distrust and, later on, to breakup/separation/divorce.

In her 1980s hit song: 'What's love got to do with it?', Tina Turner sang about the hurt and pain that often accompany relationships. As a clinician, I am trying to spread the message that if you are in a loving and committed relationship then "love has everything to do with it!" And, make no mistake, the building block of every relationship is MUTUAL RESPECT!

Dr. Yaniv Benzimra, Consulting Psychologist
Y2 Consulting Psychologists

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