It all began innocently enough, as these things often do. Cal, a 47-year-old engineer, reserved but friendly, had been contacted by an old friend through a social networking site. He had ventured into online chatting cautiously and awkwardly.

No problem so far.

Then he struck up a conversation with an old female friend from high school, asking what had she been doing with her life? How many kids? Happily married?

Cal and his former classmate, Susan, corresponded about once a week at first with his wife knowing he occasionally chatted with friends, some women, from high school. Though slightly annoyed, Cal’s wife, Cynthia rationalized away her fears, reminding herself, "Everyone’s doing it," including herself.

No problem so far.

Yes, Cynthia was doing the same thing. In fact, she was more active on Facebook than Cal. It was fun to see pictures of family and connect with friends from the past.

No problem so far.

Cal hardly noticed the internal shift. He couldn’t tell me when he began to notice the tingle he felt when Susan responded to his notes. She seemed interested in his life, a life he considered boring and routine.

Uh oh!

Cal began looking forward to her questions and opportunities to share about his life. She asked questions his wife had long since stopped asking. She was genuinely curious about his life.

Uh oh!

Cal began making Seemingly Unimportant Decisions (SUDS), venturing into other chat rooms, making friends here and there. He told himself that he was safe, no harm was being done, and he was perfectly “normal” doing what he was doing.

Uh oh!

Ever so gradually, Cal’s list of “friends” grew. Some were men while many were women. He denied to himself that he enjoying hearing from the women more than the men. He spent more and more time online.

“Cynthia started getting more critical about what I was doing,” Cal shared with me. “She saw the warning signs I couldn’t see. I rationalized them away, telling myself everyone was doing this. Everybody is on Facebook. I asked myself, ‘What harm could come of it?’”

“So,” I said, “you kept reaching further and further into this new world.”

“Yes,” he said. “And I liked it. There were so many women who found me handsome, exciting and interesting. I started keeping some of my activities a secret, which should have been my first warning. But, I thought she was overly jealous.”

“Sounds like this all developed over a long period of time, Cal,” I said. “A little deeper with every step.”

“Yup,” he said. “Before I knew it I was talking to more and more women and I was excluding Cynthia from this secret life. I became preoccupied with who I might meet and how they might find me attractive and interesting.”

“This all sounds very seductive, Cal,” I suggested. “Eventually you met up with some of the women.”

“Yes,” Cal said, hanging his head. “I didn’t mean for things to end up this way.”

“And what led to the crash, Cal?” I asked.

“I led this double life for a couple of years,” he said solemnly. “I chatted with a lot of women. I met some of them and had a couple of affairs. All the while I was still active in church and no one suspected what I was up to. But, Cynthia finally caught me and now my life is a mess.”

Cal sat weeping about his life. His wife of 27 years was threatening to leave him, he was embarrassed over his behavior, and felt more alone and empty than when he began the flirtatious actions. Let’s explore how this seemingly innocuous behavior can become an addiction.

First, we deny our pain. Cal wasn’t aware of how vulnerable he was. He had no idea that he was craving attention and encouragement. This denial made him vulnerable to the many opportunities for excitement on the Internet.

Second, chatting makes us feel good. No harm so far, right? Wrong. Anything that alters our mood and behavior should be critically reviewed. Anything that alters our mood has the power and potential to become addicting. We want more of the "drug" to make us feel better.

Third, we deny the impact chatting has upon our lives. We tell ourselves that what we’re doing is innocuous. We tell ourselves we’re not harming anyone, all the while becoming more dangerous with our behavior. We take greater risks, telling ourselves we’re safe.

Fourth, we begin keeping secrets. Because it is dangerous, and we know it is wrong, we start hiding things from our mate. This is a sure sign that we’re on thin ice. Anything we have to hide should make us suspect. We must live lives of transparency and accountability.

Finally, we get legitimate needs met illegitimately. Our needs are not wrong — only the way we are going about getting them met. Cal needed to step back, take an inventory of his life and marriage, and consider how he might spruce up his life. Rather than getting titillation from others, he needed to create these feelings from within his marriage.

Scripture offers us guidance on the matter: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18). We must seek pleasures from with the safety of our marriage.

While I’m certainly not bashing the Internet, I offer a strong word of caution after seeing countless marriages damaged from unfaithfulness rising largely from Internet opportunities. Be careful. Be open and transparent, and most important, share your needs with each other.

Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com and YourRelationshipDoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.

Publication date: April 24, 2012