Cases of Divorce Based on Virtual Cheating Likely to Increase, Experts Say

Is virtual sex cheating if you’re married? Apparently so, at least for an English woman who made the news after filing for divorce, saying her husband’s virtual cheating was just as bad as if it had happened in real life. “It may have started online, but it existed entirely in the real world and it hurts just as much,” Amy Taylor, 28, said in an article in Time magazine.

The virtual affair happened during a role-playing online game called Second Life, in which users create an online persona. The persona, or avatar, does everything a person can do in real life — hold a job, meet friends, buy property and, apparently, find love — or at least sex. Taylor met her spouse in an online chatroom while playing the game, and the couple married several years later. Their online characters got married as well.

This is the second time her husband has strayed virtually, according to Taylor, who said she discovered his online avatar having sex with a Second Life prostitute shortly after their marriage began. She later hired another avatar, a private investigator, to doublecheck his virtual fidelity. Her husband’s online avatar was eventually caught cuddling with another avatar named Modesty McDonnell.

“Online pornography and video games involving virtual sex is a common cause for hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and serious disagreements,” says relationship expert Brenda Della Casa, author of Cinderella Was a Liar. She says, “In my own research, one in three men admit to viewing pornography on a regular basis which was defined as once a week or more.”

“Some people see cheating as something that can only be done physically while others view any interest or person that takes away time and attention from the relationship as infidelity,” Della Casa says. “The key component in understanding what is cheating … is to share your expectations with your partner and listen to theirs and come to an understanding. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of a situation like this where one spouse may feel betrayed and another may think he or she was just playing a video game.”

Taylor’s real-life husband, David Pollard, 40, denies that his online character had cybersex, adding he only got involved in the Second Life game because his wife was spending all her free time playing another video game, World of Warcraft, instead of doing anything with him. Though their divorce isn’t final, Taylor is now engaged to someone she met while playing Warcraft and Pollard is engaged to the real-life person attached to the McDonnell avatar.

“Cheating involves sneakily devoting your attentions (and body) to someone else outside your committed relationship,” says Dr. Gilda Carle, author of How to Win When your Mate Cheats.

“When a person asks me whether ‘this’ or ‘that’ is cheating, I ask him/her to stand in his/her partner’s shoes. I say, ‘How would you feel if your partner was sneaking around behind your back with someone else the way you are?’ Even if you’re not actually having sex with this person, and it’s only at the flirting stage, you’re diverting attention from your mate, and redistributing it to another person. Obviously, since you have only so much energy, your original relationship is going to suffer. Is that fair to your partner or to the relationship? Even though we’re talking about Second Life, this guy was actively fantasizing with someone else. That time could have been better spent with his wife. So, according to my definition, it’s cheating.”

Carle and other experts suggested the couple’s problems were much deeper than just a love of online or video gaming.

“While playing video games isn’t necessarily anything to worry about, excessive (i.e. when it’s starting to have a negative impact on important areas of life) playing [of] games like Second Life can be indicative of significant dissatisfaction with aspects of one’s daily reality,” says Dr.Tom Rogat, a Cleveland, Ohio, psychologist in private practice.

“If efforts toward a successful marriage are frustrated in reality, a player might use a fantasy venue like Second Life to try and get the relational satisfaction they are seeking. Obviously, this can be problematic depending on the degree of emotional investment a player has in the ‘fantasy’ venue. If a spouse perceives the fantasy life as more gratifying than reality, he or she may start withdrawing from the marriage.”

Tina Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids, a self-help book for married couples, said she’s seen “a lot of online addiction issues” in her counseling practice, but hasn’t had a case of virtual cheating — yet. “It’s bound to happen sooner or later,” she says. “Lots of online porn issues come up in marriages these days. It often depends on whether the spouse is computer savvy enough to figure out what’s going on. What could be easier than online fantasy sex? You don’t need to be attractive, or to even comb your hair.”

According to East Carolina University sociology Professor David Knox, Ph.D, who is also a marriage and family therapist, most people don’t even know what the game Second Life, is, much less how it’s played. The bottom line is that someone who is cheating on a spouse virtually “is not attending to his wife emotionally and sexually. He has become a zero reinforcer for her so now she has reason to dump him,” he says.

What’s really happening is an avoidant attachment issue involving “intimacy, connection and commitment,” says Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D., co-founder of, which helps divorced women in transition. “I think it’s common — not only on the Internet but with the explosion of reality TV. It’s a passive way to feel close and involved, having to do little but observe.”

“It’s cheating at an emotional level and history is prologue — according to the articles, this wasn’t the first time,” Goldberg said. “Engaging in the virtual relationship may very well be a symptom of deeper issues, both personally and in the relationship.”

The bottom line, according to Carle, is: “Real relationships require real emotional investing,” she said. “If a partner sways to the virtual world, this is where he is emotionally investing, not in his real-world home.”


1. Know your boundaries as a couple.

“There are some couples who have no issue with pornography and others who are split on the subject. Pornography is not cheating in every relationship but in some, it’s grounds for divorce,” Della Casa says. “This is why it is essential to communicate with your partner. You cannot just assume you are on the same page about anything. You must talk about things. If you are denying your partner time, love, affection and attention in place of pornography or virtual sex, there’s an issue, regardless of whether or not your partner has an issue with the porn itself.”

2. If you think it’s a problem, talk about it.

“What’s important is whether or not one’s spouse feels betrayed or otherwise hurt by the online relationship,” Rogat says. “If you are upset by the amount of time your partner is spending on a game like Second Life, or by the intensity of the involvement, consider addressing the issue head-on with your partner. Explore what needs the game-world is meeting that they don’t feel are getting satisfied reality. Do so with an open, non-judgmental attitude. Problems can be opportunities to get to know our partners, and ourselves, more intimately. If an impasse is reached you can always get help from a professional.”