The new infidelity

The technologies that make affairs possible also contain the seeds of their exposure.


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Andrew Goodwin
March 1, 2003 1:33AM (UTC)

Send me an e-mail
And tell me
I love you.

-- Pet Shop Boys

When I see my girlfriend's name in my inbox these days, I get excited. I anticipate arrangements -- dinner, a movie, a long walk together. I am caressed by her beautiful use of language, stimulated by her rock 'n' roll prose, and delighted by her deft deployment of irony. I keep watch for shared jokes, references to things that are known only by us two. And if I send an erotic message and she responds with a request for me to get charcoal for the barbecue, well, that's sexy, too.

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When I reply, I put on my writing hat and do my best to be amusing, clever and real. I am courting her all over again, after four years, and I know perfectly well that the skillful use of language turns her on. When we were first dating, pre-e-mail, on the telephonic apparatus, she used to correct my grammar. "You mean I, not me," she would say, a little harshly. I would often joke, although I am not sure it really was a joke, that I started falling for her when I realized she cared so much about language that she was prepared to jeopardize a perfectly nice phone conversation by arguing about syntax.

We have a linguistic dynamic in play that is every bit as important as the way we touch, dress and move. And I know that the e-mails really matter, not just for the content but also for their tone, because they keep us close during working hours and remind us of who we are -- that lovely thing, a couple. Whenever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution have lovers had so much opportunity to stay in touch?

I know how important words are. I know this for sure. I know this in part because I have read the e-mails to (and from) my girlfriend's lover. I know what the two of them said. I know what they did. And I can put a precise time and date on every act of indiscretion.

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The evolutionary development of romantic communication technologies has tended toward ever increasing levels of privacy. The humble love letter worked well enough in the correspondence of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. But when deception is intended, the epistle becomes the device that drives a thousand love plots. A letter can be opened by a third party; and even if it is not, the very fact of its existence is often too public for containment. For discreet chatter the telephone offers the public call box -- scene of the hilarious opener to Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" -- but the calls can be a little disruptive when they are taken at home. The answering machine sits there in the corner of the room, next to the sofa, on the floor, or in the hallway. You might recall a distant time when that machine was turned down or off if you had company coming over to which you were not (yet?) fully committed. Less than useless for the conduct of affairs, the answering-machine message is essentially a letter that has been ripped open and left lying on the kitchen table for all to see.

With the arrival of cellphones, voice mail and e-mail, things have gotten interesting. If others are monitoring your cellphone calls, you might really have a problem -- as Prince Charles and Lady Camilla discovered. But most of us have love lives that are of little interest to strangers -- indeed, one suspects that our erotic lives these days are, for the most part, not really all that interesting even to ourselves. The FBI might soon be listening in to your calls and reading your e-mail, but unless you are a celebrity or a politician, your sex life is not on the public agenda.

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The private, secret nature of the new technologies of desire has changed our relationship to the erotic. The shifty stroll from the car to the local adult store has now been replaced by downloaded images that sometimes seem to be circling around and exploring themselves in a bizarre solipsistic dance. Virtuality has made perverts of us all; we are conscripts in the land of the fetish, each one now honed to a dull point of desire so specific that it lies beyond any joke you can imagine.

And this secretive, private element, shared by both computers and cellphones, has enabled millions of coupled people to engage in seductions that would not otherwise cross their minds. These technologies make possible new kinds of infidelity, just as they have opened up a Pandora's box of porn. E-mail and cellphones permit romantic and erotic connections that were once deemed too dangerous because they were insufficiently private. E-mail in particular allows us to reach out and touch someone, to send an erotic tendril out into the world, without noticing the real edge of what we are doing.

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My introduction to the world of e-mail flirtation was innocent enough. Having accidentally sent a chapter of a novel I'm working on to an entire soccer news group instead of one of its members, I received a generous assessment of its merits from a female soccer fan whom I had never met. We exchanged e-mails and had a bet on an upcoming soccer match. When I lost, I had to buy her a drink. It never occurred to me to make a secret of the mild, very brief, and perhaps one-sided flirtation that followed. There was, as we say, no harm done.

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But I began to wonder about the self-disclosing nature of e-mail. It is not news that this form of communication encourages a reckless abandonment of the usual social restraints and conventions. We have a feeling or a thought, and we hit Send long before our conscience kicks in. There is no one on the other end of the telephone, so our tendency to blue-pencil the mind rarely takes hold as it might do when there is instantaneous feedback. There are no envelopes to be addressed and no stamps to be purchased. There are no lines at the post office and no apparent consequences. Neither is there any need to delay gratification -- the gratification that comes with taking a little risk. The gap between feeling and acting is so tight you barely notice it.

Just as important is the form of e-mail -- an erotic dance, more spontaneous than letters, more crafted than conversation. The sometimes false intimacy of e-mail opens up a new part of us, one that did not previously exist. It is the late-night flirtation that occurs at a time when once you would have been safely tucked up in bed or watching television. Or working.

Most important, there is rarely someone looking over your shoulder. E-mail offers the illusion of total privacy -- even if your partner does know your password. And it also provides a new -- and paradoxical -- sense of self. This self has global reach but is locally unaccountable. Hence the notion that what you do in front of the computer is, like the writing of a journal, something for your eyes only. This combines with the virtuality of the Internet to create a sense that there is both nothing being done and no need for anyone to know about it.

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Within a year of getting hooked up to the Internet at home a cousin in England sent me some information about Friends Reunited -- a British Web site that connects old school mates. I signed up. And then, one morning in the fall, I logged on to Yahoo to discover that I had received an e-mail from an English woman we will call Louise -- a woman who was a teenage girl when I last saw her. Louise was one of those women that men dream about: the teenage crush that never really led to anything and that -- partly because of this -- never went away.

My e-mail flirtation with Louise began with polite inquiries about marital status, location, career, kids and so on. Within days the marital reports had become bitching and moaning sessions that read more like co-counseling than the casual gossip of old school pals. Within weeks I received an e-mail saying: "Do you usually have this effect on women?" And of course I knew that the answer was yes. I was well aware that it is always the words that do the dirty work.

I came perilously close to planning an affair, or at least something that would have been as close to an affair as two old school chums could arrange at a distance of 6,000 miles, when I realized that this semi-secret flirtation was getting out of hand. It was affecting my relationship with my girlfriend. I was waiting to send e-mails to Louise while I was with my actual flesh-and-blood lover. I was staying up late telling a virtual stranger the story of my life, while the person I hardly spoke to was sleeping in our shared bed. I told Louise things about my relationship that I should have been discussing with the person I loved. But the relationship with Louise was real, too, and in the course of our conversations we learned a lot about each other and gave each much support in times of trouble.

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However, my definition of an "affair" is so stringent that it would test the morals of a monk. I have always said, to whoever would listen, that if you have lunch with someone you fancy and don't tell your partner, that's an affair. Affairs do not begin with kisses; they begin with lunch. Or something like it. So when you hide the shared meal and the excitement that came with it, you do so for a reason. Or reasons. You don't want to upset your partner. (Thus you know, in fact, that there is something to get upset about.) You want to keep it to yourself. Why? Because maybe some part of your mind is planning ahead and it doesn't want your partner to know that this lunch gig has started at all. Because one day, you hope, it won't just be lunch that you are hiding.

By these standards, my e-mail flirtation was already a full-blown affair. And when I realized that, I stopped it. Which is to say that I carried on sending Louise e-mails, but much less frequently, and with a new and more measured emotional tone. Most important, I began to think more carefully about sharing intimacies. When you share intimacies with one person, and keep that secret from another, you create distance. It is inevitable.

This kind of emotional mission creep, whether intended or not, is made so much easier by the new technologies of communication. One can lie about lunch with little risk of detection. One can suggest a date with an old friend, and whatever happens, nobody has to know except the two of you. A new two. The geographic reach of infidelity is now limited only by one's determination and one's budget. And if the ex-lover, or new friend, happens to be within driving distance, well then -- you can make arrangements from the computer on your desk at work. Or on the phone, in the car. And nobody -- not your partner, and certainly not your boss -- need know about it. The inbox and voice mail -- both guarded by those enigmatic, secret passwords -- patrol the porous border between what we say and what we do.

As I saw those possibilities unfolding before me, never stopping -- not yet -- to consider that I was not the only one who might have some new toys to play with, I thought long and hard about the Buddhist concept of Right Speech. Right -- or skillful -- speech is that which is truthful, helpful and timely. What would Buddha have done with his e-mail account? Not much, very likely. Because a great deal of what passes for communication via e-mail is neither truthful, helpful nor timely. And the Buddhists have certainly got their assessment of karma dead right: Wrong speech tends to boomerang on you and smack you in the mouth. Hard.

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The very existence of cellphones and e-mail seems to have provoked a new abundance of speech, most of it purposeless and time-wasting, and some of it harmful and dangerous. Both technologies must surely have increased the amount of gossip in the world. And as Ernst Bloch once observed: "Gossip is anger sent to the wrong address." I didn't want a cellphone, because I wanted less speech in my life, not more. And e-mail was beginning to look like little more than an opportunity to do the writing and the talking that I should have been doing elsewhere.

But my efforts to rein in the distancing and distracting effects of the computer were poorly timed. I had left it too late. On our return from a Pet Shop Boys concert -- an evening that began with her telling me to stop staring at her, in the car, and that ended with my asking her to tell me what the hell was going on -- my girlfriend told me that she wanted to leave. Which of course sent me straight to the computer to tell Louise all about it, in a fit of panic and longing that obliterated all my clever talk about karma and moral standards.

Of course I asked my girlfriend if there was someone else. She said no. I asked her again. She said no, again. And I believed her. Sort of.

During this period I had developed a new habit. Having stopped watching TV, axing the cable in favor of fiction, music and meditation, I found myself, without realizing it, replacing the tube with the methadone fix of the new media: the Internet. Endless channels with nothing on were thoughtlessly replaced by CNN.com, the BBC Web sites, Slate, Salon, all the online broadsheet English newspapers, Matt Drudge, Sky, Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, news sites from India, Pakistan and Egypt, plus news groups, weblogs, and Google searches for new news that had not yet broken. It was every bit as exhausting as it sounds, but it filled up the hours.

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I had by now developed the idea that pulling away (taking the pressure off) might bring her back. And I had expert advice on my side: One sad afternoon I turned to the Internet and Googled "how to stop someone from breaking up with you." Even as I typed those words I knew I was wasting my time, but I did find something: a Web site with an e-book that claimed to show you how to stop someone from breaking up with you.

The advice was sound enough -- agree with her all the time, do not beg or plead or make her feel bad, confess your own sins, and let go. That way, either she will stay, or if she does leave, she might come back. The subtext was that once you did all of this you might no longer want her. It was bleak advice; but still, I purchased two hours' peace of mind for the sum of $30, and in my desperate state I considered it the bargain of a lifetime.

If the alternative to winning her back was letting her go, then once again it seemed that the computer would come to my rescue. I began to fantasize about how Fate was clearing the way for a reunion with my teenage crush. That Louise lived on another continent, was married and had three kids, and that I was in love with my girlfriend -- well, such details seemed less important than the apparent inevitability of it all. I had built my exit ramp, day by day, e-mail by e-mail, seduction by seduction, and now, it seemed, the time had come to test it. Louise went quiet for a while, though. She listened to my weeping and wailing but said little about what was going on in her life.

One Friday evening, as my girlfriend prepared to take a trip to the mountains and I struggled to pull myself together to go out for an evening with friends, I logged on to Yahoo. There was a message from Louise, telling me that she was getting divorced because she had fallen in love with an old school friend.

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I re-read this message several times, just to make sure that she wasn't talking about me. She wasn't.

My worst, darkest, fantasy was now coming true. Having flirted with the possibilities, I was going to get my just deserts -- nothing. I was losing both of them -- the real girlfriend I loved and the imaginary lover I hardly knew. I tried not to think about what might be going on in the mountains. I negotiated my evening with all the skill of a washed-up, middle-aged loser: I got blind drunk and fell off a ladder, returning home with an enormous purple shiner. And when I got back to the computer, I deleted all of Louise's e-mails in a jealous rage, just to top the evening off nicely.

The trip to the mountains had involved more than a hike, of course. I knew that on some cellular level. That's why I fell off the ladder. A few days after that fall, I began to think about the technology that makes affairs so easy -- the cellphone. I didn't have one and I didn't need one. Because my girlfriend had one. She had a cellphone I would sometimes use if I was going to the store or setting out in the car for some location I'd never been to before. She used to offer me that phone all the time. And then she stopped doing that.

You don't need to be Bob Woodward to see that it is the coverup, not the crime, that reveals deceptions, whether they are public or private. The technologies that make affairs possible also contain the seeds of their exposure. When a shared phone suddenly isn't, there is probably a reason for the change. It is certainly clear enough that a cohabiting couple who do not share a land line are playing with fire. They should go into counseling immediately. For even if they had separate telephone lines, a third party would be more reluctant to intrude on their home life than when merely venturing into the cyberspace of the cellphone message center. Spouses don't pick up each other's cellphones. Everyone knows that. The cellphone, like the e-mail account, provides an intruding party with the illusion of detachment.

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A week after I realized that I was losing two women and gaining none, still sporting a fierce yellow stain under my left eye, I left a retreat center in Northern California early -- retreating from the retreat because I could think about nothing and no one but my girlfriend. I called her unexpectedly, on her cell, to let her know that I was coming home in an hour. She was supposed to be there, but she was not. She didn't sound pleased to hear from me. Her voice betrayed everything, for it was a voice that I had never heard before. She sounded scared. And her words spoke volumes: "We don't need to call each other later. Do we?"

Now I knew, for certain, something I did not want to know: There was someone else. It was the only possible explanation. I drove away singing along to the Pet Shop Boys: "I get along/ Get along/ Without you/ Very well." But I didn't really mean it. "Stuck here with the shame/ And taking my share of the blame." I meant that bit. I arrived home in a dreadful state and stayed awake all night. The next day, a quiet Sunday, I paced about our apartment, waiting for her return.

By evening I started to worry that something worse than an affair was happening. An accident. A car smash. I called her best friend and got a machine. I was about to call her mother when my girlfriend phoned to apologize and to say that she had spent the day walking with her sister. Of course, this did not really explain why, in the age of the cellphone, she had not called earlier. But she repeated this story when she got back, late. And I believed her. Sort of.

Three days later, as my girlfriend prepared to leave for another trip to the mountains, I walked into our study at half-past six in the morning to find her sending an e-mail. In that moment I realized that I no longer believed her, sort of. When she saw me in the doorway, advancing on her as I had never done before (always wanting to respect her privacy -- the safe haven of e-mail), she signed out fast -- too fast, as it turned out. She then made redundant excuses concerning the content of her e-mail -- something to do with work -- and I knew, in a new way now, that the game was up. I didn't say anything before she left for her trip. I just helped her to the car with her backpacking gear. And then I returned to the computer. To discover that, in her haste, she had not signed out.

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I clicked on Yahoo Mail. It took me directly to her inbox.

If there was a moral decision to be made at this point, I was unaware of it. She had left her e-mail up on the computer many times in the past and I had never thought of looking at it. Of course, that she no longer did this was -- like the cellphone she no longer offered -- an absence that said a whole lot. I knew she was hiding something from me and I knew precisely what that was. So I went into her inbox without a second thought, clicked on a message from a man, an ex-lover, and then saw, right before my eyes, his message to her and the message from her to which he was responding.

As I read and re-read their most recent love letters, the first of dozens that I would pore over for several hours that morning, I felt absurd. Was I now reading the e-mails that I might have sent to Louise had I not stopped myself in my tracks and had she not decided to fall for a different old school friend? Or was I reading the messages that I would have sent to my girlfriend if we had just renewed our erotic connection? It was ridiculous.

I signed out of Yahoo. And then I realized something truly sickening. I knew my girlfriend's password. It had never occurred to me before. This time I did entertain second thoughts. Ethical thoughts. And then, selfish thoughts. Did I really want to subject myself to more of those ghastly intimate messages? Could I handle reading criticisms of me, shared with a new lover? (There were none. But there was something almost as bad -- shared concern for me.) But still, I wanted to know things. Things like, When did it start? (Not long ago.) How serious was it? (Extremely serious, if read one way, and not serious at all, if one used a different hermeneutic.) And, could I take this guy on? (Oh joy -- it was immediately clear that I am the better writer.)

Nervously, and also with a strong sense of something like exhilaration, I went back in. And soon I discovered that the vile experience of looking at your lover's love letters bottoms out after the first half dozen or so. You don't feel worse the more you read. You just feel sick and sad, and the sickness and sadness hits a low point beyond which it cannot go. So I continued reading, and I fortified myself, on some unconscious level, by trying to take control of the situation.

Having printed out all the e-mails received, I went into the sent e-mails and printed those out, too. I felt like a diligent graduate student undertaking an important research project. My morning was devoted to the job of collating both sets, in chronological order, whereupon I embarked on the task of annotating them, with comments such as: This guy is a jerk! And (my favorite -- I think I even smiled at the time): Barbara Cartland would be proud of you!

But no amount of literary criticism could shift the shock and rage that had settled on my body. There is something keenly voyeuristic about reading personal e-mails. It is as if you are looking at some ghastly combination of journal entries and transcripts of private phone calls. You can see the person thinking, in real time, and you experience, albeit at second-hand, the thrill of events recalled and of new plans being laid. It is pornographic (which by one definition means "erotic writing") because it is real. After all, the frisson of porn exists precisely because the participants are not acting (hardly!) and we are therefore seeing something that really happened. In fact, my experience was literally obscene: I was seeing what should have been kept unseen, off the scene, beyond the gaze of prying eyes.

It was several hours before I remembered what I had forgotten I knew about e-mail: that sometimes we say things that we do not really mean, or mean only at the time, in our lust for something to happen, our desire for change, our mad rush for quick thrills.

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Four days later, my girlfriend emerged from the mountains, still on the road, but back within reach of a cellphone signal. She picked up 17 voice-mail messages from me: the angry me, the compassionate me, the enraged me, the understanding me, the baby me, the adult me, the controlling me, the loving me. I had played Buddha and the devil on her message center and hit most of the available slots in between. She called me from the road. She wanted to talk.

My girlfriend had been ready to move out, for good, racked with guilt and determined to hide the affair from me. But we had been saved by the computer and the cellphone. If I had not discovered the secret affair, and if e-mail had not rendered that knowledge so total and so undeniable, we might never have started talking again. If I had not left her those crazed messages she would not have known how I felt during the first hours after the truth came out. And in the age before cellphones (remember that?) there would have been nowhere to call. I might have written a letter, but it would hardly have had the same impact as my charged-up real-time extemporizing.

That evening, my (ex?) girlfriend feigned indignation about the intrusion into her private life even as I feigned anger that she had the cheek to complain to me. We were "arguing" now like a couple from some TV sitcom -- a rather well-written one, I like to think. We took a shower together and had a water fight. She said she was appalled that I would read her e-mail. But she never stopped smiling. She was outraged at my Barbara Cartland insult. But she found it amusing. She asked me for my e-mail password. And I told her.

We were back doing our infamous double-act again, and it was easy enough to forgive and forget a fling with an old flame that had started up only after she told me she planned to leave. I swear there were moments when I thought she might wheel out the old "Friends" classic: "But we were on a break!"

The next weekend we took a road trip together and listened to the Pet Shop Boys in the car: "Send me an e-mail/ And tell me/ I love you." We spent a romantic weekend away as flesh-and-blood lovers, beyond the tentacles of virtuality. When I started writing to Louise again, she told me about her new love and her impending divorce, but I stopped sharing intimacies about my relationship with the woman I love.

Slowly but surely, things settled down. I showed my girlfriend a draft of this article, and she corrected it, matter-of-factly confining most of her comments to questions of grammar and style. A few weeks later, she bought me a cellphone.

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Just five weeks after I found out about the affair, my girlfriend sent me this message: "I get such a rush of excitement when I see an e-mail from you in my inbox!" It seemed to me that the e-mail was saving us.

And it was. But there is no escaping the implications of the new technologies of inner life. The computer could be used not only as an electronic Romeo device but also for surveillance. It was possible to see if my girlfriend had changed her password. If she trusted me, she would not. But if I broke in again, she shouldn't have trusted me. I considered this paradox and decided to do the right thing. However, it was also possible for me to tailor my e-mails now that I knew she could look. Probably she would not. But, like a journal left lying around for your lover to explore, my e-mail had two potential readers now. I tried not to shape my communication with her in mind, but I could not un-know that she could read it too.

In jealous moments I saw that the double-edged nature of e-mail and cellphones (they can be used to expose the liaisons they invite) was still very much in play. If I sent her lots of e-mail messages, carefully spacing them throughout the day, I would have a pretty good idea of whether she was really at work. And I could use the cellphone weapon to identify the location of the target -- calling to determine her whereabouts. Or as a guerrilla force -- to disrupt enemy behavior.

Eventually my fears subsided. My girlfriend broke off the relationship with her old lover. And she did so, of course, via e-mail. But it might really be that in a world where passwords can be changed and multiple e-mail accounts created, where everyone is increasingly available, available in new and hitherto unimaginable ways, no one is really safe. Not even from themselves.


Andrew Goodwin

Andrew Goodwin Andrew Goodwin is Professor and Chair of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is currently working on a novel, "Chemistry."

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