MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Social media are beloved for bringing people together. After all, millions have now met their partners online. But the intimacy and ease of social networking can also drive a wedge between couples. Marriage therapists are seeing it more and more, where Facebook friends sometimes become lovers.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Mike Green remembers when his ex-wife asked him to add text messages to their cell phone plan. This was 2005, before Facebook became big in their town of Mankato, Minnesota. Green had no interest, but his wife went ahead. After that, he says she seemed to text all the time - when he'd come home from his evening shift for dinner, when they were cruising the shopping mall.
Mr. MIKE GREEN: Actually, one of my buddies asked me if it was a big deal that she was texting all these people. And I said no, I trust her, so why would I even worry?
LUDDEN: Then Green saw a phone bill. He says there were hundreds and hundreds of texts, a long list of numbers that meant nothing to him. But over time, there was one number more than any other. It was a colleague his wife had started an affair with, and for whom she eventually left him.
Mr. GREEN: Because I was gone at nights, she used him as her support system. Like, she would talk to him about things.
Ms. TARA FRITSCH (Marriage Counselor): We hear this so commonly in our offices that it began to feel like there was a CD player hitting repeat.
LUDDEN: Tara Fritsch is a marriage therapist in Edmond, Oklahoma. She says of course, texting doesn't break up a marriage; people do. But it turns out opportunity is a key predictor of infidelity, and social media has increased opportunity exponentially.
Does something remind you of an old flame? You can reconnect in the few seconds it takes to type their name into Facebook.
Ms. FRITSCH: Twenty years ago, if you really thought a co-worker was interesting, and later on that evening you thought of them and wanted to kind of say, hey, how you doing, then you would have to ask yourself: Is it really appropriate to call them at home? I mean, what if their spouse answers? What am I thinking about?
LUDDEN: Fritsch says it makes her think of that 1980s country hit "Nobody," about a husband's affair.
(Soundbite of song, "Nobody")
SYLVIA (Singer): (Singing) Your nobody called today. She hung up when I asked her name. Well, I wonder does she think she's being clever.
LUDDEN: Now, such an awkward moment is completely avoidable. Text and emails can be delivered privately. It all feels so innocent.
In fact, as Lindsay James, of Fort Worth, learned the hard way, a partner can easily carry on an affair in the same house, even the same room.
Ms. LINDSAY JAMES: That's what would upset me more than anything. It's like, wow, he was sitting right next to me, we were watching a movie and talking to someone else. And I had no idea, yeah.
LUDDEN: The irony, James says, is that her boyfriend admitted he'd never have had the nerve to approach other women in person.
Mike Green says he was stunned at how quickly his wife's texting relationship turned into an affair. That's typical.
Bob Rosenwein, of Lehigh University, has found that people communicating online often fall for each other in about a week - two or three times as fast, on average, as those courting face-to-face.
Professor BOB ROSENWEIN (Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Lehigh University): When you don't have nonverbal communication, the likelihood of being able to disclose at a deeper level is greater, because there's less inhibition. So it's going to feel like a more intimate relationship.
LUDDEN: Therapist Tara Fritsch says this makes it easy for some who have no intention of starting an affair to unwittingly cross a line. Often, this leads to a physical affair but even without that, some marriages are damaged.
Ms. FRITSCH: Just the emotional loss - the lies that have hidden the emotional connection - is just as painful as if their spouse had actually gone out and met with someone.
LUDDEN: In Minnesota, after his divorce, Mike Green got his own social media account. He soon learned how easy and addictive it is.
Mr. GREEN: It's a rush. It's a good feeling to have this constant attention poured upon you by anyone, you know, that you get to text all the time. And I find myself still loving to just get texts from females. And I text, text, text, back and forth, you know?
LUDDEN: But Green says he's wary about another intimate relationship. Even though he wants to trust again, every time a girlfriend is texting someone else, he can't help but feel suspicious.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.