A middle-aged man in a happy relationship can’t stop flirting with women online. Should he stop? Mariella Frostrup weighs up the perils of secretive passions. ‘At some point youâ€™ll hunger for flesh and blood instead of a keyboard at your fingertips’: Mariella Frostrup offers a word of warning. Photograph: Alamy
ByMariella Frostrup for The Observer
The dilemma I am a 48-year-old man and have been with my partner for 28 years. We have a good and loving relationship and few worries.Â Recently, however, I have started to use a chat room where I enjoy chatting and flirting with other women.Â I have never done this in real life and have never felt the need to.Â I am not sure this is really correct behaviour but am having great trouble stopping â€“ not using the computer seems the only way. I have hinted at this to my partner, but have not told her everything as I am both aÂ bit ashamed and do not want to hurt her unnecessarily. Please can you offer any advice on how I can kick this habit.
Mariella replies Let’s work out if you need to first. Flirting in cyberspace shouldn’t necessarily sound the death knell for your relationship. You’re only keeping up with the Jones’s, as the saying goes.
From Facebook to Twitter, social media increasingly requires you to hone your skills at global seduction, inducing strangers and acquaintances to “friend” you for the world to admire. It turns out your real-world social life doesn’t count for aÂ penny against the more measurable numbers attached to your online relationships. What harm can a bit of online chitchat do when the whole world is out there desperately trying to make connections? I know grown adults who squander hours honing pithy 140-character bon mots in the hope of going viral. If that isn’t a form of foreplay, disguised as word play, I don’t know what is. You’re simply throwing your lot in with the great mass of humanity choosing to lead their lives virtually while around them their nearest and dearest atrophyâ€¦ or do likewise.
As with everything else on the internet, chat rooms are child’s play to access making it seem positively unfriendly not to pop in and say hello. I’ll dodge pornography, on which I have lingered of late. But your reluctance to return to an activity you’re ashamed of echoes the feelings of many who behave online in ways they would never entertain in their day-to-day lives.
I’d have to be a right old prude to frown on such innocent amusement. What you’re up to would seem pretty harmless, enjoying no-strings sexual dialogue that adds some spice to your settled life. Plenty of men in relationships are out there doing it in real time and in real places, so many would argue that yours is a preferable option. But what does worry me is how your on-line activities are making you feel.
Some behaviour only becomes tangible when it’s dragged from the shadows and exposed in daylight. You start by saying you enjoy your online activities. If this is your main response then you could invite your partner to join in. Perhaps a joint foray into fantasyland might introduce a revitalizing frisson to your relationship? On the other hand we all know about the perils of Pandora’s box and opening doors you can’t shut.
And you do also mention feeling shame and compulsion, which makes me wonder about the status of this new form of interaction. Is it replacing something you have lost or something you are missing? Either way you’re unlikely to find satisfaction in cyberspace. At some point you’ll hunger for flesh and blood instead of a keyboard at your fingertips. Total strangers whose personality is as much of a mystery as their sexuality are as ephemeral as ghosts. If your union is lacking spice, online chat won’t provide anything more than a stop-gap before you go hunting the real thing. I’ve yet to encounter someone who remains content with fantasy flirtations forever. And, as we both know, this will eventually imperil your relationship.
What a pleasure to read about a union of 28 years’ duration being good and loving â€“ that’s an achievement to be immensely proud of. Forget reaching 100, these days there should be telegrams from the Queen for every decade your partnership lasts. Such rock-solid foundations may offer room for experimentation, but few relationships can withstand the sort of solo voyaging you’re currently embarked on. Do you want to throw away what you’ve built?
As an ex-smoker, every time I go into the newsagent I’m tempted to pick up a packet and if I could enjoy them online it would be an even harder vice to ignore as temptation would be almost constantly present. Just because something is available doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be declined. The way to kick any habit? Just say no.