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Opinions of Saturday, 19 March 2011

Columnist: Tawiah, Francis

Facebook Cheating: That’s Not Adultery, Darling

“It’s not what you think, darling; it’s only a friend. Can’t I have friends anymore?” Of course, you can. But what kind of friend are we talking about here? Well, it’s an old university mate. She is far off in LA. Is anything ever going to happen between your husband in Ghana and an old mate in the USA? Not that we know of; the answer is in the internet. But you need to keep safe all the same. So you go ahead to police the Facebook page of this LA friend of your husband. Intriguingly, her profile says she is married. She has photographs of her husband and her children. Her daily status posts show she appears to be enjoying life and her marriage. Yet, your husband spends considerable time chatting with her, often closing the page when he sees you nosing in and needlessly playing defensive anytime you mention the matter of his internet friend.

Cheating itself doesn’t hurt much. It is the knowledge that you have been fooled and underappreciated that hurts. It is even more painful when other people know that you are the buffoon whose partner is cheating. In the 14th Century, people flicked their ears with their fingers when you were cuckolded. And often you were the last person to know if you were cuckolded. In the twitter-mad, social networking world of today, it is almost encouraging and quite tempting to cheat, even if unknowingly. The options are innumerable: You either add a friend or they add you. They would follow you on twitter or creep in on you on msn. Are you on Skype? Or close the computer altogether.

Contrary to popular Christian belief, you don’t become one person with your partner when you get married. You remain different individuals with different idiosyncrasies and network of friends. It would be nice to have the same contacts, but you spend more time apart than you do together. You don’t remember the last time you had a shower together or caught some fun in a foam bath. So why share passwords to your individual email accounts when you don’t share one toothbrush. A cell phone is small enough to fit into one person’s palm; it is not to be shared. You would not answer calls to your partner’s cell phone. The landline is for everybody, including grandma, when she comes visiting. And you would try not to read your partner’s private information when she fails to sign out after using the family computer. It is not fair on her, and ultimately on you.

Privacy is important, and everybody is entitled to some time alone, especially in the washroom. It is not my custom to find out the identity and age of any person who calls my wife. I don’t choose her friends, and do not expect to answer to her about how long I have known my childhood friends. Is she hiding anything when she cannot answer a telephone call in your presence, and has to leave the living room to talk in the bedroom? Is she transparent and trustworthy because she received the call in your presence and reported the details of the conversation? What about the calls that would never come because you were home, or that which she made and deleted the numbers from the log?

Now, it’s getting creepy. You don’t have to close in and nose in on your partner. It doesn’t help the relationship. However, when a creepy situation creeps into your hands, like the Toronto woman who is suing a big communications company for sending her cell phone bill to her husband, then the Heavens have very little reason to blame you for checking the facts behind the facts. The communications company had mistaken the husband as a co-holder of the account, because they share the same last name. The bill came in his name, so he had the right to open the letter. He noticed the disturbing recurrence of a particular phone number on the bill. It was the only number that called her several times daily. The cat was out of the bag already. The wife is not contesting the husband for breach of privacy; she wants millions from the communications company for playing her adultery into the hands of her husband and ruing her marriage.

It is not the same as the other woman in America who sued her husband for perusing her emails when she forgot to sign out on the computer they share together. In addition to money for compensation, she wants divorce for breach of privacy. These are serious issues. Even if there are not enough grounds for suspicions of infidelity, it is still worrying to know that your partner spends precious man hours exchanging private communication with somebody you don’t know. It doesn’t help either even if you knew the interlocutor at the end of cyber spectrum. The plain truth is that we are naturally jealous when we know that our partners lavish attention on people other than ourselves. Often cheating doesn’t just happen. It starts with one thing, which leads to another, then to another thing, until it hurts. Where do we draw the limits, and who should draw them?

Look at it this way: When you are walking with a casual acquaintance of the same sex, and he stays on a cell phone chatting away while still in your company, how do you feel? You feel irritated, unneeded and unimportant–at least in the particular context. Now, apply this to a love relationship, where emotions and trust are at play. How close should a Facebook or social media friend be? Should we worry when the friendship transcends the computer and personal contact is established? When phone numbers and email addresses are exchanged, do we assume something more than mere friendship is coming through? In any case, must a married person enjoy online chatting like any freethinking control freak who shouldn’t care about limits and emotions?

The computer has many software applications that have self-tutoring features. It even teaches us how to write simple letters, and is generous enough to edit what we write. What the computer doesn’t do is to teach responsibility. The husband of a very dear friend who felt uncomfortable about my contact with his wife wrote to ask: ‘Even if you didn’t know that my wife was married, do you have so much time on your hands to devote attention to another woman other than your wife? Your wife must be very understanding.” He shared passwords with his wife and had been following our exchanges, which he admitted were nothing more than old high school mates sharing experiences about old school jokes and the fun aliases we gave our teachers. Yet, he quizzed: “Would you be happy if your wife emailed another man with such intensity?”

So, it is not just the suspicion that your partner may be cheating with online contacts; the awful feeling that another person (it doesn’t matter the gender) is sharing the attention you so well deserve, is not exciting enough. Is that the reason why his relationship status hasn’t changed even after moving in together? Maybe you shouldn’t care much about your partner’s tweets and status updates and not bother to know who keeps sending those texts messages. Perhaps it’s not what you think. But what if it is actually what you think?

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin is a journalist who writes stress busters and opinion columns. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.