Something wasn’t right. After 20 years together, Nassau County native Amanda* knew her husband, Stan*, and now, her radar was picking up something strange. He was different. His clothes were different. A new hairstyle. A tattoo. At first, she chalked it up to him being a man in his early 40s and going through a midlife crisis. That was nothing extraordinary, right?
Things had been OK. Maybe a little strained, but no more than any couple she knew with two kids and a mortgage. Their sex life was good, as it had always been. But maybe he was a little distant.
Stan had also taken to using the computer a lot more, spending time on Facebook. Amanda didn’t really get it at first. Stan had started an account about six months before she did, and he was thrilled at the connections he was making with people he had not seen or spoken to in two decades. And when she did sign up, she was amazed at the reach the social networking site had. She was finding old friends two at a time. So was Stan.
Stan started staying out later. His job took him on the road quite a bit, and there was always some extra time attached. Soon, Amanda began to investigate.
“I became obsessed,” she says. “I spent all day and night on the Internet, looking up everything. Seeing if he used his debit card for anything. Seeing where he might have been. The credit cards and cell phone, though, are in his name. I couldn’t check them.”
She could read his e-mails, though. Especially if he left his BlackBerry on the kitchen table. And when he did, she read an e-mail—more like a poem—from a woman whose name rang no bells with her. Back to the Internet she went, and the answers came fast. One of the people Stan had found on Facebook was his ex-girlfriend, Autumn*, with whom he had not spoken in 25 years. But their chemistry was still alive, at least through private messages and e-mails and Facebook wall posts. It seemed like they were enjoying a clandestine relationship, with nobody watching.
But on the Internet, everyone is watching.
Amanda was able to find out about her husband’s ex, where she worked, where she lived; she had children, Amanda learned, and was also married. Amanda’s husband denied an affair, but said he wanted out of their 20-year relationship. Amanda did not let go, but dug her heels in and continued to investigate. She was not the only one who was suspicious. Stan had been contacted by his ex-girlfriend’s husband and warned to stay away. Although Stan still denied the affair, he said he would stop contacting his ex. Amanda went a step further and called the woman herself and asked that she disappear from her life. She said she would. As Amanda and Stan fought to keep their marriage alive, one of the caveats was they both immediately delete their Facebook profiles.
Eventually, Stan did confess to a physical relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and also promised that it was over for good.
“If it wasn’t for Facebook, he would not have reconnected with her,” says Amanda. “It just made it too easy.”
Connecting (and Disconnecting)
With the explosion of social networking, attorneys, private investigators and married couples around the globe have found a new cause of divorce. The reason is simple, too. Hooking up with an ex just doesn’t seem like a big deal for most people. It is comfortable and familiar. Old feelings can quickly rise to the surface, and a connection that is decades-old seems new and exciting. Marriage can seem routine and dull. That is no secret, and no sin to admit, according to the experts.
So many take to Facebook or other sites and begin to build a cadre of “friends,” constituted of old chums, current ones, work friends, or organizations.
Anthony Capetola knows all about it. As one of Long Island’s most prolific divorce attorneys, Capetola has seen the damndest things in divorce trials. He has also seen an incredible rise in cases that involve cheating through social networking. Before the latest trend, he says things seemed to level off when it came to Internet cheating, but every day there are more cases.
“The number of these situations has expanded exponentially, especially in the last two or three years,” says Capetola. “It looks like it will continue to expand.”
Indeed, with millions of people signing on and hooking up every day, Facebook has become nearly ubiquitous in many circles. The culture of connecting online with people, new and old—especially old—is alluring and exciting. Many Facebook users cannot resist the temptation to look up their exes, find out where they are, what they are doing, what they look like…and maybe see if the sparks will still fly.
“Many people who are enjoying Facebook are at the age where they have been married for a while, have years since high school or college and they go on looking for old flames,” says Randi Milgrim, a divorce attorney and partner of Glen Cove-based Mejias, Milgrim and Alvarado. “Facebook gives people the ability to have an affair right from their couch.”
And it’s all right out in the open. Indeed, what you do on Facebook—or any other website, or chat room, or text message—is not legally deemed privileged or private; instead, it is very public and, in almost all cases, able to be subpoenaed and brought into divorce court.
In one situation, Milgrim’s client, Leann*, was suing her husband for divorce; Leann showed Milgrim her husband’s Facebook page as evidence of his cheating. Since Leann was her husband’s Facebook friend, and therefore had access to his page, she was able to see comments left on his page by another woman. Taking it a step further, Leann was able to go to that woman’s page, and see her photos. In one photo was—you guessed it—Leann’s husband.
Milgrim has been involved in cases where she has provided as evidence printouts of Facebook pages to demonstrate there was an affair going on.
“People will actually write ‘I had a good time last night’ on someone else’s page,” says Milgrim. That is an innocent thing to say, of course…unless one of the people was supposedly working late.
What people don’t understand, says Capetola, is the long footprint the digital age brings to the arena of litigation. In one of his cases, he had a client whose husband had set up a Match.com account with a different name, age, career…everything. In other words, he was pretending to be someone else.
“He was very boastful about his sexual prowess, [purporting] himself to be a playboy,” says Capetola.
In the end, the guy got beat up in court. As he proclaimed to not have enough money for child support, Capetola was able to produce evidence of spendthrift ways on the husband’s part, mostly by pictures he posted on the Internet.
“In their minds, no one will find out, and it could never become evidence,” says Capetola.
It’s Not Just About Sex
So maybe you find a long-lost love through Facebook, and you begin to e-mail and instant message each other. You know enough about one another that there is no awkward getting-to-know-you phase. You know each other’s bodies and quirks, what makes the other mad, sad or turned on. Very often conversation quickly escalates from “Hey, how are you?” to “What are you wearing?” Eventually, maybe, “I love you” slips out. But you never, ever go near the person or consecrate the rekindled love affair. That’s not cheating, so no harm no foul, right?
In fact, the toll an emotional affair can have on a marriage is devastating. “Many of my clients tell me, ‘If it were just sex, I could live with it,’” says Milgrim.
In New York State, there is no grounds of irreconcilable differences for divorce, like in California. Instead, there are six grounds: Cruel and inhuman treatment; abandonment; if one person is in jail for more than three consecutive years; adultery; and if the couple is either legally separated for one year before a divorce, or are seperated for more than one year on their own.
An online-only affair, one that never even reaches the backseat of the car, is reason enough to be served with your walking papers. Milgrim has successfully tried these cases on the basis of cruel and inhuman treatment. And those who are sued are surprised, because it just doesn’t seem like cheating at all.
“They are not going to meet someone at a bar; it’s only e-mails,” says Milgrim. “But they are terribly damaging to a marriage—and a defense if they are brought to trial.”
Many times, the popcorn trail left by Internet activity serves as the reason spouses go to the next step of investigation. That’s when they really find the evidence.
North Shore resident Beth* has been married for more than 20 years, locked into a marriage she now says was unhappy from day one. But she bore on, had two kids and did her best to keep the family together. Last year, though, she was near her wit’s end. She says her husband had become verbally abusive. No matter what she did, he did not respond.
Like Amanda, Beth began to sense something else was at play. Her husband spent an awful lot of time on the Internet, in chat rooms. When she walked into the home office, he was quick to change screens and defend his activity. He began to go to the gym at odd hours.
“Even weirder was, he showered before he went to the gym,” laughs Beth, who says she hopes she is nearing an end to the divorce process.
Her husband also made sure to bring his BlackBerry and laptop with him everywhere he went. Beth was curious enough, and also ready to take the plunge and investigate further. She found some text messages, and then brought in the big guns. One weekend, when he was supposedly away for business, she had a private investigator follow him. On the very first try, she got the evidence she needed. When her husband was served, he found out about the evidence she had compiled.
Darrin Giglio is the president of North American Investigations, which has offices in Mineola and New York City. While his business has always specialized in matrimonial cases, these days Giglio is very busy. He attributes much of that work to the proliferation of the Internet and its impact on marriages across the United States.
“Typically, while conducting preliminary investigations by means of an extensive search through Internet databases, including Facebook, 123people.com, PeekYou.com and MySpace.com, [we] discover more clues used to solve cases than one would think,” says Giglio. “Frequently, inappropriate communications and searches for long-lost loves online are observed, and while sometimes the information may only be tiny bits and pieces, in some cases it may be enough to solve the case and prove the suspect guilty.”
One client approached North American about his wife’s possible cheating. Her behavior and normal routines had changed. The man was unaware his wife was even on Facebook, and North American found her profile during their investigation, which was set to “private.” Once they were able to gain access, they found pictures of her with another man, including photos of them kissing. They never had to go any further with their investigation.
His company has on many occasions posed as a fictitious person and gone on Match.com and other dating sites, catching people in their trap with little difficulty. Before you go wondering about entrapment or invasion of privacy when it comes to e-mail addresses, online profiles and the like, realize that this information is easily, and legally, obtained.
Capetola points out that those e-mails are not privileged information, assuming the person trying to find that information has the necessary passwords that would enable them to gain access to e-mail accounts or online profiles.
When the divorce case starts rolling, all of that information is viable and damaging. Milgrim had one case that settled before the trial started because she informed her adversary of the treasure trove of printouts she had gathered from a Facebook profile.
At the end of the day, Facebook is pretty cool. It has also provided a glimpse of the incredible reach and alarming transparency of the Internet. Nothing is sacred at all. Marriages are lost everyday in the avalanche of social networking and dating sites.
Colleen Piazza, a New York State licensed psychotherapist who provides individual marriage and family counseling, knows the story well. Cheating is just a mask for other problems, she says, which gives way to a willingness to live another life.
“What underlies cheating in the first place is someone is dissatisfied with their life, and they look for relief by choosing someone else,” says Piazza.
When it comes to Internet cheating, even if it is with a long-lost love, the relationship is based in fantasy, not reality.
“It’s the grass is always greener, pining for unrequited love,” says Piazza.
Too often, people do not remember the bad things that happened, especially after many years have passed. They look to those days through rose-colored glasses, forgetting what ended a relationship in the first place.
“[Online], you can say anything you want. Anything is possible,” says Piazza.
What makes an extramarital affair exciting is the absence of reality, like bills, kids, in-laws and a slew of other aspects of everyday life that make up the mundane nature of marriage in the first place.
Take Hollywood’s depiction of a married couple. They stumble through life, seemingly numb to anything exciting or passionate. At night, our movie couple sits up reading, clad in pajamas, awash in boring conversation about the kids or how the rugs need to be shampooed. Now think of Hollywood’s image of an unmarried couple, having sex in stairwells, elevators, taxi cabs—anywhere they can. In the 2002 movie Unfaithful, the gorgeous Diane Lane is overcome with passion when she meets, by accident, a young hipster in the city. She is a suburban housewife, married to Richard Gere. When she gets home, it’s Boringtown. Get her in the city, and she is a cowgirl breaking a steer.
In other words, Hollywood thinks marriage sucks.
Noel Biderman won’t go that far. In 2001, after the Internet bubble burst, the former sports agent was looking for a new business venture. In the wake of the Bill Clinton scandal and the downtick of Internet stocks, Biderman says that the only part of the Internet that did not suffer was dating. His research revealed that many people who took part in Internet dating were married or otherwise spoken for. A market was identified. His business creation is perhaps the most controversial on the Internet.
He then launched AshleyMadison.com, combing that year’s most popular names for baby girls in the hope of attracting women members as well as men. The site’s now infamous tagline is “Life is short. Have an affair.” The site caters to the married and committed and helps them find like-minded people who want nothing more than a fling with someone who is in a relationship.
He has been vilified in the media. The ladies of The View almost burned him at the stake. Biderman takes it all in stride.
“Cheating is part of the human condition,” he says. “Physiologically, we are not programmed for monogamy.”
Oh, Biderman himself does not necessarily practice what he preaches, or at least facilitates. He’s been married for seven years and has two children. He believes that the right environment for children to be raised in is comprised of two parents. Monogamy is alive and well in the Biderman household.
The site’s 4.6 million members don’t agree with his personal philosophy. They do like his business, though. They pay a minimum of $49.99 each to accumulate credits, which can be used any time. There is no monthly charge like on conventional dating sites.
Biderman’s site, he says, is not meant to wreck marriages, but rather strengthen them. He points out that the infidelity rate in countries like Britain or France are higher than the U.S., but their divorce rates are lower.
Biderman says he has research to back up his theories. He also says that women are just as apt to cheat, or take up with a married man even if the lady is single. His site is comprised overwhelmingly of males, which is about 70 percent of the membership. But of the women who are members, about 40 percent are single. That means they know they are poaching another woman’s man.
“The truth is, women say they can’t find a good man, and if they do and he is not being taken care of by his girlfriend or wife, they are very happy to do it,” he says.
Of course, that may not always be the case. Amanda feels like she has always taken pretty good care of her man. She knows she is not perfect, but who is? Things are better in her house, but her eyes remain wide open. That was never the case before Facebook.
“I trusted him unconditionally. If someone said they saw him in bed naked with someone, I would have thought there was a logical explanation,” she says as she exhales a drag from a cigarette. She is feeling better, gaining back the 20-plus pounds she lost after Stan had called it quits.
“But now, it’s always in the back of my mind. I could not do it again. I can forgive you once, but not twice. Our life will never be that innocent again. We still love each other, but thanks to Facebook, it will never be the same.”
*All names with an asterisk have been changed.