Facebook use has been cited in 1 of 5 U.S. divorce cases, according to a recent survey among American marriage lawyers.
Moreover, more than 80 per cent of divorce lawyers reported a rising number of people using social media for extramarital affairs, according to the survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
"We're coming across it more and more," psychologist Steven Kimmons of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., said in a news release on the university's website.
"One spouse connects online with someone they knew from high school. The person is emotionally available and they start communicating through Facebook. Within a short amount of time, the sharing of personal stories can lead to a deepened sense of intimacy, which in turn can point the couple in the direction of physical contact."
Typically, people enter into online relationships with the most innocent of intentions, said Kimmons, whose practice includes couples therapy and marriage counselling.
"I don't think these people typically set out to have affairs. A lot of it is curiosity. They see an old friend or someone they dated and decide to say 'hello' and catch up on where that person is and how they're doing."
The key is the amount of contact two people in any type of relationship, including online, have with each other, Kimmons said. The more the contact, the greater the likelihood they will begin developing feelings for each other.
'Sharing of personal stories can lead to a deepened sense of intimacy, which in turn can point the couple in the direction of physical contact.'—Steven Kimmons, Loyola University
"If I'm talking to one person five times a week versus another person one time a week, you don't need a fancy psychological study to conclude that I'm more likely to fall in love with the person I talk to five times a week because I have more contact with that person," Kimmons said.
There are safeguards to prevent online contacts from ruining their relationships, he said.
One is not to engage in intimate conversation with someone who is not your spouse. Another is for couples to share passwords with each other and place the computer in a common area in the house or apartment.
"It's not that people are going to read what you're writing, but they'll see what you're doing," he said. "Then it's not a secret."