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Soulmates, Online Infidelity, and the Governor of South Carolina

Soulmates, Online Infidelity, and the Governor of South CarolinaIt was something new even for a jaded public that had seen it all.  It was something new for everyone who had lived through Monica and Bill, Princess Di and Squidgy, and Jennifer and Brangelina.

The governor of South Carolina had gone missing.

The people of his state had no idea where he was. His staff had no idea where he was. And even though it was Father’s Day weekend 2009, his wife and four sons did not know where he was. Governor Mark Sanford wasn’t answering cell phone calls or e-mails. People worried because it was the first time a governor of a state had gone missing for five days.

On Monday night his main aide called a press conference and said that he thought Sanford might be hiking the Appalachian Trail. However, when Sanford came home on a plane from South America the next day, he held his own press conference. Rambling and breaking into tears,  he described how he would now die knowing that he had found a magic, once-in-a-lifetime soulmate.  Then he raptured on and on about her “erotic beauty …. in the fading glow of night’s light.” He praised his wife as a good Christian woman and expressed hope that he could fall in love with her again, while simultaneously admitting he found himself “in a hopelessly impossible situation of love” with his Argentine divorcee. Sanford’s most loyal fans thought he was giving out too much information even as his critics questioned his sanity.

Sanford’s wife responded by moving out with their four children and filing for divorce in December. The South Carolina legislature responded with impeachment proceedings and 37 charges of ethical lapses against Sanford, who managed to finish out his term as governor and avoid impeachment, although he had to endure public censure.

Sanford’s story may have shocked many people, but it’s really nothing that therapists specializing in infidelity have not heard hundreds of times. They know that Internet relationships, like the one between Sanford and his lover, can quickly become passionate and all-consuming, mostly because they are Internet relationships.

“Like strangers on a train who confess everything to an anonymous seatmate, people online reveal what they would never tell real-world partners,” Dr. Arthur Aaron Ben Ze’ev, author of Love Online, explains.

Their obsessions for one another is also be a matter of what they don’t reveal to their online partners. Their imaginations fill in all the missing pieces, and they create fantasies of one another, convincing themselves they have found their once-in-a-lifetime soulmates. This can become a justification for throwing out everything they once believed.

Sanford’s case is typical in that he had once presented himself as an extreme, fiscally conservative Republican, and a religious person involved in Bible studies and Christian organizations. When he was a member of the United States Congress, he voted to impeach Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal.

The ex-governor has managed to make a comeback. On May 7, 2013, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives with his Argentine girlfriend at his side. He recently told the New York Times that “any of those seemingly goofy feelings I described a couple of years ago have intensified, not dissipated, over time.” The two lovers, who known each other for almost ten years over the Internet, now call themselves “engaged.

Banks, Sandy. Why Men Fall in Love, The Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1009.
Ben-Ze’ev, Aaron. Love Online. London: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Brown, Robbie. “Mysteries Remain After Governor Admits Affair,” The New York Times, June 25, 2009.
Dewan, Shaila. “Gov. Sanford Faces 37 Ethics Charges,” The New York Times, November 24, 2009.
Goldman, Andrew. “Mark Sanford is Still in Love,” The New York Times,  August 5, 2011.
Teich, Mark.   “Love But Don’t Touch,” Psychology Today, March 1, 2006.

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