Rep. Anthony Weiner’s “Tweet cheating” has got commentators falling over themselves to condemn him by pointing out the virtues of his wife, Huma Abedin. Yes, she was gorgeous in Vogue. Yes, she is an accomplished political operative in her own right. But let’s not go so far as to intimate that Weiner was seeking an online mistress to compensate for some shortcoming in his wife.
It’s rarely the case that when powerful men cheat it’s because they’re looking for some other better woman than the one they’ve got. Rather, it has more to do with the man. Maybe he’s a narcissist and a risk-taker; maybe he’s simply unable to rein in his compulsions. In Weiner’s case, maybe it’s all of the above.
(More on TIME.com: The Weiner Case: When Is Tweeting Cheating?)
But whatever the reason for a husband’s inclination to stray, the Internet and social media have made it easier for him to scratch the itch without crossing a real-world line. Online flirtations — on Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and the like — are tricky to contend. At least in the real world, an affair can be dealt with by establishing real rules: no more contact with the mistress, for instance. But in the online world, there isn’t even a mistress to banish — only an avatar or a random disembodied Twitter handle.
It hard to say whether Weiner’s risqué online behavior really qualifies as infidelity, but it is certain that cyberrelationships have the power to undo or forever alter a marriage. In Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together — an exploration of technology’s effects on human relationships — she describes an extramarital affair that unfolded in the online alternate universe Second Life. Pete, a middle-aged father of two with high cholesterol and a “disappointing” marriage, reinvents himself as the young, buff avatar Rolo in Second Life and finds virtual happiness with another hot, young avatar, Jade.
(More on TIME.com: Erica Jong on Anthony Weiner, Sex and Power)
“Second Life gives me a better relationship than I have in real life. This is where I feel most myself,” says Pete in Turkle’s book. “Jade accepts who I am. My relationship with Jade makes it possible for me to stay in my marriage, with my family.” Writes Turkle:
The ironies are apparent: an avatar who has never seen or spoken to him in person and to whom he appears in a body nothing like his own seems, to him, most accepting of his truest self.
Pete’s real-life wife nags him about his health and acts like, well, a human being. In contrast, Jade is a “good listener” who doesn’t take a lot of work, Pete says. It’s possible that Pete/Rolo and Jade are a better match than Pete and his wife. But it’s more likely that Jade is more enticing because she’s a digital fantasy, and so is Rolo.
There are similarities between Pete and Weiner. Weiner’s Twitter contacts were also eager, uncomplicated avatars. And the Congressman’s digital representation of himself was not unlike Rolo. Look at the bare-chested photo Weiner sent to women online. Weiner’s face is obscured and he’s flexing his muscles to look buffer than he seems in his Capitol Hill-ready suits. In the image, the Congressman represents himself as a ripped stud. That may be the person he wishes to be, but it’s not how the rest of us — and probably not his wife either — see him. Abedin, undoubtedly, sees the entirety of him: the muscles at rest, the whole of his face.
(More on TIME.com: Weiner’s Wife Dodges the Role of Supportive Spouse)
That’s what’s so irresistible about our online selves: we can look far more glamorous, interesting and accomplished. We can compensate for debilitating shyness or a stutter. And many of us do, on places like Facebook, creating profiles that show us having happy, vibrant lives, in which we’re never stuck in rush-hour traffic or eating a crappy lunch at our desks. And cyberrelationships never involve needling wives or feelings of insecurity; when things get complicated, there are no repercussions for logging off.
Anthony Weiner’s Twitter escapades were incredibly pathetic and stupid, and lying about them to his wife was a hurtful betrayal of trust. But something about his behavior is recognizable to the rest of us. We’ve all used the cyberworld to feel, for a moment, like somebody better.