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"We are hearing from therapists around the country reporting online sexual activity to be a major cause of marital problems," Cooper said.

"We need to better understand the contributing factors if we are going to be able to warn people about the slippery slope that starts with online flirting and too often ends in divorce." With the exception of two of the study's participants, all hid their online activities from their spouses, often "chatting" after their husbands or wives had gone to sleep, Mileham said.

One 66-year-old man ended up having 13 affairs this way, she said.

Research shows that more males than females use chat rooms, said Mileham, who found it difficult to get women to respond to her survey.

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Most of us have always wanted to have a few extra-marital affairs every now and then.

An online liaison may even take place in the same room with one's spouse."In the words of one 41-year-old man in the study, "All I have to do is turn on my computer, and I have thousands of women to choose from.

(It) can't get any easier than that." Counseling organizations report chat rooms are the fastest-rising cause of relationship breakdowns, and the problem only stands to get worse as today's population of Internet users continues to grow, Mileham said."The Internet will soon become the most common form of infidelity, if it isn't already," she said.

The UF study found an escalating quality to these online contacts.Females are usually bombarded with messages and can pick and choose which messages they respond to, she said.Al Cooper, a leading expert in the field of Internet sexuality and the author of the book "Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians," said Mileham's research is important in helping to understand this increasingly common phenomenon.Many reported that what started as innocent, friendly exchanges progressed quickly to strong desires for sexual relationships, she said.Twenty-six of the 86 study participants went on to meet the person whom they had been engaged in an online relationship with, and of these, all but two ended up having a real-life affair.The vast majority said they loved their spouses but sought an erotic encounter online because of boredom, a partner's lack of sexual interest or the need for variety and fun, Mileham said."I'm not going to cheat," wrote one married man.Much of the Internet's appeal to married people is the anonymity it guarantees, coupled with the no-touching aspect, which they view as a license to be sexual, Mileham said.One can reveal the most intimate emotional and sexual details to an unseen stranger at any time of the day or night, she said."I felt like I've known her in another life." Mileham believes the time has come for the Internet to become as essential a part of pre-marital discussions as is whether or not to have children."To prevent future problems, young couples, as well as long-term committed couples, need to talk about what role the Internet will play in their relationship."- The University of Florida Articles in The Science of Mental Health are written by the originating institution. Newswise maintains a comprehensive database of news releases from top institutions engaged in scientific, medical, liberal arts and business research.

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