What interests us more than sex? Forbidden sex. We even have an entire genre of shows about infidelity: The Affair, Fracture, The Other Woman, Cheaters. Sex outside a non-open relationship is clearly no insignificant act, betraying the emotional and even physical safety of a relationship. Its ramifications are long-lasting, evidenced in the common phrase “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” While the pain that comes with cheating is very real, what remains ambiguous for most couples is what actually counts as cheating. While we all know the physical acts that are considered cheating, the explosion of online communication has made the act of cheating even murkier than before. So how has the online world changed the way we may define infidelity?
There are few industries left not disrupted by the online tools. Relationships are no exception. This article draws attention to the variety of new ways of infidelity that the online world is dishing out to us on a daily basis. My hope is that I raise awareness and subjects for conversations between you and your partner, with the goal of negotiating your monogamy agreements and building a deeper trusting relationship.
In 2003, a study investigated how people in relationships perceive offline and online behaviors such as cybersex, hot chat, pornography, and emotional and sexual intimacy. As society has transformed into the brave new world that is social media and cyber interactions, our views of relationships have only gotten more complicated. Pornography, a medium made up mostly of images and videos, is understandably seen as an act separate from sexual or emotional infidelity in person. This separation in many people’s minds allows them to perceive it as less harmful than physical infidelity (ref.1). In contrast, many people in relationships considered online relationships, or some sort of emotional connection and communication by using online tools, as straying away from a committed relationship. Many people even view online, unfaithful relationships as just as harmful as the same kind relationships offline (ref.1). The tools used in infidelity do not make much difference in how an unfaithful relationship is viewed – a recent study found that 83% of respondents viewed sexting outside of a relationship as cheating too (ref.5). It seems that while the internet has allowed us to access a seemingly infinite world at our fingertips, it has also made the possibility for infidelity even easier. In fact, 90% of those surveyed considered “seeing someone” offline as a betrayal, and 84% considered “seeing someone” online as a betrayal (ref.2). Even if communication only exists on a phone or computer screen, the person on the other end of those messages is still very real.
Studies even show that infidelity does not necessarily have to involve another person, or even real acts. What matters, in many cases, is the feeling that might come with a sexual or emotional connection. Many view sexual fantasies about someone outside a relationship as infidelity and these feelings were said to provoke jealousy (ref.3,4). Parasocial behaviors (imagined relationships with celebrities or fictional characters) were less likely to be seen as infidelity, though most participants of the study still perceived extradyadic (outside couple relationship) parasocial relationships to be a form of betrayal and as potentially harmful to real-life romantic relationships (ref.2). This may be because the more fantasizing is seen as a threat to a relationship, the more it is considered to be infidelity (ref.4). The closer something is to becoming a reality, the more harm it causes.
Men and women differ in their definitions of infidelity and how concerning these behaviors are to them (ref.2). Overall, women define a wider range of behaviors as infidelity (ref.1,6), though both men and women find sexual infidelity to be equally damaging (ref.4).
The fact that cheating can still happen online shows that infidelity is not just a physical act, but an emotional one as well. Social media and online content have given us greater opportunities for communication. Though with a new medium we faced new challenges that we yet only to learn how to navigate. Find out more on identifying your fidelity boundaries with your partner in my article “The Monogamy agreement”.
- Whitty, M. T. (2003). Pushing the Wrong Buttons: Men’s and Women’s Attitudes toward Online and Offline Infidelity. Cyberpsychology & Behavior 6(6):569–79.
- Schnarre, P. & Adam, A. (2017). Parasocial Romances as Infidelity: Comparing Perceptions of Real-Life, Online, and Parasocial Extradyadic Relationships. Journal of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 20.
- Feldman, Shirley S., & Elizabeth Cauffman. 1999. “Your Cheatin’ Heart: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Correlates of Sexual Betrayal in Late Adolescents.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 9(3):227–52.
- Yarab, P. E., Allgeier, E.R. & Sensibaugh, C.C. (1999). Looking Deeper: Extradyadic Behaviors, Jealousy, and Perceived Unfaithfulness in Hypothetical Dating Relationships. Personal Relationships 6:305–16., as mentioned in Schnarre, P. & Adam, A. (2017). Parasocial Romances as Infidelity: Comparing Perceptions of Real-Life, Online, and Parasocial Extradyadic Relationships. Journal of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 20.
- Falconer. T. and Humphreys, T. (2018). Infidelity through sexting. Poster at Canadian Sex Research Forum
- Hackathorn, J. (2009). Beyond Touching: The Evolutionary Theory and Computer- Mediated Infidelity. The New School Psychology Bulletin 6(1):29–34.