The Internet age has transformed human communication. Today few of us, myself included, would feel comfortable being "off the grid" for any significant period of time. And speaking or myself, I've experienced a wave of anxiety more than once when I realized that I'd left my cell phone at home.
Life in the cyberworld also has its implications for couples. In generations past infidelity in committed relationships was something of a major undertaking, involving secret rendezvous, hidden boxes filled with forbidden love letters, etc. Novels like Lady Chatterley's Lover and Dangerous Liaisons attested not only to the passions involved in such behavior, but also to the risks and potential consequences.
There is no doubt that infidelity has always existed and does so today. However, there is one major difference, and that is the Internet, especially social media sites such as Facebook, which have grown exponentially. And with that exponential growth the potential for Internet infidelity also appears to have grown exponentially.
Researchers have begun to investigate the phenomenon of Internet infidelity, and some of this research is very informative, especially since it appears to confirm that "infidelity is infidelity" regardless of where and how it starts and where it leads to.
Defining Internet Infidelity
In a paper published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (1) researchers surveyed 920 married couples, asking them for their opinion of what constituted "unacceptable" behavior for a married man or woman to engage in on social media sites such as Facebook. Here is the list:
• Revealing personal details about oneself or one's marriage
• Engaging in "cybersex" (sex through the Internet as opposed to in person)
• Falling in love
Does this list sound familiar? Indeed, it seems to mirror pretty exactly the rules of etiquette that most coupes would agree are a necessary part of a committed relationship. They also strike me as following a progression that is typical when one partner in a relationship strays toward infidelity, starting with revealing intimate details about one's self or the relationship, and potentially ending with actually falling in love. Moreover, just as in the real world, Internet infidelity poses a risk to committed relationships, with one study reporting that 22 percent of couples divorced or separated as a consequence of it (2).
Internet Infidelity: A Predictable Progression?
A web site exists (www.FacebookCheating.com) for men and women who have experienced Internet infidelity and who wish to anonymously share their stories -- to help others avoid such pain, or simply to vent. Researchers from the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Texas Tech University took it upon themselves to analyze a series of such stories (3). One thing they were looking for was some consensus within these stories about what were the "warning signs" that something might be amiss in a relationship, and which has to do with social media. Here is what they found:
• Gut feelings. This warning sign is probably as old as the human race. It is also something that would-be cheaters are quick to try to dismiss. Yet a gut feeling that something has changed -- and not for the better -- in a relationship is something that should not be so easily dismissed.
• Changes in Behavior. The stores that were analyzed often had common themes, such as a partner who once expressed little interest in social media suddenly lying in bed, or on the family room couch, seemingly devoted to his or her laptop.
• Suspicious or Secretive Behavior. This appears to have been the final common denominator for those who have fallen victim to Internet infidelity. Examples that are cited by the researchers include closing out computer screens (or cell phones) when the partner enters the room, and linking up with former boyfriends or girlfriends, ostensibly "for old times' sake." And what appears to be the surest red flag of all: Having your partner "de-friend" you on Facebook!
Is Internet Infidelity Really As Bad As "Real-Life" Infidelity?
This is a question that has been posed to me, as a therapist, more than once by a couples who is struggling with an Internet infidelity, be it a simple flirtation or a sexual liaison via Facebook, Twitter, or cell phone. Invariably it has been the offending partner who has argued that an Internet flirtation, or even phone sex, should not be compared to a real-life affair. "Nothing really happened," they often argue, as if infidelity via the Internet is somehow not "real" infidelity. What do you think?
Here is my opinion, based on what research like the above is telling us. First, couples agree that in their opinion the rules of the road that apply in real life (no flirting, no extramarital intimacy) should also apply to Internet relationships. Second, the signs of an affair-in-progress are remarkably similar in real life and in the cyberworld. Third, nearly a quarter of Internet infidelities lead to separation or divorce. That said, in my opinion there is little difference between the two types of infidelity in terms of their impact on relationships. In both cases, trust is broken. Revealing intimate details about a committed relationship to someone we have an attraction to represents a violation of trust, whether it happens in person or via the Internet. Similarly, "extramarital sex is extramarital sex" when it comes to its impact on a relationship, whether that occurs in a bed or through a cell phone. If there is any doubt about that, one only had to witness the reaction of Huma Abedin, the wife of former congressman Anthony Weiner, as he first admitted to his online infidelities with her at his side.
(1) Hesper, E.J., & Whitty, M.T. (2010). Netiquette within married couples: Agreement about acceptable online behavior and surveillance between partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 26, 916-926.
(2) Schneider, J.P. (2000). A qualitative study of cybersex participants: Gender differences, recovery issues, and implications for therapists. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 7, 249-278.
(3) Cravens, J.D., Leckie, K.R., & Whiting, J.B. (2013). Facebook infidelity: When poking becomes problematic. Contemporary Family Therapy, 35, 74-90.
Joseph Nowinski's latest book is Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder. See all of Dr. Nowinski's books on Amazon.com