Online Affairs: High Internet Use May Lead To Risky Behavior, Emotional Cheating For Couples

Man on computer in cafe
The rise of the Internet has changed the typical office affair to an online affair, creating blurred lines of what constitutes as Internet infidelity. Fabio Sola Penna, CC BY 2.0

Internet sites like Ashley Madison have changed the way people cheat, allowing them to have fully-orchestrated online affairs. From sexy private messages to cybersex, infidelity can destroy relationships, but what constitutes Internet cheating? A survey by Open University in the UK found men and women are different in the way they perceive infidelity.

There currently isn’t an existing definition for “Internet affair.” In their study, Drs. Andreas Vossler and Naomi Moller, psychology lecturers at Open University, discuss the three most commonly used definitions for infidelity in research, including infidelity as sexual intercourse, as extra-dyadic sexual activities, and as emotional betrayal. Internet affairs sometimes steer away from just physical ideas of infidelity to emotional infidelity, where cheaters don't necessarily have to be face-to-face to have an extramarital affair.

In an effort to explore how infidelity is defined by both genders, Sossler and Moller conducted an anonymous online survey among 20- to 73-year-olds, allowing them to write in detail about their experiences with Internet infidelity, whether they were the ones who engaged in it or their partners did. This allowed the researchers to discover real-life evidence regarding the extramarital activities taking place during a time when the number of online affairs are growing. Many participants believed the Internet makes infidelity more likely.

The findings revealed the Internet, specifically social media, has a disinhibiting effect on people, making it easier for cheaters to engage in risky behaviors that may be avoided in real life. For example, it’s become possible for partners to engage in behaviors and activities on the Internet that may be considered unfaithful in the context of a committed relationship, such as cybersex, exchanging sexual self-images, online flirting, and dating.

"Probably, if we hadn't established and maintained any sort of contact online, the affair would not have started, as we very rarely bumped into each other,” one participant wrote, according to a press release.

When it came to perceptions of Internet infidelity, there also existed a gender divide. Women saw a larger amount of Internet activities as infidelity, and perceived them as more distressing too. “I have a deep mistrust in the Internet, and feel it massively facilitates infidelity. My ex-husband is inherently a very shy man, but online he is able to act much more confidently and attract the attention of other women. I strongly believe he would not have had so many affairs without the Internet,” a female participant on the receiving end of Internet infidelity said.

A 2008 study published in the Australian Journal of Counselling Psychology found that out of 183 adults who were currently or recently in a relationship, more than 10 percent had formed intimate online relationships, 8 percent had experienced cybersex, and 6 percent had met their Internet partners in person. However, more than half of the respondents believe online relationships constituted unfaithfulness. The numbers climbed when it came to those who believed it was unfaithful to have cybersex (71 percent) and meet in person (82 percent).

Moller believes couples in a committed relationship should think about sharing their attitudes toward social media with each other to prevent future misunderstandings, such as what each considers Internet infidelity. The Internet can help people explore their sexuality, and unfortunately, that includes cheating. Talk about it “just as a couple might negotiate an agreement on the desire for children or marriage,” Moller suggested.

Both researchers believe there is a lack of information about these online behaviors and their impact, as well as researchers’ perceptions of and experiences with working with Internet infidelity. This lack of knowledge is due to the secretive nature of online affairs, making reliable statistics hard to find.

The more advanced the technology, the more common online affairs will become, because the Internet is extremely accessible no matter where you are — including in a partner's bedroom.

Sources: A Sossler and N, Moller. Online affairs can be addictive, new study finds. Open University. 2015.

Fricker J and Moore S. Internet infidelity and its correlates. Australian Journal of Counselling Psychology. 2008.

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