Relationship infidelity may be categorized into two broad types, which are sexual (having non sanctioned sex outside of one’s relationship) and emotional (possibly sharing personal and sensitive information outside of one’s relationship).  Furthermore, there are gender differences in terms of how these two types of infidelity trigger jealousy, with male jealousy more likely triggered by sexual infidelity and female jealousy more likely triggered by emotional infidelity.  These gender differences are explained by the fact that males are primarily concerned with parental certainty, meaning that sexual infidelity of a partner poses more of a risk to them than emotional infidelity. Females on the other hand are primarily concerned with parental commitment and investment, therefore meaning that the risk of a partner forming a long term emotional bond with another female would pose more of a risk to them than their partner engaging in a short term sexual encounter (Buss, Larsen, Westen & Semmelroth 1992).

In addition to jealousy, other emotional responses such as the degree of hurt, anger and disgust have been employed as measures of responses to emotional and sexual infidelity.  Becker, Sagarin, Guadagno, Millevoi & Nicastle (2004), found that in addition to the gender differences described above, both males and females reported experiencing more disgust and anger to sexual infidelity, and more hurt to emotional infidelity. 

Nito/Shutterstock
Source: Nito/Shutterstock

While the Internet is now used widely in the formation of new romantic relationships, it has also allowed people a further avenue through which to engage in unfaithful behaviour. Online infidelity which can be also be emotional (sharing personal information with a stranger online) and sexual (engaging in cybersex) has long being cited as a major reason for divorce (Attwood, 2005).  But is what has been termed online infidelity actually unfaithful behaviour?  Several earlier studies have looked at this issue but more in terms of what people say about online infidelity.  For example, Schneider (2003) noted that females whose partners were Internet addicts considered online sexual activities in the same way as they considered real life infidelity.  Furthermore, Whitty (2003) found that both online and offline unfaithful behaviour was judged to be equally serious when participants were asked to rate their perceptions of different acts of online and conventional infidelity.  By contrast however, Mileham (2007) found that 83% of respondents in chat rooms, tended to rationalize online sexual acts as acceptable and harmless, possibly because no physical contact is involved, which suggests that online liaisons are not necessarily considered to be unfaithful behaviour.

How do we feel about online infidelity?

However, we need to ask what people’s feelings and responses tell us about the nature of online infidelity.  Sexual infidelity online is no threat to a male’s certainty of paternity, so what kinds of emotions might it trigger?  Looking at this issue, Guadagno & Sagarin (2010) investigated whether people feel as jealous when imagining their partners forming a close emotional online connection or engaging in cybersex, as they do when imagining their partners engaging in an offline emotional or sexual liaison.

While emotional infidelity both offline and online may pose a threat in equal measures to relationship commitment, the obvious difference between traditional sexual infidelity and infidelity involving cybersex is that it is not possible for pregnancy to occur as a result of cybersex, and accordingly this should not result in the same levels of jealousy.  Alternatively, it might be the case that our long evolved feelings of jealousy are not sensitive to the distinctions between online and offline infidelity and therefore people will experience the same feelings of jealousy to each.

Guadagno & Sagarin (2010) presented 332 participants with scenarios asking them about the degree of jealousy, anger, hurt and disgust they might feel to emotional and sexual infidelity, and which might take place online, or in a face to face context. 

Reactions to online infidelity?

They found that for males there was no difference in the amount of jealousy reported for offline sexual infidelity and online sexual infidelity.  This suggests that even sex which is purely text based (as in cybersex) and does not compromise parental certainty still evokes a jealousy response for males.  Females on the other hand reported being more jealous than males at thinking their partners might form an emotional attachment to someone else, and this was the case offline and online.  This finding makes sense as in evolutionary terms an online emotional attachment might pose as big a threat to a male’s parental investment to a female as an extra relationship attachment in an offline context.  

The researchers also found that females reported stronger feelings that phone sex or cybersex constituted cheating, which is explained by the fact that females compared to males are less likely to agree to sex without commitment (Simpson and Gangstead, 1991).  However, females were more likely to admit to engaging in cybersex, even though females compared to males judged cybersex to be a more serious form of cheating.

Finally however, they found that overall, people in this study reported lower amounts of jealousy, hurt and anger to online infidelity as compared to conventional infidelity.  However, they did report more disgust at the thought of their partners engaging in extra relationship activities online.  The researchers suggest that this may be to do with the secrecy and anonymity afforded by online relationships.

So what does all this mean?

Overall, the findings of this study support the evolutionary psychology position that males are more jealous of a partner’s sexual infidelity while females are more jealous of a partner’s emotional infidelity, and that this happens both when the infidelity occurs face-to-face or online.  Yet participants in this study reported lower feelings of jealousy, hurt and anger to online infidelity than to conventional infidelity.  So is online infidelity actually infidelity?

References

Atwood, J. D. (2005). Cyber-affairs: “What’s the big deal?” Therapeutic considerations. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy: Innovations in Clinical and Educational Interventions, 4, 117–134.

Becker, D. V., Sagarin, B. J., Guadagno, R. E., Millevoi, A., & Nicastle, L. D. (2004). When the sexes need not differ: Emotional responses to the sexual and emotional aspects of infidelity. Personal Relationships, 11, 529–538.

Buss, D. M., Larsen, R. J., Westen, D., & Semmelroth, J. (1992). Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology, and psychology. Psychological Science, 3, 251–255.

Guadagno, R. E. & Sagarin, B. J. (2010) Sex differences in jealousy: An evolutionary perspective on online infidelity, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10, 2636-2655.

Mileham, B. L. A. (2007) Online infidelity in Internet chat rooms: an ethnographic exploration. Computers in Human Behaviour, 23, 11-31.

Schneider, J. P. (2003) The impact of compulsive cybersex behaviours on the family. Sexual and relationship therapy, 18, 329-354.

Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 870–883.

Whitty, M. T. (2003). Pushing the wrong buttons: Men’s and women’s attitudes toward online and offline infidelity. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 6, 569–579.

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