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How Partners Flirt (and Cheat) Online

When Facebook “friendship” is courtship.

Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock
Source: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

For people inclined to cheat on their partners, the internet makes it easy. Unlike sites such as Ashley Madison, though, Facebook was not designed to facilitate relational straying. Yet for those so inclined, it can. So when committed partners are also making new acquaintances online, where is the line between Facebook friendship and courtship?

Components of Online Infidelity

Internet infidelity involves the same two components as traditional infidelity—emotional and sexual.[i] A study by Cravens and Whiting (2014) indicated that the online behaviors most likely to be viewed as cheating are online sex, online dating, other online sexual behavior, and emotional involvement.[ii] Of the four scenarios, 60 to 82 percent of survey participants rated online emotional behavior as more harmful than online sexual behavior.

Although Facebook was not created to promote online infidelity, Cravens and Whiting report that an increasing number of divorces cite Facebook use as a factor contributing to the termination of the marriage. Yet there is widespread disagreement as to what is considered “cheating” with respect to Facebook use.

Should You Be Concerned About Who Your Partner “Likes”?

Facebook facilitates a wide range of methods of communication and expression, many of which create relational problems. Cravens and Whiting note that, consequently, modern couples face the challenge of deciding what types of Facebook behavior are inappropriate. They note that problematic behaviors include friending past flames, commenting on or communicating with attractive users, and failing to display the appropriate relationship status. They report a sad statistic that many people know from personal experience arouses suspicion: Some users refuse to accept a friend request from their partners.

Cravens and Whiting report that unlike more impersonal sites used to correspond with people around the world, Facebook is routinely used to interact with people we know offline. They recognize the significance of this reality, noting that partners are more disturbed by online interaction that is likely to continue in the real world.

Cravens and Whiting also report that a common denominator characterizing suspicious Facebook behavior is secrecy—from private messages to fake profiles, Facebook facilitates relationship development under the radar.

Two risk factors gleaned through such research therefore appear to be offline connection and secrecy, which is relevant because other research notes that while one component of online infidelity is sexual excitement, the other is secrecy.[iii]

Facebook Is Used to Satisfy Emotional Needs

Another risk factor that could make Facebook users susceptible to online infidelity is the ease with which Facebook creates emotional involvement—one of the reasons people use the site in the first place.

Nelson and Salawu (2017) note that Facebook facilitates online emotional involvement through media dependency theory—in which a social media platform facilitates self-disclosure and emotional infidelity.[iv] Their research reveals that even a significant number of married people use Facebook to satisfy emotional needs.

They explain that high levels of self-disclosure through Facebook wall posting creates the opportunity for other users to come forward and demonstrate understanding and care during times of need. Not surprisingly, they note that such behavior may create emotional distance between married partners.

Public Display of Online Affection

Straying partners often embarrass their partners with flirtatious public behavior. This dynamic operates online as well, where attention showered on romantic alternatives is put on display for all “friends” to see.

Cravens and Whiting note that individuals may be embarrassed by partners who appear to be publicly pursuing relational alternatives on Facebook, by commenting on photos or by the material they post on their wall. They note that other adverse consequences of extra-relational behavior on Facebook include blocking or unfriending, invasion-of-privacy allegations, contacting third parties who are the target of affection, and posting unflattering information on the offending partner´s wall.

Some cases of Facebook courtship land on my desk when online relational pursuit crosses the line from inappropriate to illegal, and the target of affection becomes a victim in criminal court. I have handled Facebook stalking cases that began with positive comments on posts and “liking” photographs, only to escalate to literally hundreds of unwanted Facebook messages a day. Friends, fans, and followers can become cyber stalkers.

Positive Use of Facebook in Relationships

And now, some good news: Facebook can also be used to strengthen existing relationships. Nelson and Salawu note that married couples can use Facebook to enhance communication with each other, which reduces emotional distance.

When committed couples use Facebook to enhance their offline relationship, instead of as a vehicle to build new relationships with relational alternatives, it can be a healthy mode of supplementary communication. Healthy Facebook use between partners builds bridges, not boundaries, and facilitates online socializing as a couple.

Wendy Patrick, JD, Ph.D., is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

Find her at or @WendyPatrickPhD


[i] Katherine M. Hertlein and Fred P. Piercy, ”Essential Elements of Internet Infidelity Treatment,” Journal of Marital & Family Therapy 38, no. 1 (2012): 257-270 (257).

[ii] Jaclyn D. Cravens and Jason B. Whiting, ”Clinical Implications of Internet Infidelity: Where Facebook Fits In,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 42 (2014): 325-339 (329) (citing Henline, Lamke, & Howard, 2007).

[iii] Andreas Vossler, ”Internet Infidelity 10 years On: A Critical Review of the Literature,” The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families 24, no. 4 (2016): 359-366 (360) (citing Hertlein & Piercy, 2006)).

[iv] Okorie Nelson & Abiodun Salawu, “Can my Wife be Virtual-Adulterous? An Experiential Study on Facebook, Emotional Infidelity and Self-Disclosure,” Journal of International Women's Studies 18 no. 2(2017): 166-179.

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