Zack Carter Ph.D.

Clear Communication

Marriage

Internet Infidelity: Today's Blind-Spot Threat to Marriage

A growing body of research suggests texting opposite sex can hurt a marriage.

Posted Jun 01, 2017

vchal/Shutterstock
Source: vchal/Shutterstock

I enjoy a good challenge, when it comes to downhill skiing. As young boys, my brother and I would find it thrilling to participate in what is known as “tree-skiing”: carefully skirting through the trees that lined the runs, trying our best not to catch the tips of our skis on the trunks, which we inevitably would from time to time, forcing us to face-plant into the snow. The path through the trees, created by skiers before us, looked inviting. Smooth ski-tracks indicated success, when in reality they provided a false sense of security; this illusion of safety was quickly realized as we raced past each tree, attempting to dodge these immovable obstacles.

Many married people today are viewing text messaging and social media direct messages with a similar sense of false security that encourages many to participate in emotional and sexual conversations with co-workers, neighbors, former partners, and even strangers.

Even more concerning, they don’t find an issue with text message or social media infidelity.

Instant connectivity with anyone is tempting many with a frequency and availability that has never been present before. Married couples have always struggled with temptation through communication with the opposite sex, but today's accessibility presents its own challenges.

Much of my research focuses on marriage fidelity communication. I seek to examine verbal and nonverbal communication with those in the opposite sex, other than a spouse, both face-to-face and online. I particularly focus on communication deemed inappropriate or counter to the productivity, stability, and overall success of a relationship.

Of all the marriages I have examined regarding text communication with someone other than a spouse, one consistent theme is the sense of false security that exists when a married man or woman communicates through text with the opposite sex. In this false sense of security, there is greater willingness to divulge personal and vulnerable information to someone of the opposite sex through texts or through social media that otherwise would not be revealed.

There are a few reasons for this.

There’s a sense that text on a screen outside a marriage does not hold the same kind of consequences that having sex outside a marriage would. Many argue, “These are just words on a screen, and will not impact my relationship.”

There is an illusion that everything digital is just that — an illusion — and that there are no “real-world” consequences for living and communicating online.

Second, there is a sense of personal justification: “My wife isn’t giving me what I need sexually, so talking sexually on Facebook with my co-worker satisfies that for me.”

Often the “grass-is-greener” theory enters stage right: Words and images on someone’s social media account might communicate a more desirable life to someone whose own life might not look like the images on the screen — or their real life might not “read” like the text messages they send.

Third, there’s often a social justification for actions: “Everyone I know, including my sister and best friend, texts with the opposite sex, and their marriages seem to be just fine.”

Divorce courts provide raw evidence of Facebook’s impact on marital relationships: In many counties as many as 75 percent of divorce cases report the words “Facebook” and "opposite sex" in the proceedings. What is documented is that trivial and mundane topics that were discussed when a conversation began on Facebook quickly transitioned to marital woes and hardships, and then were taken even further: Emotional confiding steadily occurred; dissatisfaction with spouses was a prime topic; and eventually, the conversations included sexual dialogue — discussing what they wished their spouse would do, and what they’d allow the other to do with them in a hypothetical situation.

Marriages devastated by this behavior, particularly those that ended in divorce, did so because of the instigator’s desire to leave their spouse. In most cases, the spouse who first communicated with someone of the opposite sex became so emotionally detached from their relationship because of the connection they developed through text that they could never recover their original feelings for their spouse.

Incorporating some practical guidelines might help you avoid sliding down this slippery slope:

1. Establish guidelines.

It is impossible to monitor every nuanced message sent between people, thus I recommend heeding caution when it comes to one-on-one texting. If you receive a text message from the opposite sex — like a co-worker — pick up the phone and call them. This will make clear your preference to communicate directly. Look at texting as a private room with the door closed and locked. Would you find yourself in a locked room with someone who could be tempting on a daily basis? Our desire for emotional and sexual connection is innate; it is important to safeguard your own desires. For more specific recommended guidelines for you and your spouse's social media usage, please check out my article titled, Facebook Infidelity: 10 Safeguards Your Marriage Needs Today.

2. Avoid pitfalls.

Avoid social media “friending” or “following” people you once dated, were once interested in (or vice versa), or who might be a temptation. This requires you to have an honest conversation with yourself.

If you are already in a social media friendship with such a person, consider unfollowing them. Taking preventive steps to protect your relationship should take  precedence. You may have excellent self-control, but the goal for marriage isn't to see how close to the edge of the extramarital cliff you can go without falling. Placing safeguards on your social media habits will help safeguard your relationship more thoroughly.

Have an ongoing conversation with your spouse regarding communication with the opposite sex on social media, and consider combining your accounts with your spouse’s. This encourages an atmosphere of complete transparency and discourages walking too close to the cliff of temptation with a private account.

3. Check your heart.

Be aware that you can emotionally detach yourself from your marital relationship before even having a conversation with the opposite sex. It can happen simply by perusing someone’s Instagram photographs to meet your visual fantasy desires (often encouraging one-on-one private text messaging). Unfortunately, many people use Instagram to post pictures that rival pornography. Research suggests that viewing such photos can potentially lead to marital emotional and/or sexual detachment. If you struggle visually, consider deleting social media that has a heightened focus on communicating through pictures.

It is important to recognize the potentially damaging implications to marriages that communicating through social and digital media can bring. The same way snow tracks indicated a false sense of security to my brother and I as we considered whether to ski through the trees, eventually ending in a face-plant, texting and social media need to be viewed with caution and intentional navigation.

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For more articles written by Zack Carter, Ph.D., regarding how to steward well your communication in an effort to improve your self and your relationships, please check out his Psychology Today blog column by clicking the link below:

Clear Communication: Avoiding Blindspots in Your Words and Actions:

Clear Communication deals with the day-to-day blind-spots in communication. Blind spots in communication are defined as those thoughts, words, or actions you may or may not be cognizant of as you live day-to-day, but often times can negatively affect you and others in the long run. Want to know how to avoid communication blind spots in your personal and relational development? By raising your awareness of these blind spots, in both every day and in social and digital media settings, you can potentially elude relationship heartache and devastation. Achieving relationship success in this 21st-century environment requires healthy, consistent communication stewardship. This blog will help you learn about how to apply social psychology in your personal and relational settings to avoid these blind-sided communication moments. My goal is to educate my readers on how strategy and intentional communication behaviors are necessary to the development and management of your self, and your relationships. 

References

Blais-Lecours, S., Vaillancourt-Morel, M. P., Sabourin, S., Godbout, N. (2016). Cyberpornography: Time use, perceived addiction, sexual functioning, and sexual satisfaction. ​Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19 (11), 649-655.

Carter, Z. A. (2016). Married and previously married men and women’s perceptions of communication on facebook with the opposite sex: How communicating through facebook can be damaging to marriages. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 57, 36-55.

Clayton, R. B., Nagurney, A., & Smith, J. R. (2013). Cheating, breakup, and divorce: Is Facebook use to blame? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16, 717-720.