In my years as a clinical psychologist and advice columnist, I have seen firsthand that infidelity has many forms, from sex outside of an established relationship to hiding a secret bank account. With the advent of social media, though, a new kind of cheating has emerged—digital flirtation and intimacy that violate the bounds of a marriage or commitment. In fact, some recent research suggests not only that active Facebook and Twitter users are at heightened risk for relationship conflict because of their social media use, but that this activity significantly correlates with a heightened risk of infidelity and divorce.
Mild, in-person flirtation is often fleeting and superficial, but when communication extends to social media, texts, and email, your partner becomes available 24/7 for temptation and increased emotional connection. "Is he cheating on me?" you may wonder. But the question might not be as black-or-white as you think.
Whether someone's actually having sex outside of the relationship or not, here are six signs that a partner's online activity is threatening to your relationship. (I use the "he" pronoun here, but of course, infidelity crosses gender and sexual orientation.)
- He is often lost in thought within his texting conversations and never shares what they're about. Compulsive smartphone use can be a constant source of friction within romantic relationships, as one partner feels cut off from the person who is more engaged with a device than with the in-person conversation they're supposed to be having. When your partner is chuckling or otherwise responding emotionally to his device, yet not making any effort to let you in on what's going on in his mind at the moment, it creates a thick wall between you. No, you shouldn't expect anyone to be an open book about every single thing they're doing online—boundaries, and a certain amount of privacy, have an important place in any healthy relationship. But if his digital conversations are frequently taking him away from being present with you, and he makes no effort to bridge that gap, then his attentions, and priorities, may well lie elsewhere.
- He gets texts at all hours, including late at night. Twenty years ago, if a friend or coworker called your partner at 11 p.m. while the two of you were winding down for bed, you'd probably have been taken aback. But smartphones have changed all that, and it's gradually grown more acceptable to text someone—and even to expect a response–long into traditionally intimate, late-night hours. A wayward text from friends late at night is not necessarily a cause for concern, and some couples actually choose to wind down on their devices, side-by-side. But when his online conversations start regularly making their unwanted way into your bedroom late at night, whether by his initiation or the other person's, then you may already be playing second fiddle to another relationship.
- You've awakened to see him on Facebook or on his phone, but he's quick to put it away when he sees you. With more and more people sleeping with their smartphones—which evidence shows does not exactly foster healthy sleep patterns—the likelihood of someone having private online communiqués grows as well. It's one thing for him to be idly surfing Facebook at 3 a.m.—but if he's trying desperately to hide it from you when you happen to wake up, you have to wonder why.
- He is very physically possessive of his phone or iPad. People who are behaving inappropriately and trying to hide it often have a heightened vigilance against getting caught, and you can see this in their automatic physical behavior. If he seems to be almost compulsive in protecting his phone, closing browser windows, or shielding you from even glimpsing any of his communication, chances are high that he's desperate to keep you from seeing it—probably for a reason. This might show in an increased startle response or irritability if you idly pick up his phone for innocent reasons.
- You see people commenting on his Facebook wall and sharing inside jokes, and you have no idea who they are. Many people can't even recognize all of their own Facebook friends, let alone their partner's. We all may have coworkers, friends of friends, and random people from our middle-school debate team on our friend list that our partner wouldn't be able to pick out of a lineup. But if someone is all over your partner's wall, and seems to show a level of intimacy and humor with him that you're not privy to, the fact that he has not talked about this person could be a sign that there's really something to hide.
- He gets defensive about how much time he spends on his phone, or even tries to accuse you of bad behavior. If your partner is doing something he knows he shouldn't, he may go on the offensive first, or stockpile his defenses in a desperate bid to fend off your noticing it. Maybe he won't even entertain a single discussion about how much time he spends on his phone, or is quick to pick apart your online habits. Why would he be so wound up about it? It could be a sign he's protecting against something he already knows, but doesn't want you to.
Wondering how to deal with the aftermath of infidelity? You're not alone. Here's where to start.
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Copyright Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.