Cheating? But It Was Just a Webcam!

How do you define relationship infidelity?

Posted Oct 20, 2016

Source: Stokkete/Shutterstock

In the 21st century, with our increasingly digital lives, the once-clear line between monogamy and sexual or romantic infidelity has become rather blurry. As a psychotherapist specializing in sex and intimacy issues, I regularly see couples in conflict about what does and does not constitute cheating. One partner has done something he or she thinks is perfectly normal and within the bounds of marital bliss, but the other partner feels deeply betrayed by the act, which results in profound emotional pain, sporadic rancor—sometimes simmering, sometimes explosive—and the loss of relationship trust and emotional intimacy. And until fidelity and relationship boundaries are adequately defined, the couple’s issues have no chance to abate.

Consider these examples:

  • James has been chatting with numerous women on hookup apps and occasionally on FaceTime as well. Once in awhile he exchanges sexts or engages in mutual masturbation via webcam with these women. When his wife finds out about this behavior she accuses him of cheating and threatens divorce if he does not stop immediately. James can’t understand why she is so angry. He says, “I’ve never hooked up with any of these women, and I never will. It’s just a game that I play when I’m bored.”
  • Ella has been chatting with a former boyfriend—her high-school sweetheart with whom she was deeply in love—on Facebook and Instagram. Her husband is angry about this and wants her to stop. Ella insists that nothing is going on, that all she’s doing is chatting with an old friend. She says, “You don’t get upset when I talk to any of my other friends, so you shouldn’t care about this, either.”
  • Michael has been looking at porn and playing virtual sex games online several nights a week for a year or more, telling his wife that he’s simply gaming with friends. Then, a few weeks ago, she walked in on him while he was masturbating to porn, and a quick check of his browser history revealed what he meant by “gaming.” Now she is depressed and feels betrayed, and Michael can’t understand why. He says, “Every guy uses porn. What’s the big deal?”
  • Alicia spends a great deal of time chatting online with a male business associate she met at a conference. At first, they just exchanged a few bits of work-related information and jokes. Over time, however, as their friendship blossomed, they started sharing intimate details about their marriages, including their relationship problems. Sometimes they talk about how much better both of their lives would be if they were married to each other. Alicia’s husband, after stumbling across several of these online exchanges, accused her of having an affair. Alicia says, “Nothing has happened. It’s just a fantasy.”

None of these individuals has had an in-the-flesh sexual encounter outside of their primary relationship, and yet all four have been accused of infidelity by their spouse. These scenarios beg the question: Is in-person contact required for infidelity, or does online activity count as a betrayal?

A few years ago, in an attempt to answer this question, Jennifer Schneider, Charles Samenow, and I conducted a survey of women whose husbands were engaging in significant amounts of extramarital sexual activity, either online or in the real world. Our research found that when it comes to the negative impact of sex and romance outside the bounds of a supposedly monogamous relationship, tech-based, and real-world interactions are no different: The emotional pain, the sense of betrayal, and the loss of relationship trust feel exactly the same to the aggrieved partner.

Based on the results of this study—and more than 25 years of clinical experience—I have concluded that it’s not the specifics of a sexual or romantic act that cause the most pain and do the most damage to a romantic relationship, it’s the lying, the emotional distancing, the loss of intimacy, and the disintegration of trust. As such, I have developed a definition of cheating for the digital age that might help couples clarify what is and is not acceptable within the bounds of their relationship:

Infidelity is the breaking of trust that occurs when intimate secrets are kept from a primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition does not directly refer to affairs, pornography, strip clubs, hookup apps, sexting, webcams, flirting, chatting, fantasizing, or any other specific sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to you, your partner, and your relationship—the emotional distancing, the sense of intimate betrayal, and the loss of trust.

What I like most about this definition is that it applies equally to online and real-world behavior. Moreover, it is flexible depending on the relationship; it lets couples define their own version of fidelity based on what is important to them, as determined through honest, nonjudgmental discussions and mutual decision making. For some couples, behaviors like looking at porn or flirting on Facebook might be perfectly OK, so long as the couple has agreed that the behavior fits within the boundaries of their relationship and secrets are not being kept.

Infidelity is not defined by a specific behavior; it is defined by the secrets that are kept, the lies that are told, and the damage that is done to emotional intimacy and relationship trust. The strongest and happiest relationships are built on trust. When that trust is broken, one partner feels betrayed, used, and taken advantage of. To a betrayed spouse, the emotional pain associated with the loss of trust hurts far more, and the pain lasts far longer than the hurt caused by any specific sexual or romantic act. And it is only as trust is slowly restored that the betrayed partner and the relationship start to heal.

I will write about the process of healing from the betrayal of infidelity in future postings here. You can also check out my book, Out of the Doghouse.