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Cheating in the Digital Age

Misconceptions and recommendations for couples regarding cyber-infidelity.

Key points

  • It's often unclear what is "cheating" in a cyber-relationship, but if the relationship must be kept secret, a line has likely been crossed.
  • Just because an affair is emotional and doesn't involve physical sex, it doesn't mean a trust bond hasn't been broken.
  • Couples can recover from cyber-affairs once trust is re-established and new ground rules set.

The digital revolution of the past 25 years has brought us countless new ways to communicate, but with them have come myriad ways to be unfaithful to our romantic partners. This relatively new ability—to instantaneously communicate visual, intimate, and sexual expressions across any distance—has made it difficult to determine when a partner's actions have crossed the line into infidelity. To get more clarity, I spoke with a colleague, Dr. Peter Kanaris—a couples' therapist and expert in sexual functioning—about a recent article in which he discussed the struggles and common misconceptions around cyber infidelity.

 Courtesy of John G. Cottone and Peter Kanaris
Source: Courtesy of John G. Cottone and Peter Kanaris

JGC: Dr. Kanaris, what are some of the relationship traps that people fall into involving their digital communications?

PK: Many people fall into the trap of believing that cyber affairs are not "cheating" because these affairs are emotional, not physical, or because there is no "in-person" sex being had. But this is a rationalization that attempts to minimize the offense and evade responsibility. The intimacy of a relationship is made up of more than sex. Closeness, sharing personal feelings, and maintaining a relationship in secret need not involve sexual relations to break the bond of trust in the primary relationship. Understandably, the line is blurry in terms of what constitutes cyber-infidelity, and while there are no hard and fast rules on this, the main indication that I use in my practice to signify that a line has been crossed is if the cyber relationship (on any platform) has been kept a secret from one’s primary partner.

JGC: What are some of the most common misconceptions that people have about cyber-infidelity?

PK: There are several I discuss in my article, but I will focus on three here:

  1. That it only occurs in a bad marriage or relationship: While it is true that in some instances cyber-infidelity is a result of a problem in a relationship or within an individual, it is often the case that it occurs in a good and fully functioning relationship. The intrusive and sometimes insidious nature of our technologies from the smartphone to social media can create a crisis in a relationship where otherwise none would exist.
  2. It is impossible to overcome the trauma that results from cyber-infidelity: There is no doubt that cyber-infidelity and overcoming its trauma can be a daunting task. There is also trauma, however, to end a relationship or marriage. So much is on the line. Feelings, finances, family, and friendships can be profoundly affected. Many people choose to take the challenge of working to save their relationships. With the right help, that is exactly what people are successfully doing. Incredibly, the process of recovery from cyber-infidelity often becomes an unwanted opportunity that leads to an improved relationship.
  3. It was only an emotional affair. It's not infidelity: Because cyberaffairs may not involve skin-to-skin touch, the offender will often use a self-serving rationalization that the emotional involvement with the cyber-partner does not constitute infidelity. It is common that there are efforts to minimize the behavior and make it “no big deal.“ This fails to realize and acknowledge the profound ethical violation that has been committed within the primary love relationship. The dishonesty and secrecy that typically accompanies the cyber-affair are clear signs of bad behavior. The intimacy that is established with the cyber-partner(s) is an understandable threat to the primary love partner or spouse. The proper treatment for cyber-infidelity helps the offending spouse to take responsibility and for the hard truths to be addressed.

JGC: In the '70s and '80s when you were starting your career, there were few personal computers and no smartphones. What led you to eventually specialize in digital infidelity?

PK: I sometimes joke that my career as a psychologist and sex therapist spans two centuries. I spent roughly the last two decades of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st century doing this work. So many couples that I encountered in treatment for sexual problems or relationship problems were affected by the issue of infidelity. In the last century before the development of our current technologies, therapeutic work focused primarily on determining what problems of the individual or of the relationship contributed to the infidelity. While these things are still relevant, it became apparent to me that the elephant in the room was the influence of technology as a major contributing factor to infidelity. Our 20th-century models of treatment were inadequate to address infidelity in the digital age. Thus, this became the basis for me to develop a new model of treatment for infidelity or cyber-infidelity where the role of technology in the initiation and maintenance of the affair is addressed.

JGC: Are there couples for whom digital infidelity is a way for them to try out a nontraditional relationship, like polyamory or an open marriage? Or even a different sexual orientation or gender identity? Is digital infidelity a safer way to test the waters in these cases?

PK: Erotic growth and erotic incompatibilities are often at the heart of cyber-infidelity. As your question implies, the Internet commonly becomes the portal toward such exploration. The survival of the relationship often depends on whether the relationship can move with this new interest and find mutually agreeable ways to accommodate it. Sometimes you’ll find a partner with an unexpressed kink or desire for participation in a different sexual orientation or gender. The threat that this might pose to a traditional relationship is often the reason for the individual to take it underground (or online), if you will. Invariably there is a shocking and upsetting discovery. The relational bomb goes off and after the smoke clears the work begins to discover if the relationship can survive and move forward in a different way.

JGC: For couples in traditional relationships, how do you help them to come back from digital infidelity?

PK: We usually begin with an acknowledgment of the violation of their relational agreement and any related boundary violations, be they sexual or emotional. I then facilitate the formation of the treatment team that emphasizes collaboration and cooperation while working toward overcoming the effects of the infidelity. This usually requires some trauma work notably with the betrayed partner, but sometimes even with the unfaithful partner. Addressing broken trust is a major part of the work. I help couples realize that their historic blind-faith approach to trust is no longer viable. I teach and facilitate what I refer to as an evidence-based model of trust as a way forward. New understandings and ongoing communication regarding the successful use of technology while maintaining relational boundary integrity are developed. Finally, ways of fostering closeness, good intimate communication, and relational strength are emphasized.

While it’s a lot more complicated than what I have mentioned, and each case is different, I am so pleased to have seen that couples and relationships can recover from infidelity in the digital age. They can even thrive together in ways beyond those that they experienced before.

References

For more information on cyber-infidelity and relationship therapy, check out Dr. Kanaris's Web site, which offers helpful tools and resources.

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