Tara and her husband, Michael (not their real names), recently came to see me after — as she described it — “infidelity.”
He was searching for other women online, she said. Yet Michael claimed that he hadn’t done anything wrong and that he would never cheat on his wife.
When I began asking the couple more questions, it became clear that Michael had not been seeking a new partner. Instead, he’d been Googling some of his exes and looking them up on social media but hadn’t reached out to them.
It’s natural to wonder about past lovers, but the Internet makes it easier to combine a thought or urge with a behavior. And that’s where things can get tricky. While Michael simply viewed his actions as curiosity, Tara saw them as real threats to their marriage.
It’s an argument I often see these days: Partners are in disagreement over what it means to cheat.
In fact, a recent survey commissioned by the Deseret News found that although more than three-quarters of Americans believe that being sexually intimate with another person is cheating, there’s more confusion surrounding other types of contact. For example, only about half view “sexting” as infidelity. So what really does constitute cheating, especially in this digital age?
How do we define cheating?
There’s no doubt that the Internet has provided people with more chances to stray than ever before.
“What counts as cheating has changed because other folks are so accessible,” clinical psychologist and couples therapist Sue Johnson said. “The rules are not as clear, and the opportunities for flirting and various levels of sexual engagement have multiplied.”
So-called digital infidelity also appears to trigger specific moral reactions in some people, according to research by psychologist Dylan Selterman and others.
“People who have concerns about purity and sanctity — such as those with overly religious upbringings — tend to have harsher moral judgments about sexting and other digital acts,” Selterman explained.
Interestingly, the Internet may also offer couples a way to stay loyal to each other — or at least that’s how many people rationalize their use of it.
“I’ve found that many couples use pornography and social media to maintain monogamy, not betray it,” sex and relationship expert Tammy Nelson explained. “Staying monogamous, in their mind, means not sleeping with another person, and being online is a way to find variety and excitement without actually straying in real life.”
Of course, the problem is that both partners need to decide what infidelity means to them and then respect those boundaries.
“The ‘cheater’ shouldn’t be the one who decides what’s kosher and what’s not. To find the answer, look through the eyes of the hurt partner,” clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring said. “If your partner were in the room looking at you and feeling very uncomfortable with what they’re witnessing, you might consider you’re doing something hurtful or something that violates them.”
On the other hand, said psychotherapist Marty Babits of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, “I am wary of falling into the perspective in which one of the two is clearly the victim and the ‘victimized’ on the basis of what they call sexual infidelity. … The term ‘cheating’ often becomes a way in which partners obfuscate their need to work through primary issues related to guilt and shame.”
Is it ever OK to snoop?
While modern technology offers constant opportunities to cheat, it also offers constant and tempting opportunities to check up on your partner.
The biggest issue many couples have, in my experience, doesn’t necessarily involve the behavior itself but the secrecy around it. For instance, research suggests that women whose partners lie about viewing porn are more dissatisfied with their relationships than those whose partners are honest about it. And this dissatisfaction can often lead to the urge to see what the secrecy is all about.
“If people get scared, they will snoop because they can’t bear the anxiety,” Johnson said. “If you have injured your partner and want to mend the bond, it’s in your interest to make it unnecessary for them to snoop, to be transparent and show them you aren’t hiding anything.”
But it’s also important to understand the distinction between secrecy and privacy, sex therapist Michael Aaron explained. “In my mind, privacy refers to things that are important to us as individuals but don’t necessarily affect the relationship, while secrecy is something that affects the other partner, usually in a nonconsensual way,” he explained. “For example, a dream about an ex-girlfriend is something private, and the partner doesn’t need to know, while an affair is secretive, since it affects the partner and the relationship.”
What can couples do?
When it comes to protecting your relationship against infidelity, communication is key. You need to have conversations about how you both define cheating — whether it’s talking to an ex, visiting a strip club, sexting someone or more — and what that would mean for your relationship.
“Talk your partner about what you see as cheating. In areas where there are differences, focus on what would bring the greatest emotional safety and intimacy to the relationship,” therapist Scott R. Woolley advised.
In my experience, when behaviors occur that trigger vulnerabilities and anxieties, it’s important to lean into those moments and treat them as opportunities to discuss, debate and even disagree. Disagreeing and knowing where you each stand in relation to a particular behavior — say, watching porn, or connecting with an ex — allows you to understand your partner’s belief system and hold your partner’s mind in your mind.
That knowledge comes the power of a secure attachment. Too often, we turn away from these difficult moments and opportunities to inter-relate, and from there, it’s a slippery slope to engaging in behaviors in secret, prevaricating when the issue comes up and even lying in order to not make our partners upset. But at this point, the lies and secrecy overshadow the actual behaviors in terms of potential damage.
Join the conversation
Strong relationships consist of strong individual who are allowed to disagree, hold their ground or compromise in some way in the bigger interest of the relationship. Relationships are a constant negotiation between individuality on the one hand and togetherness on the other, but if you don’t have these difficult conversations when they arise, you’re depriving your relationship the opportunity to learn and grow.
In her seminal book on emotional infidelity, “Not Just Friends,” the late psychotherapist Shirley Glass implores readers to “maintain appropriate walls and windows. Keep the windows open at home. Put up privacy walls with others who could threaten your marriage.” That’s sage advice, no matter how you define cheating.