As our lives have moved increasingly into the virtual/digital arena, the once-clear line between sexual fidelity and cheating has, in many instances, gone blurry. Consider, for example, the following:
- Is chatting with a former lover on social media sites a form of cheating?
- Is chatting with strangers on those same sites a form of cheating?
- What if you’re chatting with people on hookup apps but not actually meeting them in person?
- Does sexting with a person other than your mate qualify as sexual infidelity?
- Does viewing digital pornography qualify as cheating, and does it matter if there is masturbation in conjunction with that porn use?
- Does it matter how much porn you’re looking at, or how often you’re viewing it, or if your partner knows about it?
- What about engaging in mutual masturbation via webcam with someone who lives thousands of miles away?
- Is webcam sex with a neighbor worse than webcam sex with a total stranger?
- Is playing the video game Grand Theft Auto, which now offers “realistic sex with prostitutes” as part of the action, a form of cheating?
Essentially, in today’s increasingly digital world the question that begs to be answered is this: Is live, in-person contact required for sexual infidelity, or does digital sexual activity count equally?
A few years ago, in an attempt to answer this question, Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Dr. Charles Samenow, and I conducted a survey of people whose partners were engaging in significant amounts of extramarital sexual activity, either online or real-world. Probably the most important finding of our study was this: When it comes to the negative effects of one partner having sex outside a supposedly monogamous relationship, tech-based and in-the-flesh sexuality are no different. The lying, the emotional distancing, and the pain of learning about the betrayal all feel exactly the same to the cheated-on partner.
The results of this study confirm in many ways what I’ve stated for many years—that it’s not any specific sexual or romantic act that does the most damage to the betrayed partner and the relationship. Instead, it’s the constant lying, the keeping of secrets, the emotional distancing, and the loss of relationship trust. In fact, for most betrayed partners the emotional betrayal associated with infidelity is nearly always more painful and longer-lasting than the physical betrayal.
Based on the aforementioned study plus more than 25 years of clinical experience, I have created the following digital-age definition of infidelity:
Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.
One of the reasons I like this definition is it encompasses both online and real world sexual activity. Moreover, the definition is flexible depending on the couple. In other words, it lets two people define their own personalized version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision making. This means that it may be just fine for one partner to look at porn or to engage in some other form of extramarital sexual activity, so long as the other partner knows about this behavior and is OK with it. On the other hand, if one partner is looking at porn (or whatever) and keeping this a secret, or that person’s partner knows about it but doesn’t find this behavior acceptable within the mutually agreed upon boundaries of their relationship, the behavior is cheating. Whether in-person or online, infidelity is less about the specific behaviors that a cheater engages in, and more about the lies that are told and the secrets that are kept.