Online Cheating is the New Elephant in the Room
A client recently asked me what constitutes infidelity. He thought his spouse had overreacted when she discovered he spent hours watching porn online and engaging in cybersex. Is it online cheating infidelity? Is porn the same as a marital affair?
Infidelity has never before been easier – and never more difficult to define. This client had, perhaps, a more traditional definition of infidelity than his wife: a conventional marital affair with physical, sexual contact with someone other than his partner.
But in the days of Tinder, which shows us all the attractions outside our relationships, and SnapChat and WhatsApp, which allow us constant, private contact with others, infidelity has become more complicated. It’s no longer a specific act; sexting, cybersex, emotional but virtual intimacy, and using the Internet to meet sexual partners and arrange physical affairs can all constitute online cheating.
The threads that tie these very different acts together, however, is the Internet/technology, secrecy, the anger and betrayal a partner would feel upon discovering such activities — and, increasingly, intent.
Intent is a big part of online cheating. In the instance of my client, it’s easy to see why his wife became upset – her spouse engaged in sexual acts, even if they were not physical. But what about the wife who has a Tinder account but never meets anyone in person? What about the husband who has a Shaadi.com account to explore what could have been? What about the partner who receives an unsolicited sext from an acquaintance?
Cases like these lie in a gray area, but can be just as hurtful. In many relationships, partners have different notions of what constitutes adultery – only discovering this after the fact, when one feels betrayed. A client who found out his wife had an account on Tinder told me the potential bothered him as much as any act could; it was just a matter of swiping right, he said, and she could set up a date.
Online infidelity – whether an unused dating profile or an affair that moves into the physical realm — is attractive for many reasons. Convenience is typically a factor in any kind of infidelity, and few things are more convenient than a smartphone or Wifi connection. Combined, these things allow people to engage socially, emotionally and physically entirely on their own time.
They can also engage on their own terms. Many men and women feel the Internet allows them to present a side of themselves very different from the persona they put forth in the real world. It becomes sexually liberating, even empowering. People who are socially shy or awkward may feel more comfortable flirting or sharing explicit pictures without being face-to-face.
Others may find the Internet a space where they don’t feel judged for their personalities or predilections. The anonymity of the Internet allows them to be comfortable in their vulnerability and lowered inhibitions. Anonymity can also feel like protection from the familial and societal fall-out of physical affairs.
In India, all of these factors can be very appealing, and online cheating is “the new elephant in the room” (a term first used by Jennifer Schneider to describe cybersex only) — and until an open dialogue about sex and sexuality is common, the elephant won’t go away.
We are very closeted when it comes to speaking about sexual desires and longing, even within a marriage or a relationship. People seldom discuss their fantasies, needs or even expectations openly with their partners. This is particularly true for women, for whom expressing sexual need is a cultural taboo. Internet infidelity can allow people to express and fulfill these needs while still preserving the image expected of them.
While the Internet has exponentially increased the ways in which we can hurt each other, it has also brought us closer together. (Skype and FaceTime have saved many relationships.) So, instead of fearing our partners’ Internet activities, let’s take the opportunity to open a dialogue about unmet needs and desires. Relationships are built on a foundation of shared values; reaffirm yours together — discuss appropriate boundaries, acceptable activities, and anxieties.
Blaming or fearing an Internet connection or data package for betrayal is externalizing the problem. Rather, seek a joint definition of what exclusivity, loyalty and fidelity mean for you and your partner.