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Why is internet infidelity different?

Published in Online Affairs Practitioners by Dr Naomi Moller (The Open University) on October 20th 2021

Overlap between online and offline affairs

Many of us live our lives at least partly online (texting, emailing, spending time on social media or the internet) which inevitably means that parts of our relationships are conducted online. Therefore, the distinction between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ affairs is becoming increasingly blurry, but it also means that lots of the theory and research about ‘traditional’ infidelity is also relevant to online affairs.

However, there are some factors that that may – in theory at least – make online affairs different and – perhaps - potentially easier to engage in. One example is the ‘online disinhibition effect’ which may help to explain how intense emotional affairs can start online. See our ‘why is it easy to cheat online’ page for more examples.

The distinction between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ affairs is becoming increasingly blurry

What factors might be related to having an online affair?

Researchers have suggested that the following characteristics might make a person more likely to stray online:

  • An inability to take ownership of, and responsibility for, their online behaviour.
  • A tendency to avoid emotional and sexual intimacy in real-world relationships by escaping to the distance, relative anonymity, and control offered by the Internet.
  • An internal conflict which online sexual/emotional behaviours/activities appear to solve. For example, a person who wants to stay in their relationship but who also has a sexual fetish that their partner does not know about, or perhaps does not accept. One solution to manage their conflict might be to keep their ‘real world’ relationship as it is and engage with their fetish through a secret online life.

It is worth noting, however, that there is not enough research (yet) to really know what might predict an online affair, or if the predictors are in any way different to those for traditional face-to-face affairs.

How is the discovery of an online affair potentially different to face-to-face?

Some research has suggested that finding out about an online affair might be distinct from a face-to-face affair in several ways, including:

  • sudden exposure - finding one text or email can quickly lead to a lot more discovery; the suddenness may increase the trauma of the disclosure
  • privacy issues - as internet infidelity typically happens in the shared living space, this may make a partner feel like the home is no longer a safe space
  • the feeling of permanence which may come from infidelity being recorded online (for example long strings of texts or emails), which can make it more difficult to move on and rebuild trust between partners.

As internet infidelity typically happens in the shared living space, this may make a partner feel like the home is no longer a safe space

Does the internet really make affairs easier?

The short answer is that there’s not enough research to know this. We do know that the digital age seems to changing how we communicate and therefore relate to each other. There is also some evidence that British attitudes towards infidelity appear to have hardened recently. For example, a recent survey found that between 1990 and 2012 there was a big rise in the number of men and women who felt that ‘non-exclusivity in marriage’ was ‘always wrong’. In fact, this was up from 45% to 63% for men and from 53% to 70% for women – a combined increase in disapproval ratings of over 17% in just twelve years. So, it might be that we think online affairs are getting more common because we disapprove of them more.

For a counsellor working with anyone impacted by an online affair the real question is perhaps, ‘do you think the internet made the online affair in your relationship easier?’ Knowing more about how the partners in a relationship think about this may build understanding about how the affair happened and – if they want it – how the partners could potentially stop a future online affair.

To see the full list of research references which have informed the content on this page, please see our research references section.

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