Defining what’s cheating and what isn’t, even offline, is a difficult task; it has different meanings depending on who you ask. When behaviours that could be seen as cheating happen online, the matter becomes a little more complicated. It’s common to see what happens online as separate from what happens in the “real world” but online behaviours can have very real consequences.
The perfect partner
The internet is accessible, affordable and can provide an illusion of privacy; there’s a sense that you can be anyone that you want to be online. It also seems to allow people to form relationships that are exciting and interesting without the boring or annoying parts of offline relationships. To some extent, this also happens in traditional affairs.
Romantic relationships formed outside of a ‘main relationship’ may have a degree of fantasy associated with them, which can be highlighted when the relationship happens mostly online. It may be easier to remove yourself from it if there’s no physical touching involved, for example, or if the relationship is mainly text-based. It might feel like you have the perfect partner; someone who’s there for you in ways you appreciate and in ways you can control more easily. But if there’s been no discussion with your partner about whether they’re comfortable with you having this kind of online relationship with someone else, you could be at risk of hurting them - even if the relationship is only online and you don’t have the intention of taking it further.
Real world experiences
Studies show that people who have discovered their partner has had a relationship online have similar emotional experiences as people whose partner has cheated offline. Their stories reveal that they felt hurt, shocked and angry, which can lead to thinking about whether to continue the relationship or not. Online affairs have also been shown to have similar effects as offline cheating on relationships and families; for example, people separating after the affair has been discovered.
Privacy and safety
Online affairs can blur the boundaries between private and public spaces; not only is your partner cheating but it’s happening in your home. This could add to the feelings of distress a partner experiences.
There are also safety issues in cases where the affair happens with a stranger; how do you who are you really talking to? Are they recording you? Can you trust the person on the other side of the screen? These questions are probably best considered by both partners, especially since online safety applies to many other aspects of our lives.
The bottom line
In terms of impact at least, there seems to be very little difference between what’s considered cheating online and offline. Ultimately, it’s yours and your partner's opinion that matters most when deciding whether a particular online behaviour is acceptable or not. As with offline cheating, there is a need to define what cheating means within the context of your relationship, so have the conversation with your partner. Every couple is unique and what works for you will be different from others. You might also want to read our ‘how we can talk about what’s OK online’ page.
To see the full list of research references which have informed the content on this page, please see our research references section.
Page authored by Yessica Apolo (Marriage Care)
Picture credit: Thomas Lefebvre