Americans struggle to define cheating in the digital age
Posted April 17
Editor’s note: This article is part of the Deseret News’ annual Ten Today series, which explores the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.
Online activities, like maintaining an active online dating profile while in a relationship or following an ex on social media, are blurring the lines of fidelity, making it difficult for individuals and couples to decide what counts as cheating, according to a new Deseret News poll on national attitudes about adultery.
Roughly three quarters of Americans agree that having sex or kissing someone other than your partner is always cheating, but they bring less clarity to questions about online and other non-physical activities.
For example, 51 percent say sending flirtatious messages is always cheating, 19 percent say the same about watching pornography without a partner and 16 percent say following an ex on social media is always cheating. But in each of these cases, at least 25 percent of respondents say these activities "sometimes" constitute cheating.
New technologies muddle old assumptions about adultery, creating a gray area that couples can struggle to navigate together, said Katherine Hertlein, a therapist and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies how technology affects family life.
"I'm very surprised when I ask a couple about their definition of infidelity during premarital counseling and they respond, 'What are you talking about? It means physically touching someone else,'" she said. "I tell them they need to wake up. It's 2017!"
The survey also found a deep gender divide on what constitutes adultery, with women more likely than men to define the 11 behaviors on the survey as cheating. The gap was especially large on activities enabled by the internet, such as maintaining an online dating profile, which 70 percent of women but only 55 percent of men say is always cheating.
The Deseret News poll was conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov from March 17-19, 2017. It includes responses from 1,000 U.S. adults and an oversample of 250 Mormons and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent. The survey is a key component to the Deseret News' annual Ten Today project exploring the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.
On the seventh commandment of "Thou shalt not commit adultery," millennials are generally less strict than their elders, according to the poll, though there are some issues on which they are stricter than Generation X. There are also significant differences of opinion among members of different faiths. Evangelicals and Mormons consistently stand out, including on the question of whether going to dinner with someone you are attracted to would be considered cheating — an issue brought into the spotlight last month when Vice President Mike Pence sparked confusion and even outrage in some circles over a 2002 interview in which he said he avoids being alone with women other than his wife to avoid the temptation and appearance of infidelity.
In the absence of shared rules regarding appropriate online behavior, the internet can become a source of tension and conflict in a relationship and a place to escape the responsibility of resolving those conflicts, weakening the bond that a couple shares. The one thing that's clear in a new age of internet-aided (and addled) relationships is that cheating hurts as much as it always has, Hertlein said.
"Whether it’s offline or online, betrayal is betrayal," she said.
Adultery has been an issue in committed relationships since before Moses came down off Mount Sinai with the code of conduct known today as the Ten Commandments. People stray in response to stress, aging, emotional distance and any number of other factors, choosing an exciting new fling over the hard work of maintaining a long relationship, said Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and author.
Affairs can happen when an opportunity to cheat presents itself to someone feeling frustrated or dissatisfied with their life. Co-workers who are both going through a mid-life crisis might start slipping away together at lunchtime, or a stressed-out new dad could welcome a stranger's advances while traveling for business.
In the digital age, opportunities to cheat have multiplied. There are dating apps, anonymous messaging services and social media sites that put old flings on a user's radar every day, noted Michi Fu, a California-based psychologist.
"The reason why internet cheating is so rampant can be explained with the idea of the 'Triple-A Engine.' It’s accessible, especially with a smartphone. It’s super affordable — you don’t need to pay for an app to have an intimate conversation. And you can be anonymous," she said.
Even worse, new technologies put people in touch with temptations that are sometimes hard to recognize as such, creating a gray area in relationship ethics, Hertlein said.
Most adults, regardless of age, gender or religious beliefs, view physical acts of betrayal as adultery. Around 3 in 4 Americans say having regularly sexual relations with someone other than your partner (76 percent) or having a one-night stand with someone other than your partner (73 percent) is always cheating, the new survey reported.
There's much less of a consensus around online activities.
Nearly half of U.S. adults (45 percent) say following an ex on social media is sometimes cheating, compared to 16 percent who say that it's always adultery. Around 1 in 3 Americans believe watching pornography without your partner (28 percent) or sending flirtatious messages to someone who isn't your partner (31 percent) is sometimes a problem.
Confusion about what types of online behaviors constitute cheating can lead people to do things they'll regret, Hertlein said, noting "the internet is seductive in a way."
Physical or emotional affairs that begin online can start with something as innocuous as a Facebook friend request. Someone may want to catch up with a childhood neighbor or see what a serious college boyfriend is up to now.
"It’s normal to be curious about the trajectory of life of the people who matter to you. It’s normal to be nostalgic and remember what went on (in a past relationship) and how it made you feel," Saltz said.
However, these natural impulses become problematic when they distract from a current committed relationship or hurt a romantic partner's feelings, she added.
Jennifer, a 31-year-old nurse in Texas, had been dating her now-husband for a few months when she began to notice some odd phone-related behavior. He hid his phone screen from her when new messages appeared and appeared to be chatting with women he'd known before he got serious with Jennifer.
"He liked the attention," she said.
Jennifer tried to explain that he was hurting her feelings, but he didn't think the messages were a big deal. What was the problem with staying in-touch with old girlfriends? He wasn't going to see them again.
"To me, it was emotional cheating. But he’d say, 'Well, I’m not doing anything,'" Jennifer said.
They aren't alone in fighting about online behaviors, Hertlein said, noting that the internet-related gray area holds serious consequences for couples.
Men and women are inclined to view activities like texting differently because of what they generally see as the core of their relationship, she added. Men are often most responsive to physical interaction, while women are more fulfilled by an emotional connection.
In other words, a woman would likely be more threatened by her husband regularly messaging another woman than her husband would be if the situation were reversed. The new adultery survey reflects this reality.
Nearly 6 in 10 women (59 percent) believe that sending flirtatious messages to someone other than your partner is always cheating, compared to 42 percent of men, a 17 percentage point gap.
Sixty-one percent of women said that being emotionally involved with someone other than your partner is always cheating, compared to 48 percent of men, a 13 percentage point gap.
As the survey illustrates, individual characteristics like gender, age or religion affect how people define cheating.
More conservative religious groups, such as evangelical Christians and Mormons, generally are more concerned about pornography and strip clubs than other Americans. For example, 56 percent of Mormons say watching pornography without your partner is always cheating, compared to 19 percent of all adults, the survey reported.
These differences of opinion may grow out of the messages the members of these groups hear from their faith leaders or, as Hertlein described, a gender-related understanding of intimacy.
Younger Americans may be more comfortable than their older counterparts with sending flirtatious messages to someone who isn't their partner because they grew up with the internet, exchanging Facebook "likes" and emojis with near-strangers. Half of millennials (48 percent) say those flirtatious messages are always cheating, compared to 66 percent of members of the Silent Generation, or Americans who are 72 or older, the survey reported.
Few Americans have been challenged to think seriously about their online activities, so uncertainty about what's appropriate is widespread. People aren't naturally self-reflective when it comes to their digital habits and even scholars have questioned whether internet decisions have bearing on in-person relationships, said Scott Campbell, a communications professor at the University of Michigan.
"One of the fallacies that we're getting away from now, finally, is thinking about the physical and digital worlds as two separate realms of social interactions," he said.
Jennifer's now-husband was likely being honest when he said messages with other women were just a form of entertainment. As Saltz noted, most internet users have checked in on former acquaintances and maybe even daydreamed about what could have been.
But there are more layers to the internet's seductive powers that can trip up even a dedicated partner or spouse, experts said. Online interactions sometimes feel divorced from reality. Sending a suggestive email to a cute co-worker seems less serious than actually flirting with them in person, Campbell said.
"There are a lot of people out there who think they aren’t cheating, because it’s not real. It’s virtual," he said.
And because people can communicate online from anywhere with an internet connection, they may miss the warning signs that they're slipping into adulterous behavior, Saltz said.
"You have the false belief that you’re safe, because you’re just sitting in your chair in your house. Communication seems harmless," she said.
Contrary to these assumptions, the nature of online interaction makes them an unexpected source of temptation that's riskier than in-person small talk, Campbell said.
"When we connect with people electronically, it can enhance the feeling of intimacy," he said. "It strips some of the barriers that cause us to feel uncomfortable disclosing to another person."
There's even a scientific term for this phenomenon: hyperpersonal communication theory. In a lean communication environment, like a chatroom, people share details about their physical location, what the weather's like and the sights and sounds surrounding them in order to help their conversation partner get in sync with them.
"Because of the absence of nonverbals … you end up saying, 'I'm feeling this or that,'" Hertlein said. "You are, without knowing it, making more self-disclosures than you normally would" face-to-face, in an effort to make the person you're communicating with online comfortable.
For a married or partnered person who thinks they are just exchanging friendly emails or texts with someone, these self-disclosures can lead to emotional attachments and maybe even a physical affair, Hertlein said.
"People don’t realize that these disclosures are intimacy. By the time you get a month in," you're in over your head, she said.
Jennifer and her boyfriend's arguments over his online habits came to a head when he was deployed in Afghanistan. She discovered that he'd continued to chat with other women, even asking them if they'd send pictures of themselves in swimsuits.
"I lost my mind," Jennifer said.
First, she broke off communication with him. Then, she agreed to try to make things work. He shared all of his passwords to online services and Jennifer started regularly checking up on his activities.
Reading through his emails and Facebook messages became "like an addiction," damaging their relationship in new and different ways, Jessica said.
"I couldn't stop. You're so paranoid about getting hurt and about losing the person that you love that you can't help yourself," she added.
Even men and women who have no reason to believe that their partner is cheating may sneak a peek at their partner's phone if there's an opportunity, especially if they're worried about friendly texts turning into something more serious, Hertlein said.
"Another thing computers and the internet did is create a new era of surveillance," she said. "Couples now have the ability to … do some digging."
And if they stumble onto an upsetting thread of messages or an unexpected app, it can permanently damage the integrity of the relationship, like hotel receipts or a lipstick stain on a shirt collar would.
Nicole Keffer, like Jennifer, began to feel suspicious about her boyfriend's behavior when he acted nervous about her being too close when a new message arrived.
"I was thinking, 'Who texted that he didn't want me to see?' Something in my gut told me that something was going on," she said.
Their relationship was only a few months old at the time, but they had taken a big leap and traveled to Africa together, where Keffer worked with a nonprofit. She thought his odd behavior could be explained by fatigue or another travel-related stressor, but then she looked through his phone.
"It was crazy. He was having identical conversations with six other women, sending them the same photos and talking to them like he'd talk to me when we were apart," said Keffer, now 41. He'd used the same online dating service they'd met on to continue connecting with more women, telling them that the woman they saw in his Africa pictures was his tour guide.
Keffer decided to keep her cool, since they had another week of the trip left. However, the messages kept popping into her brain and affecting her attitude, and the pair broke up soon after he returned to the United States.
Breaking up isn't inevitable after online infidelity, just as it isn't in the aftermath of traditional forms of adultery, Fu noted.
"It’s similar to traditional modes of cheating. Of course couples can rebound and develop an even more meaningful relationship," she said.
But repairing the damage caused by online cheating may be even more complicated, because the cheater will continue to use the same tools, such as a smartphone and email, that enabled the affair in the first place in his or her everyday life, Hertlein said.
"It’s becoming much more difficult for me, as a therapist, to convince a person who’s been betrayed that nothing is going on," she said.
It's not sustainable to take away someone's internet privileges or conduct online surveillance indefinitely, Fu noted. The couple will have to work together to address their problems and find a way to better navigate the digital age's gray area of infidelity in the future.
"Both parties need to take a good, hard look at what led to (the troubling behavior) in the first place," she said.
The digital age hasn't doomed committed relationships, but it does make the terms of fidelity a little more difficult to negotiate, Saltz said, noting that new technologies "make it so that relationships require a little more vigilance."
Because of this reality, Hertlein suggests that couples adopt a mental test for their internet and phone use.
"Consider whatever information you’re exchanging with someone else," she said. "Could you take a screenshot of it and show it to your partner? If the answer is no, then rethink what you’re doing."
Similarly, Fu highlighted the importance of open and consistent communication with your partner or spouse.
"You need to be thoughtful in terms of defining the problem," she said. "If it erodes trust in a relationship, that's the defining factor" of cheating, she said.
Couples have to work together to find a definition they both agree on, Hertlein said.
"Everyone's (definition) is going to be different. It's up to each couple to communicate," she said.
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