Is online infidelity as bad as real-life cheating? We explore cyber infidelity


Your book is about cyber infidelity. To your mind, what constitutes cyber infidelity?

Cyber Infidelity (CI) occurs between 2 or more people who are synchronously connecting  online. Both of these people are in relationships in which they follow the traditional vows of commitment, sexual fidelity and monogamy and they keep these online interactions secret from their partner.

They know that if their partner were to discover these online interactions they would feel betrayed, hence the secrecy. These interactions may remain online always or the participants could meet up in real life (IRL).

Due to the fact that they are mostly online, people deny infidelity saying ”It's not like I’m having sex or anything”, since we traditionally used to associate infidelity with in real-life sexual contact.

What we now know is  that these online emotional and sexual connections feel as real, if not more real than in real life relationships and thus when discovered cause enormous pain to a partner.  

How do you think social media has changed human relationships?

Social media has allowed us to discover facets of ourselves that were previously unknown. IRL we are used to communicating verbally and with body language. We are used to watching out for cues that help us “know” a person - physical, aural, smell, facial expressions.

Online none of those cues are available, so we have to rely on words, emoticons  and photos. This creates a new form of communication as we are forced to use more descriptive language to express emotions and thoughts if we want to be understood.

This is helpful for people who struggle to be expressive face to face. However, it is also a cop out as people tend to revert to this to manage conflict or difficult conversations.  

What it does do however is allow much more personal disclosure and sexual freedom especially for women who are now in an unregulated space online due to the feeling of safety, intimacy and privacy one feels one has on one’s mobile, and due to the immediacy of the chats, something called “hyper personal” intimacy develops.

Which is why discovering your partner chatting online feels so devastating – you discover written words that he/she has never spoken to you, sexual activities and fantasies not shared with you and that’s besides the pain of discovering explicit selfies. 

Social media forces couples to have conversations that they have not had before – discussions around privacy versus secrecy around their devices. Definitions of CI must be determined by each one – for example, if I like an ex’s post on Facebook, is that cheating? If I follow someone on Instagram is that cheating?

Social media has got us to question our traditional values of monogamy, commitment and sexual fidelity… and that’s a really confusing and important conundrum for people right now. 

Tell us more about the research you did for your book.

I was approached by Ashley Madison (AM) to do research. After they launched  their controversial website in South Africa in July 2012, my therapy room filled up with women identifying as “happily married”, who had joined AM out of curiosity and to their huge surprise they were having so much fun chatting, cyberflirting and even meeting offline for IRL sex... with no feelings of guilt.

My therapy room also filled up with couples who were caught out on AM or Grinder and were traumatized by the discovery. I jumped at the opportunity to use the database of AM for research.

I had 2 main research questions: what is CI? And are the traditional values of commitment, sexual fidelity and monogamy still relevant in modern day relationships?

My research protocols: On AM I created a profile as a single woman and one as a married man, and I had this lived experience for 2 years. I also set up a website – in which I encouraged people to post their cyber secrets.

This became my qualitative data. I then administered 5 surveys into the AM database – I got response from over 660,000 men and women, in 5 different countries, including South Africa. From analysis of all this data, plus the very substantial work I did with clients in my therapy room, I wrote my book.

Who is most likely to fall into the trap of cyber infidelity?

Anyone who has a mobile or any other device. My research showed that the traditional vulnerability factors indicating who will commit infidelity, are not fully relevant for people who commit CI. My respondents indicated happy marriages/relationships, emotional satisfaction even sexual satisfaction. CI was an add-on.

They (men and women) were looking for experimentation, NSA (No Strings Attached) sex, not emotional support or a way out of a marriage. Of course there are certain personality traits in people which make them more vulnerable to CI: narcissistic personalities, people who lack empathy and thus can't feel much guilt, and people with out of control behavior, namely people who are survivors of trauma. Also people who have anxious attachments, feel insecure and need others to validate them.

People are committing CI without defining it as such. They simply believe they are chatting so their intention is not to go online and cheat. The nature of technology makes it way easier to fall into the trap. 

Read more: 7 things we all lie about on social media

Since I completed my book, my interest has shifted along the continuum into what is called Contemporary Intimacies .. CI is one form of contemporary intimacies- CI is non-consensual non-monogamy. Gender variance and sexual orientation fluidity are expanding possibilities of self identification, relating and sexuality.

Hence couples are discussing consensual non monogamy - open marriages, hookups with same or opposite sex people, cyber relationships and so on.

How can couples keep their relationship safe from this threat?

CI causes enormous pain and to avoid it couples have to individually determine what their values are around privacy, secrecy, online behavior, commitment and sexual fidelity and monogamy. And as a couple establish boundaries.

Secrets are toxic. Privacy is necessary so find the balance between the two. Accept that marriage is a drudge of domesticity and that online is conflict-free fantasy, ongoing interactivity and that IRL relationships can never compare with this.

Take individual responsibility to ensure you maintain independence, engage in passions and friendships that make you happy so that you bring an interesting person into your relationship.

Use social media to flirt and chat with each other. Do away with rules and create boundaries based on your joint values.

Enjoy social media using your and partner’s definition of what you would both consider CI to be. 

About Marlene Wasserman:

Dr Marlene Wasserman, founder of the DR EVE brand, is an internationally trained Clinical Sexologist and Couple and Sex Therapist in Private Practice. An Academic, Educator and Author of 4 books, Marlene is well known as a media personality, appearing weekly on her radio show on Radio 702/ Cape Talk and  segment on Expresso TV show.

She is a fervent activist for the sexual health and rights of women and other marginalized groups. In 2013 she went online and began research into cyber infidelity. Her book : “Cyber Infidelity: The New Seduction “(Human & Rousseau 2015) was launched globally to high acclaim.

Marlene is now recognized as the global go-to person on cyber infidelity .  She is a consultant to international media and in August 2016, she launched her first monthly column in a New York based online women’s magazine

Marlene has expanded her work into Contemporary Intimacies. In her therapy room and online forums, she works with couples and individuals who question, explore and expand their traditional mono-hetero normative relationship model. This includes open relationships, hook ups, friends with benefits, polyamory , swinging, threesomes , fluid sexual orientations and gender variance.
Find Marlene online, in Cape Town and in New York.
Follow Marlene on her blog.

Read more:

5 ways social media is making you unhappy

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