A new study by psychology academics at The Open University is the first in the UK to explore the impact of internet infidelity among those with real experience of it and sees how it is directly affecting 21st century relationships.
The research, based on an anonymous online survey among 20 to 73-year-olds, found that many participants think that the internet makes infidelity more likely.
It also provided evidence into what activity is taking place - at a time when there is rapid growth in the opportunities for online liaisons
The research revealed grey areas among couples over how they define infidelity online, gender differences in perceptions of infidelity, with women seeing more internet activities as infidelity, and perceiving them as more distressing and evidence that online infidelity can be addictive.
Unlike most prior research in the area, the study recruited people who had experienced internet infidelity – either having engaged in it themselves or having found out that their partner had indulged.
The study, by psychology lecturers Dr Andreas Vossler and Dr Naomi Moller allowed participants to write in detail about their experiences with internet infidelity. Findings revealed that the Internet made covert contact with another person easy and had a dis-inhibiting effect, making it easier to engage in behaviour that might be avoided in real life.
With long working hours an online relationship is like fast food, ready when we are, naughty, cheap, very often eaten alone without the exhaustion of social nicetiesAnon
In one anonymous response, a participant wrote: “I tried to stop but neither ‘of us could, it would start again and since so easy, with all the technology we carry around it was an amazingly comforting and sexy thing to have.
“With long working hours an online relationship is like fast food, ready when we are, naughty, cheap, very often eaten alone without the exhaustion of social niceties.”
And another woman at the receiving end of internet infidelity said: “I have a deep mistrust in the internet, and feel it massively facilitates infidelity. My ex-husband is inherently a very shy man, but online he is able to act much more confidently and attract the attention of other women. I strongly believe he would not have had so many affairs without the internet.”
One participant wrote: “Probably - if we hadn’t have established & maintained any sort of contact online - the affair would not have started - as we very rarely bumped into each other.”
The study also found that the effects of internet infidelity can be as traumatic and wounding as face-to-face adultery, with many participants detailing their ongoing distress and describing the online infidelity as a relationship-ending event.
The Social Sciences academics are both practitioners in the field of counselling and aimed to improve understanding and awareness for both the public and counsellors at a time when there are growing opportunities to participate in activity online which could lead to infidelity.
Speaking about the results Dr Vossler said: “What our research has revealed is that men and women do see internet infidelity differently. But it is not just a gender divide - what is experienced as infidelity online can vary from person to person. What might be seen as casual chatting by one partner, is hurtful and disloyal to the other for instance.
“With the Internet and social media now being part of everyday life in the Western world, there are growing opportunities for partners to engage in online behaviours and activities that may be considered unfaithful in the context of a committed relationship (including e.g. cybersex, exchanging sexual self-images, online flirting and dating). This matters because infidelity commonly causes significant relationship distress and can have a negative and deteriorating effect on marriages and families.”
Dr Moller said the evidence showed that couples in a committed relationship may, in order to prevent future misunderstandings, now have to think about sharing their attitude towards social media and keeping it a topic for ongoing discussion - just as a couple might negotiate an agreement on the desire for children or marriage
Both researchers say there is a lack of information about the actual online behaviour and its impact, and about practitioners’ perceptions of and experiences of working with internet infidelity.
The researchers are keen to expand the study and would like to hear from anyone willing to take part in further anonymous studies.