A couple of years ago an Australian professor of psychology decided to find out whether intelligent people like her graduate students believe that having a relationship online is the same as conventional cheating on your partner. Since the subject is complex, Dr. Margaret Whitty deliberately sought complex answers. Instead of having the 234 students answer simple yes-no or multiple choice questionnaires, she had them write stories, assigning one of these two sentences as a prompt:
Mark and Jennifer have been going out for over a year when Mark realizes that Jennifer has developed a relationship with someone else on the Internet …. (or) ….
Mark and Jennifer have been going out for over a year when Jennifer realizes that Mark has developed a relationship with someone else on the Internet….
Dr. Whitty’s results indicated that cyber affairs could have as serious an impact on a relationship as offline affairs. The majority of participants in this survey (51%) said the participant in the online relationship had indeed been unfaithful, and in 84% of the stories, the partner expresses feelings of betrayal. Only 22% percent did not express an opinion on whether the online relationship was the same as infidelity. As for the 27% who did not believe the online affair was an example of an infidelity, they offered the following reasons : “They were just friends,” “It was just flirtatious and fun,” “They didn’t know the person or plan to meet them,” “There was no physical sex,” and “It’s a computer – it’s not real.” As two students wrote, “It’s not like Mark was bonking her …” or “Net relationships mean nothing, because everyone lives in virtual reality…”
Similar to prior researchers, Dr. Whitty found that women reacted more strongly and negatively to emotional infidelity and both genders were more judgmental of Jennifer’s infidelity. She also confirmed the previous finding that most people are more inclined to forgive themselves for unfaithful behaviors than their partners.
The big take-away from this study, however, was that most people consider online affairs to be just as “real” and hurtful as the ones in real life, even though no physical sex takes place. In 46% of the stories, the off-line couple breaks up. The most frequent reason given for feelings of betrayal and disappointment was the aggrieved person’s belief that it is impossible to have a relationship with more than one person. Over 40% of the stories were about the lack of trust and the element of secrecy that both were hurtful to the aggrieved partner. As one student wrote, “If it’s so innocent, why is it secret?”
Most participants “ranked” different kinds of emotional online infidelity in that they would more easily forgive some kinds of activities over others. Downloading pornography was not considered as serious a betrayal as “hot chatting” – i.e., using erotic talk beyond lightheaded flirting. Hot chatting was not as serious as having cybersex that involved masturbation.
Some of Dr. Whitty’s participants revealed their darker sides in their stories. Once the cheating was discovered, their characters would act out in retaliatory ways. In some stories, the betrayed person becomes extremely suspicious, monitoring his or her partner’s phone calls and meetings, and constantly bringing up the person’s infidelity. Some aggrieved parties seek revenge on their cheating partners, usually by having affairs of their own or even worse. As one future mental health therapist wrote, “When Jennifer met Mark’s Internet lover, she bludgeoned her to death with a keyboard, shoved a mouse up her arse, and then replaced her head with a monitor. Mark walked in and found the defaced body, and Jennifer was able to capture him and keep him forever as a human punching bag.”
Whitty, M. T. (2005). “The ‘Realness’ of Cybercheating: Men and women’s representations of unfaithful Internet relationships.”Social Science Computer Review, 23(1), 57-67.