Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Internet: Making cheating easier for 20 years

RQ: What motivates people to cheat?

In the early 1990s the Internet became available for the general public to use and it revolutionized communication as we knew it. Suddenly a medium was available through which people could build relationships without having to be face to face. Because of this, it makes forming relationships easier and, as one scholar puts it, “hyper-personal.” Sarah Tonkin, an Australian researcher attests that we form intense relationships online that differ in many ways to those formed in person - and this means we can also form potentially adulterous relationships too.

Not only does the Internet make connecting with others easier, it also makes those connections more private. A husband can connect with an old flame and spend time chatting and engaging with her, without his wife even knowing (Tonkin gives the great example of the Tiger Woods affair scandal here, one I’m sure you’ve all heard about).

So forming relationships online is easier because it’s more private, but also because it creates more opportunity. Add to this the fact that relationships tend to move much faster online – we’re more likely to tell our secrets and disclose information sooner online compared to in person – and you have a “hyper-personal” relationship, and potentially, infidelity. (There are various reasons why relationships progress faster online; the anonymity and compensating for a lack of physical presence are two of many reasons studied to explain this.)
But, you say, how can you cheat online? You’re not in the same room as the person, never mind the same bed! Well, cheating isn’t just restricted to having sex with another person. There are various forms that cheating can take, and while I’ll leave the in-person types of cheating for another blog post, there are various ways activity online can be considered infidelity.
For starters, cheating doesn’t have to be physical. Studies show that emotional infidelity can be just as upsetting and harmful to a relationship as physical infidelity. And, since becoming “hyper-personal” is easier and quicker online, emotional infidelity is rampant! But still there are varying degrees of emotional infidelity. For example, having a conversation online about sports, joking around or catching up on the latest happenings in your life are considered by researchers Docan–Morgan and Docan as “superficial/informal acts” and not generally cheating. But once the communication becomes more “involving/goal oriented”, when you tell the person you love them, tell them secrets your partner doesn’t know or flirting with them for example, the infraction becomes more apparent – that’s considered cheating.
So with cheating online, the intent and the level of intimacy matter. If you’re talking to someone online but don’t consider them more important than your partner and don’t have romantic feelings toward them, chances are you’re safe, that’s not cheating. But once the interaction becomes more intimate, it’s likely you’re on the path to infidelity.
(An important note here is that women tend to be more upset by emotional infidelity than men, although both sexes are bothered by online infidelity. In fact, there are many differences in ideas about cheating when it comes to gender but that will have to wait for a later blog post too.)
Here we can bring in physical infidelity online. And while you’re not physically present with a person online, some types can still be seen. Having cyber-sex with a person who is not your partner = obvious cheating.
Another interesting thing to note here is that cheating online doesn’t have to involve another specific person. As long as it’s involving and goal-oriented, it can be cheating. So watching pornography, posting a personal ad online or looking at other personal ads can all be considered cheating.
Finally, while these are generally what is considered cheating by certain scholars, it comes down the couple themselves to determine what “counts” as cheating. So my take-away for today is to think about that. What counts as cheating in your relationship? You and your partner may have unspoken ideas about this, or may have talked about it. Either way, that’s something to figure out.
And, once you know what counts as cheating for you both, then think about your activity online. Could you be cheating via the Internet?

Docan-Morgan, T & Docan, C. A. (2007). Internet infidelity: Double standards and the differing view of women and men. Communication Quarterly, 55, 317-342.
Tonkin, S. (2012). Getting hyper-personal. Global Media Journal Australian Edition, 4, 1-9.


  1. Great Post Tabbi! I like how you really systematically expressed your points and linked all your ideas from top to bottom! I will have to learn from you for my next blog post for sure!
    According to Helen E. Fisher from the Anthropology Department at Rutgers University, Adultery is defined as: “sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than one’s spouse. But current researchers have broadened this definition to include sexual infidelity (sexual exchange with Infidelity no romantic involvement), romantic infidelity (romantic exchanges with no sexual involvement) and sexual and romantic involvement (Glass & Wright, 1992).” (Helen, 4). This does confirm that in more recent literature cheating is not restricted to the physical but also extends to the emotional.
    To me cheating would be saying/doing/thinking anything about/with anybody that I would be uncomfortable with my partner doing as well. For example having a strong emotional even non-sexual relationship with another woman would make me uncomfortable if my wife or girlfriend had a similar arrangement with another person. In my view that would constitute as cheating.
    Given this definition, online dating will constitute as cheating in my book. This is because if I think about it empathetically I would not be comfortable with the idea of my girlfriend/wife having an online boyfriend. As I assume many women would not be at ease with the idea of their spouse having an online boyfriend.
    The third to last paragraph is the only part I disagree with. This is because I think people do those activities mentioned for a wide variety of reasons without the specific goal of actually becoming involved with those people they see.
    All in all, this was a really great article! Very well laid out and argued. I will keep following this to see where it goes!
    Thank you.

    1. Mwamba,
      Thanks for the positive feedback, I'm glad you liked the blog. I like that you looked up definitions for adultery because it seems there are so many ways that people can define cheating. It's interesting because I tend to use various terms - cheating, adultery, infidelity - interchangeably, but they can have different definitions too. In fact, like you brought up, adultery refers to actions outside of marriage, whereas infidelity is just outside of a relationship (not necessarily marriage). So it's interesting to look at the nuances here with our language use too.
      I also like the way you defined cheating as anything you’d feel uncomfortable with your partner doing. One part of the Docan-Morgan and Docan article that I didn’t include this time (it didn’t really fit with my theme) is that we tend to judge the infidelity of our partners more harshly than our own infidelity. So being self-critical and really, honestly thinking about what would bother us then applying that same idea to our own behavior is important.

  2. Timely and provocative, starting with the title: "The Internet: Making cheating easier for 20 years"- accurate and catchy! I also like that you reference something the reader will find in a later blog post. Gets us excited to come back next time.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, I always think an interesting title is important. I'm excited to write the following posts too so glad the readers might be looking forward to it too :)

  3. I found your blog well-written overall and engaging. You ended it strongly and gave me a memorable final question to consider. Nice job.

    1. Thanks Christine, I appreciate the feedback!

  4. Nice work, Tabi I’m curious to know if the articles bring up anything about why people actually start the “hyper-personal” relationship. I understand the relationship progresses faster online, but do they start innocently or is the intent already there when the person decides to interact socially online. It seems to me that the virtual relationship is not only easier to start but to end as well. One can turned it “off” with a click of a button. Are people just venting their problems to others and in some way or another, feel like they are heard and cared about by the other person at the end of the line? I’m not sure the virtual relationship is “more private”. Personally, I don’t see how it can be more private. Does the article discuss this? How can one think it’s more private when a stranger is at the end of the line? Does it feel “more private” because we know we can just turn off the computer and never have to interact with the same person again?

    You mentioned that “cheating doesn’t have to be physical” and I can see your point. Emotional cheating gives us a stronger feeling of betrayal – or so we think. Right? We are humans and regardless of what anyone says, we all like attention. The virtual relationship offers just that – quick attention. Are we to busy to offer that attention to our better half?

    1. Ramona, thanks for your thoughtful response. It's interesting that you bring up why people start hyper-personal relationships. From the article I read, it seems that they can start innocently and go further than originally intended, or they can start off with the intention of cheating (for example, people go to "Married but flirting" chat rooms). Often times the relationship online can seem disconnected from the person's real life so they don't really see it as cheating too.

      On the privacy issue, I think we have a different idea of what I meant by privacy. I guess hidden or hideable might be a more accurate way to describe that. As is, the communication online is private or hidden from the real life partner. Does that make more sense? For example, a person with an intimate relationship via email can keep it hidden from their partner as long as the partner cannot or does not access the email account.

    2. Thank you, Tabbi, for the comments on the privacy. It makes sense. I would think it applies more to those who go online with the intent to cheat or perhaps to those who don't communicate much with the partner. I only say this because I tend to tell my husband everything, including emails. It's part of our everyday communication. But of course, this may not always be the case with couples.

      Thank you for your response. I look foward to reading more on your subject.