It’s Cheat Week at Mashable. Join us as we take a look at how liars, scammers, grifters, and everyday people take advantage of life's little loopholes in order to get ahead.
When you hear the words "online" and "cheating," images of seedy dating websites like Ashley Madison probably come to mind.
But as we learned after its 2015 data breach, there actually wasn't a lot of infidelity being facilitated by this designated cheating site as most of the women were bots. Instead, the real cheating epidemic caused by the internet is much more subtle and amorphous.
And in all likelihood, you're probably guilty of doing it without even realizing.
Research shows that the internet has radically changed what people consider "cheating." Affairs used to be limited to sexual interaction, but today we have a new range of so-called micro-cheating propagated online. Some view anything from liking the wrong Instagram post (37 percent, according to a 2018 survey from dating site NextLove) to maintaining an online dating profile while in an exclusive relationship (63 percent, according to a 2017 Deseret News survey) as infidelity in the digital age.
Other online activity that often leads to feelings of betrayal, jealousy, and secrecy among couples include obsessing over an ex's social media, flirtatious comments or texts, sexting with someone else, watching porn, or even just intimate, but platonic, online friendships.
These activities can have damaging effects on a relationship, even if they don't bleed into offline contact or sexual interactions. People tend to find it harder to recover from this form of cheating than a purely physical one.
"In the past, affairs were defined by the physical. But with the internet, we've come to accept emotional affairs as part of infidelity. It includes everything's that's sort of on the fringes of cheating," said Katherine Hertlein, author of The Internet Family: Technology in Couple and Family Relationships.
No one can definitively say exactly what counts as online cheating, since it varies not only from couple to couple but person to person. The virtual space leaves so much room for interpretation. And in the absence of clear rules and communication, many are finding themselves on the wrong side of modern love affairs.
"Technology basically puts people on this slippery slope," Hertlein, who's also an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, said. "You slowly inch across a boundary, but you're not necessarily aware that a boundary is even being crossed. Until it's too late."
How to recognize online cheating, and why it's an easy mistake to make
The ambiguity of online cheating doesn't just lead to unintended infractions, either. It causes doubt in the "victim" about whether or not they're even allowed to feel betrayed. On the other side, it leaves the "perpetrator" feeling unjustly accused for something they didn't know was wrong.
Image: vicky leta / mashable
"It's up to each couple to independently define what constitutes infidelity online. But here's the catch: Couples don't talk about it. They don't even consider computers in how they define cheating," said Hertlein.
The amorphous and all-encompassing nature of online cheating means you shouldn't think about it in terms of a specific act. Rather, online cheating is better defined by the outcome, which is whether someone in the relationship feels their trust or commitment has been violated.
"Even if you don't have clear definitions, people often know a boundary when they meet it. They tend to know when something they're doing will upset their partner, because they're hiding it. So that's a good internal cue," couples therapist Lindsey Hoskins said.
Secrecy around internet activity usually gives people the hunch that something's up, with red flags like a significant other suddenly implementing extra security measures on devices, a spike in time spent online, or being dodgy about letting their partner see what they're doing.
It doesn't even necessarily matter what the content of a message or activity is, Hoskins said. Even if it's not sexual in nature, mundane but consistent exchanges about your day-to-day life with someone who isn't your primary partner can accumulate into an act of betrayal.
That's the line in the sand when it comes to emotional cheating; it's not just closeness with someone else, but a closeness at the exclusion of your primary partner.
Of course, sexually-motivated violations are part of the online cheating problem, too, with 38 percent from the Deseret News survey saying watching porn without their partner counts as cheating. But emotional betrayals are predominantly what defines the harmful instances of online cheating.
Social media is also all about oversharing and seeking connection with others. That creates infinitely more opportunities to slide into each others DMs, reach out to old flames and crushes, or casually engage with dating apps. Plus, the virtual world makes it easier to justify it all as innocent curiosity, platonic, or not real cheating. But those interactions can quickly escalate into full-blown online infidelity.
"Cheating is often something that happens simply because of opportunity. We find ourselves creeping closer to crossing a line that violates our committed relationship. And the more we creep closer to it, the easier it feels to cross it," said Hoskins.
Image: vicky leta / mashable
Online cheating doesn't necessarily mean that something is "wrong" with your relationship. Counter to popular belief, cheating is often more so about access to alternatives than dissatisfaction with a relationship.
And the internet offers countless alternatives in the form of quick hits of positive feedback that can feel like the intimacy and connection we get from a committed partner.
For some, it's also easier to be intimate online. People can find comfort in how the internet gives them more control over how they present themselves, which in turn makes them more comfortable with virtual vulnerability rather than doing it with a partner IRL.
In a way, micro-cheating and online infidelity are the result of normal human behaviors causing issues because there's now a digital record.
"These are things that happen in any solid and healthy relationship with some frequency: some innocuous, flirtatious interactions that'd be no big deal before the internet existed," said Hoskins. "But it's different when your partner can now observe that, see it in black and white."
There's also the other edge of the online cheating sword, which is violations of privacy through snooping.
"We've all wondered for many years what our partners get up to, but now we have the ability to actually know," said Hertlein. "But just because you can, doesn't mean you should."
If a partner suddenly develops an urge to snoop, they're acting on a gut instinct that's something's going on behind their back, Hoskins said. But instead of snooping, they should give their partner the chance to be honest with them in an open conversation about what they're feeling.
Regardless, like online cheating, the topic of internet privacy in a relationship requires its own conversation about what each partner believes is acceptable. Some couples like giving each other access to their passwords or phone location, while others don't. Not establishing clear rules for privacy can lead to feelings of violation and betrayal.
How to avoid and recover from online cheating
Unfortunately, the best method for recovery from online cheating is prevention. There's no substitute for having conversations with your partner about exactly where you draw the lines.
Hertlein likes to ask her patients to talk about deal breakers. You don't need precise, nuanced definitions of online cheating to instinctively know what would send you packing if it happened. The other side of that conversation is assessing how you're both currently using the internet, and if anything skirts someone's comfort level. Crucially, these kinds of audits need to be done in the spirit of mutual understanding rather than being accusatory.
"It's not just about my boundaries, but our boundaries," she said.
Similarly, Hoskins advocates for speaking up in the moment if you ever get a gut feeling that you might've accidentally crossed a line. If you get the urge to hide online habits from your partner, talk about it. Confront it rather than waiting to get caught; inevitably, it will come to light some way or another. The secrecy will only make it harder to overcome.
Both Hoskins and Hertlein attest to just how hard it is to help couples recover from online cheating. But a good first step is to establish a baseline for how to talk about the perceived betrayal in a way that doesn't end up in the same dead-end argument.
"The key is to not talk about the act, or what the 'cheating' person did wrong, but what the other person feels as a result," she said. "That's what the cheated on person needs: to be understood in order to start to get back to solid ground and rebuild trust."
Going forward, the cheater also needs to agree to 100 percent honesty and full disclosure to any questions the cheated-on partner wants to ask. "But you need to think very carefully abut what questions you need answers to. Because there may be things that you were wondering but might not totally want to know. You have to find that line," said Hoskins.
In her research, Hertlein found the biggest block to recovering from online infidelity is that victims often believe their cheating partner is always guilty of infidelity, even if they provide proof of their innocence.
Image: vicky leta / mashable
"The person who's cheated can demonstrate to their partner that there's no evidence that they're still cheating. But their partner believes that a lack of evidence doesn't mean it's not happening, because they know they can delete or get rid of evidence," she said.
This is where the victim has to put in the work if they want any hope at recovery. "They have to ultimately take a leap of faith and say, 'I'm going to start to believe my partner,'" Hertlein said.
The same technology that caused the online cheating can be used to strengthen a relationship or help in recovery from that betrayal, too.
"The internet is really good at real-time information and disclosure. So for the people who are tempted to online cheat because they want that self-disclosure — well you can do that with your partner. You can harness the power of the internet to cultivate your relationship in ways that meet those needs," she said.
Location sharing or other online tools can help verify that the cheater is telling the truth and manage the cheated-on partner's anxieties. But, Hertlein said, those are generally short-term solutions until that leap of faith is possible.
"It doesn't really matter that we don't have a word to define exactly what online cheating is," said Hoskins. "The fact is that it results in pain, and that pain needs to be talked about. There simply needs to be empathy and understanding."