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Infidelity In The Digital Universe: Where Do We Draw The Line?

With increased access to social media and online dating websites, cheating has become rather common. But how does one define digital infidelity?

Geetika Sachdev

Farida* (name changed) met the man of her dreams on an online dating website. After a whirlwind romance, the couple entered into wedlock within a few months. Little did she know that he had been ‘secretly’ sexting other women, and indulging in flirtatious behaviour. It was a chance encounter that led her to stumble upon the truth.

Despite being distraught, she confronted her husband, only to hear: “But I only texted. I didn’t sleep with these women.” Unfortunately, this is the reality of an increasing number of relationships today—more so with social media assuming the dual roles of ‘cupid’ and ‘villain’. Infidelity in the digital age cannot be clearly defined, which is why many unwarranted actions are deemed ‘normal’ and brushed under the carpet. 

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Aneesh Bhargava (33), a New-Delhi based advertising professional, confesses to having run into similar problems with his partner a few months ago. But they drew up a list of non-negotiables that fall under the ambit of ‘online cheating’.

“I recall my girlfriend texting her ex-partner at an odd hour, and when I expressed how uncomfortable I was, she quickly said, 'We are just friends. ’She even spoke to me about their chats, and I felt it was filled with sexual innuendos. That’s when we decided to have a talk and discuss what makes us uncomfortable. I was so angry when I found out that she had been speaking to him for months, without my knowledge. For me, that’s cheating,” he shares.

There are several scenarios that have ended with couples breaking up or opting for divorce over ‘so-called’ simple messages on social media. But is this terrain really as simple to navigate? What is digital infidelity, and what comes under its ambit?

Digital infidelity: what does it really mean?

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Simply put, digital infidelity is when people use social media and/or any other electronic communication to cross boundaries in a relationship. Typically, this could look like someone sending suggestive messages or pictures to an individual other than their partner. These exchanges are not just limited to the sexual terrain—they could also be emotionally charged. Either way, these are dangerous and can wreak havoc on your committed relationship.

“Recently, an ex-flame contacted me on social media. This was during the first lockdown, when all of us were pretty much shaken by Covid-19. I remember reconnecting as friends, but things began to take flight and we began to have intense conversations every night. The frequency of our chats increased so drastically that my partner threatened to leave me. I don’t blame him, because I was seeking emotional support outside my relationship,” shares 35-year-old Ankita Patil*. 

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The pandemic has certainly led to a surge in sexting and phone sex, as can be gauged by the many confessions that poured in.

“I have been in a relationship with my best friend for six years. After a few years, I realised that boredom was setting in. We did try to keep the spark alive, but he was too busy with work and that kind of put me off. So, I started speaking to someone I met online, and we indulged in crazy sexting marathons. We also ended up having phone sex and I think with time, it just became a habit. I was literally caught red-handed by my partner, who then confessed to having his own share of fun online. Fortunately, we have put this behind us, and are now trying to spice up our sex lives with each other,” confesses Pooja Sarin*, 41, a media professional. 

Is online cheating as painful as real-world encounters? Experts weigh in

Online cheating can be as devastating and disastrous as real-world cheating, says Devisha Batra, senior counseling psychologist, IWill. “It can cause a lasting impact and trigger feelings of anger, insecurity, jealousy, and even a fear of abandonment,” she adds.

A 2008 research paper in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy by Hertlein documented the many effects of online cheating being similar to real-world cheating—including less interest in sex in the committed relationship. 

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When it comes to online cheating, the tangibility of physical infidelity vanishes (as has been depicted through instances shared above), thus pushing this question into a rather grey area. Here, defences like “But I didn’t really do anything” or “We were just talking” become all the more difficult to respond to— as the person accused might actually just have been talking. But why does this seem uncomfortable then?

“The answer to this question lies in how one defines the act of cheating. More often than not, it is to do with an emotional transgression within a relationship than just a physical one, and when looked at from that lens, an offline or online modality of indulging in the same becomes a rather moot point. It is just plain cheating which is bound to have deep psychological and emotional consequences,” explains Akanksha Singh Chandele, counseling psychologist and director,I Am Wellbeing (Nairatmya foundation). 

What, according to experts, qualifies as digital infidelity?

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“For some, watching porn is a matter of cheating. Others might consider sexting or exchanging photos or emails infidelity. Flirtatious behaviour on social networks without moving into physical affairs is yet another way of betrayal. For some, having deep conversations with one’s ex is a form of cheating,” explains Devisha.

Akanksha agrees: “Every relationship has its own dynamics wherein partners tend to arrive at a mutual understanding of what is okay and what isn’t. This is dependent on personal, societal as well as cultural factors. These boundaries are set based on mutual trust and understanding between the partners of what is acceptable to them and what isn’t. What qualifies as cheating in the online or even in the offline world is when these set boundaries are violated by one of the partners and the mutuality of trust is broken.”

Are there any ways to salvage relationships in this era?

Online cheating, being such a grey area in itself, can lead to dead-end arguments between partners where one might feel wrongly accused, while the other might feel rightfully violated. There is perhaps no other way around this situation than to have an honest and open dialogue. However, it might help to establish some ground rules for how the partners wish to take that dialogue forward. 

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“For example, the person who feels cheated on could decide to focus more on how they are feeling as a result of the act in question, rather than taking up an accusatory stance with regard to the act itself, and at the same time, the accused could decide to be transparent and try to understand why their partner might be feeling what they’re feeling. This is of course easier said than done,” says Akanksha. 

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It is also necessary to understand what are the actions and behaviours of the couple that led to insecurities in the relationship to begin with.“In addition, establishing boundaries between the couple is also important. One can also try and spend time with each other, and explore likes and dislikes in terms of emotional and physical intimacy,” advises Devisha.

Photo: Banner: cottonbro from Pexels; inside: Giphy
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