In preparation for writing our soon-to-be-released book, Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age, my coauthor Dr. Jennifer Schneider and I, along with our colleague Dr. Charles Samenow, conducted a survey of men and women whose spouses or long-term partners were engaging in digital world sexual activity -- porn use (with or without masturbation), sexual/romantic text or video chat, sexting, hookup apps, virtual world sex games, etc. Probably the most important finding of our study was that when it comes to the negative effects of sexual activity outside of a primary relationship, tech-driven sexuality and in-the-flesh sexuality are no different. The lying, the emotional distancing, and the pain of learning about the betrayal feels exactly the same.
The results of our study confirmed in many ways what I've said and written about infidelity for many years: It's not any specific sexual act that does the most damage to the betrayed partner and the relationship, it's the constant lying, the emotional distancing and the loss of relationship trust. This long-held belief, coupled with the findings in our study, has led me to formulate the following modern-day definition of sexual infidelity:
Sexual infidelity is the breaking of trust that occurs when sexual and/or romantic secrets are deliberately kept from one's primary intimate partner.
One of the reasons I like this definition is that it encompasses both digital and in-person sexual philandering. Furthermore, it is flexible depending on the couple. In other words, it allows couples to define their own version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision-making. This means that it may be acceptable for one partner to look at porn (or to engage in some other digital sexual activity), so long as the other partner knows about the behavior and is OK with it. On the other hand, if one partner is looking at porn (or whatever) and lying about it or keeping the behavior secret, or the other partner doesn't find this behavior acceptable within the mutually agreed upon boundaries of the relationship, it qualifies as infidelity.
Of note: As a therapist, I have no judgments about the ways in which couples mutually define relationship and sexual fidelity. In days of yore, marriage meant a lifetime of monogamy, but in today's world this is not always the case -- the monogamy box is not for everyone. In fact, many couples, particularly younger couples, now have "open" relationships with varying degrees of sexual freedom. So long as these couples mutually agree, without manipulation or coercion, on the relationship boundaries, and so long as both parties respect those boundaries, whatever they may be, and those boundaries don't in any way diminish the couple's emotional bond, then I am happy for them.
That said, extramarital sexual activity -- either online or in-the-flesh -- is typically not a mutually-agreed-upon activity. More often one partner values and upholds the couple's commitment to sexual fidelity (however that is defined) while the other does as he or she pleases, often hiding the behavior and justifying it with endless variations of the following lies:
• What my partner doesn't know can't hurt him/her.
• It's only online, so I'm not really cheating.
• Everybody does this. It's perfectly normal to engage in a bit of digital sexual fantasy.
Essentially, these cheaters convince themselves that what they are doing doesn't count as a betrayal. Of course, that's not how their spouses and partners typically feel. In our survey, 87 percent of respondents said their partner's online cheating had an overall negative effect on their relationship, with 41 percent calling that negative effect "significant," and 35 percent saying it caused the demise of their relationship. The negative effects most commonly experienced by the cheated-on partners were loss of relationship trust, loss of self-esteem, stress and anxiety brought on by the cumulative effect of the cheater's lying and secret-keeping, and diminishment of the sexual relationship. Consider the words of actual respondents:
• It obliterated the trust in our relationship. I no longer believe a single thing he says.
• We don't have sex often and it irritates me that he puts more time into the porn than trying to be intimate with me.
• I have been traumatized by the repeated discovery of his deception and betrayal of me with these activities.
• I became over-the-top with snooping, spying, trying to control the behavior, and thinking if I just did, then I could stop it. It caused complete erosion of my self-esteem, boundaries and sense of self.
• Now I feel unattractive, ugly, wondering what's wrong with me. I can't sleep or concentrate. I'm missing out on life's happiness, worried, scared all the time.
• My husband has cheated on me with a real partner, and it feels no different! The online "safe" cheating feels just as dirty and filthy as the "real-life" cheating.
Based on the results of our study, coupled with more than two decades of working with cheaters and their usually distraught spouses, I can assure you that secretive online sexual activity is every bit as devastating as in-the-flesh cheating. In the eyes of the betrayed partner, there is no difference between digital dalliances and real world affairs. Cheating is cheating. It destroys relationship trust, and learning about it and dealing with it is painful, regardless of whether it occurs in-person or online.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and the forthcoming Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.