The typical extramarital affair once used to begin at the workplace and move to some seedy hotel room on the city outskirts. But not now. The expansive reach of the internet, especially social media and instant messaging services, has fuelled a burgeoning growth in steamy chat room conversations and cybersex. Online infidelity, as it’s being labelled now, is commonplace in many homes.
But that has also triggered a very important question. If there’s no physical intimacy involved between the two persons, can it be still termed as an affair?
Opinions on online infidelity are divided. It’s no regular conversation that’s taking place. There’s a deep emotional connect involved here, says University of Nevada associate professor Katherine Hertlein, who researches on online affairs. Infidelity has moved away from just physical intimacy. Affairs these days, majorly involve emotional infidelity, she says.
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While there’s no commonly accepted definition, online infidelity usually involves cybersex, sexually stimulating conversations, and intimate chat sessions. Studies suggest, even if there’s no personal contact, affairs on the social media and messaging services are as devastating as in the real word. It triggers anger, jealously, and a feeling of insecurity. Women typically feel more threatened because of the emotional betrayal from her partner’s online affair.
But that again, Hertlein says, has started to even out because of the equal opportunity which the internet has forged.
Men, traditionally, are considered to be more unfaithful. But gender roles have reversed in several cases with more women experiencing cybersex. There’s a bias that women never cheat as they are supposed to nurture the society, says Hertlein.
While there’s a dearth of reliable numbers given the secretive nature of internet affairs, a recent study by the Australian Journal of Counselling Psychology has lent further insight into online infidelity. It says, more than 10 percent of 184 adults who are currently in a relationship, had intimate online affairs. Besides, eight percent experienced cybersex, while another six percent met their online partners in person. Over half the respondents believed online affairs constitute infidelity, and the numbers climbed to 71 percent regarding cybersex and 82 percent for personal meetings.
Psychologist Kimberly Young, who runs an internet addiction recovery centre at Bradford, says that more than half the couples knocking on her doors seek counselling from online affairs. Women number more than men as online cheaters because they tend to gravitate towards webcam sessions and erotic chats. Men, she says, are more drawn towards porn.
Right under the nose
People now spend more time on social media than watching TV. It’s almost 14 to 16 hours each day. With the advent of smartphones, internet is now in the pocket, literally. Smartphones have put cybercafés out of business and people can now log on to the internet anytime and from anywhere.
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Unlike affairs of yesteryears, online infidelity starts in the home, right under the roof. While majority of the other relationships are hampered by workday realties like attending office, performing household chores, paying utility bills and similar other things, relationships in the electronic form can be carried out while reading a book or lazing on the bed. In most cases, the two persons involved in the online affair are unaware about each other’s real identity, unless of course they have met earlier in person.
Easier done than said
Affordability, anonymity and accessibility are driving online affairs. With costs of internet access dropping drastically all over the world, online infidelity has become extremely affordable. Affairs can be easily concealed if the cheating partner clears the browser history and incriminating chat records. It’s overwhelmingly difficult to track what a person is doing because there are no receipts of dinners, hotel stay, or excursions. Internet is faceless and anonymity is easy. People usually begin to think that the person on the other side of the chat session is in love with them. Personal to very personal information is revealed. In a worst case scenario, this information is used to blackmail the cheating partner by the other person involved in the affair.
But psychologists say, a couple has to examine what has been happening in their marriage that led one of the partners to cheat online. A strong emotional and physical bonding in a relationship usually doesn’t lead to infidelity. Indifferent partners are often the main reason behind the other partner seeking emotional support outside marriage from a person from the opposite sex. Circumstances often dictate terms. Societal norms too determine what’s right and what’s wrong. Experts say that unforgiving, as always, should be the last option.
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