Understanding Infidelity in the Digital Age

As little as a decade or so ago, infidelity was pretty easy to define and identify. If a person was having sex outside his or her primary relationship, then he or she was cheating. But in today’s world of 24/7 access to social media, pornography, webcams and “adult friend finder” apps, the definition of cheating is somewhat murky. One wonders: Is a live, in-the-flesh interaction still required, or does a webcam exchange with a distant stranger count equally? What about masturbating to Internet pornography? How about chatting up old flames on Facebook and other forms of social media?

It’s a new and confusing world. But the definition of cheating can be pretty simple: Sexual infidelity is the breaking of trust that occurs when sexual secrets are kept from an intimate partner. It boils down to this: Sexual infidelity is not so much about engaging in a sex act (virtual or real) as it is about the fact that you are keeping it a secret from your partner. If you’re using social media to chat with an ex and your partner knows it and gives the go-ahead, so be it. But if you’re keeping these interactions a secret from your partner, you’re engaging in infidelity.

Usually, when the betrayed partner finds out about the cheating — and they almost always do — it’s not any specific sexual or romantic act that causes the most pain. Instead, it’s the fact that the partner’s trust and belief in the person he or she is closest to have been shattered. And it makes no difference whether the cheating occurred in-person or online. A virtual world affair is as painful to a betrayed spouse as an in-the-flesh affair. Simply put, no matter where or how the infidelity took place, learning about it is traumatic. Scientific research shows it can result in acute stress symptoms characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Exacerbating matters is the fact that the betrayed partner has often had his or her suspicions and intuition denied — sometimes for years on end—by the unfaithful spouse, who repeatedly insists that he or she is not cheating. And, as we have long known from work with abused children, being made to feel wrong when you are actually quite right is extremely traumatic. In many cases, betrayed partners begin to feel as if they are the issue, as if their mistrust and emotional instability are the source of problems in the relationship. Unsurprisingly, betrayed spouses feel angry and hurt when they finally find out they were right all along.

It is only in the last few years that the trauma caused by sexual infidelity has become an area of legitimate study. Nevertheless, mental health professionals are quickly gaining insight into the long-term emotional effects of betrayal. Betrayed spouses have every right to feel angry, hurt and confused. At the very least they need validation for their feelings and help processing the shame of being cheated on, along with education and support to move forward. Many also need guidance with day-to-day issues like addressing potential healthcare issues (including the possibility of STDs) and setting healthy boundaries.

If sexual infidelity has become a destructive force in your life and relationships, our sex addiction programs can help you move from disconnected, damaged relationships to truly intimate connections. To learn more, call us at 855-900-7357.

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