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Research on Internet Infidelity

submitted by Erzulie

I have seen so many threads lately on this topic in particular. This past semester in school, I did a research paper on this very topic - Infidelity and the Internet. It is my belief that there is a lot of valuable information in what I put together, so ... I am posting it here for anyone who is interested in reading. I hope it will help those that need it most.

If anyone is interested in the bibliography that supports my research, I will happily provide it to you.

Infidelity and the Internet - an Examination


In modern American society today, the world has gotten much smaller, thanks to the advances of technology - specifically, the Internet. The access to information is one of the most obvious benefits that the Internet has to offer; in addition, there is an equal increase in access to other people. While this has opened a whole new chapter for those seeking means to find dating partners, the Internet has also become a breeding ground for adulterous relationships. A new term has been coined to describe this phenomenon - "Internet affairs". The operational definition of an Internet affair is any intimate or sexually explicit communication between a married person and someone other than their spouse that takes place via the Internet.

In a society such as ours where social indicators tell us that 50% of marriages end in divorce, there is obvious concern that this new trend in extramarital connections will have a negative contribution of consequences to this already staggering dilemma. What is in need of examination, is the impact that this new avenue of communication and connection between people - the Internet - has had a detrimental impact upon the institution of marriage in America today. Has the Internet - specifically, the incidence of affairs that occur on-line - led to an increase in marital dissolution?

It is hard to imagine a husband who would never set foot into an adult bookstore would spend time downloading online pornography; it is hard to imagine a wife who would never pick up the telephone to dial a 900-number engaging in erotic chat or phone sex with men she had met online. From a humanitarian perspective, it is disturbingly difficult to understand how stable marriages of 20 years or more are ending due to a two or three-month Internet affair. Shock and disgust aside, these are the very things we are witnessing in our society today.

"Internet Affair" - A New Social Phenomenon

The use of the Internet is a relatively new phenomenon in our society’s history, and as such, is difficult to compare with any other social phenomenon. In order to understand the increased incidence of Internet infidelity, researches have examined three key components that comprise the chemistry of an Internet affair - anonymity, convenience, and escape. When these three are combined together, they serve as the proper mix to lead to such virtual adultery.

The anonymity of Internet communication allows users to secretly engage in erotic discussions without the overriding fear of being caught by a spouse, contrasted with that implied risk were these communications conducted in a more real-life format.

Anonymity provides the user with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the Internet experience. Anonymous Internet communications such as these often occur in the privacy of one’s home, their office, even their bedroom; the common perception of anonymity by the average user is that this sort of communication on the Internet is both private as well as untraceable.

Internet affairs are initiated in this manner and typically begin in chat room setting allowing users to talk in real-time by typing messages to each other through "screen names" or "handles." Messages can either appear in the public forum for the entire room to read or an "instant message" can be sent privately to a single member of the room.

The anonymity associated with electronic communication allows users to feel more open and frank in talking with other users.

Experts say that 70% of communication in real life occurs through non-verbal messages; however, the anonymity of the Internet allows the user to feel comfortable without needing to look for these cues, these signs of insincerity or judgment in their facial expression, as would be existent in real life; as such, the common perception is that they are less "socially risky" than their real-world counterparts. People on the Internet are able to portray themselves in whatever manner they see fit - often, glorifying or glamorizing things about themselves that are not necessarily true in real life.

The perceived privacy of the Internet enables a person to share intimate feelings that are otherwise only shared with a significant other; the time it takes for those messages passing back and forth from screen to screen to carry emotional significance is far more expeditious than would be in real life.

For people who are wishing to seek emotional gratification, this manner can be arguably seen as far more efficient than any means to attempt the same in real life. In this day and age where seldom to adults have time to accomplish all of the things they would like to do in a given day, the obvious appeal of this efficient means to accomplish a given end are not difficult to understand.

What starts off as a simple email exchange or an innocent chat room encounter can quickly escalate into an intense and passionate Internet affair, often leading to secret phone calls and orchestrated real life encounters. The more communication that occurs, it has been shown, the more likely there is for an actual real life encounter. However, there are just as many participants who simply go from one cyber relationship to another, and never have any real life encounters with any of them. This behavior is seen as an "escape" from everyday life and its inherent burdens.

Internet - A Society Unto Itself

In order to better comprehend the enormity of this phenomenon taking place, it is important to recognize that the Internet today represents a society unto itself. And societies, in order to function productively, must employ sets of rules for interaction of members of that society. In real life in America, men and women operate each and every day in line with copious rules, most of which do not even need to be considered consciously as they are adhered to by society’s members automatically and without thinking.

These codes of behavior represent the socially constructed reality by which we as members of a society live by. Within a society, the members - or, actors - operate together over time to develop their culture. Based upon that reasoning, the Internet poses a whole new definition of a functional, interactive society, in the sense that it is comprised of actors who interact with one another, and indeed have formed a sort-of "culture"; however, that culture is not subject to the same rules as is the culture we adhere to in everyday, "real" life in the physical realm. There is, in fact, surprisingly little transference of those same rules we consider commonplace that guide our everyday behaviors to the rules (or lack thereof) that govern behavior that is acceptable to engage in on the Internet.

If people define their situations as real, their consequences will be recognized as real as well; in line with that thinking, it can be argued that the perception of Internet adulterers is that their situation is truly not real, and therefore, not subject to the same codes that must be adhered to in the real realm.

Evidence of the degree to which this phenomenon has expanded - that of a cyber-society absent the same rules as physical society - is the preponderance of websites that are designed specifically for this purpose - to encourage Internet infidelity. A curious husband or wife may at any given time on the Internet secretly peek into one of these such rooms, with titles such as the MarriedM4Affair, Cheating Wife, or Lonely Husband; the numbers of participants in these websites and the perceived permissiveness of their engagement in Internet infidelity behaviors is nothing less than unsettling.

Those people who are shown to participate in these forums on the Internet would be otherwise deemed "normal", non-deviant members of society. The decisions made by the participants that in turn result in this behavior are based upon the individual’s definition of the social situation; it is then theorized that the perception held by those individuals is that their definition of that social situation - behaving in that manner on the Internet - is neither consequential nor deviant, based upon the fact that it is perceived to lack any consequence that would dictate otherwise. Actions result from decisions made by us through the manipulation of the situation in our minds, and acting upon that manipulation by the choices that we make.

Real Life Versus Internet

Adultery itself is becoming more common in our society, according to statistics, and researchers are finding that women are just as likely as men to have an affair. A 2003 study found that 29 percent of married people under 25 had had an extramarital affair, with no statistical difference between the number of men and women who chose to be unfaithful to their spouses early in life.

By comparison, only 9 percent of spouses in the 1950s under the age of 25 had been involved in extramarital affairs. Another study concluded that by age 40, approximately 60 to 65 percent of husbands and 45 to 55 percent of wives become involved in an extramarital affair.

Real-life affairs are typically more than a one-time event. A 2004 study surveyed 200 men and women and found that their affairs lasted an average of two years. These affairs - just like traditional relationships - were seen to go through transitions over time. They may begin as romantic, sexual, or emotional relationships and may become intimate friendships. There is evidence that those affairs that later turn into friendships may indeed last for an entire lifetime, providing no discovery was made of the initial nature of the relationship by the married partner.

Internet affairs differ from these other real life affairs, however, in that they may not involve a physical component; however, often the emotional attachment is still there. Internet affairs develop because of the dual attraction of attention and anonymity, and surprisingly enough, it is the anonymity that often encourages the emotional investment, as it is seen as an investment without the risks that are felt to exist in real life romantic scenarios. It is the anonymity that in turn feeds the addictive nature of these sorts of affairs based upon the unknown of the affair partner.

They can be as beautiful and intelligent as the Internet participant’s dreams can imagine; the fantasy is fueled simply by the lack of information.

Internet affairs are predominantly fantasy-based; on many occasions, when the choice is made to meet in real life, that is when the true danger begins. These kinds of affairs can be very seductive; an Internet addict calls out to a spouse "one more minute" just as an alcoholic justifies "one more drink". Social and emotional needs are met, flirting is allowed and even encouraged, and an illusion of intimacy feeds the addiction that has caught so many unsuspecting Internet advocates off their guard.

Internet affairs typically develop because the cyber relationship meets various social and psychological needs; self-esteem needs often appearing at the top of that list. Self-esteem needs are met through knowing, understanding, and acceptance. Psychologists say that those needs are enhanced through talking intimately about feelings, thoughts, and needs. Even though online affairs may not involve a physical component, the emotional attachment can be just as strong and even overwhelming. And when they end, this strong attachment often can leave the participant in emotional pain.


One question often debated is whether an Internet affair is as harmful as a "real world affair" in which the partners physically meet. There seems to be a belief held by many that affairs that occur on the Internet in this manner -entirely anonymous and absent any real life contact - are not as consequential or serious as those that occur in the physical realm; some even believe their existence is entirely harmless.

There was a qualitative study conducted in 2000 of 94 people who had a partner engaged in an Internet affair. These are the reported results of that study:

  • in almost 40% of cases, Internet affairs led to real life intimate encounters
  • 30% of online affairs began after the partner had a history of compulsive sexual behaviors
  • after learning of an Internet affair, spouses reported feeling angry, hurt, and betrayed, as well as feeling they had to "measure up" or compare favorably with affair partners, just like people who discover a partner having a real world affair
  • over 20% of the couples split up or divorced after the online affair was discovered
  • almost 70% of the couples with an online affair had experienced a significant decrease in relationship sex during the course of the online affair
  • Another similar survey conducted among married men and women asked the questions of whether Internet affairs carry the same weight of evil as a real life affair; over 60% of the men and women surveyed agreed that the Internet affair, without a physical encounter, was just as destructive as one that occurred in real life. When asked if they would leave their partner and dissolve the marriage upon such a discovery, 66% of the men and 802 percent of the women surveyed said that yes, they would leave and divorce their married partner.

Why Participate?

Is this a matter of free choice? According to Mead, "freedom is the control of the [social] actor over his or her own action". However, action that does not result from direct thought or perhaps even conscious decision - impulsive, if you will - Mead would argue is not a result of that decision-making freedom.

These sorts of acts may often even surprise the actor that is committing them in the first place, when confronted with the reality of the behavior they have chosen.

There is justification often given when confronted with such decision-making, however; the justification of perceived boredom in the marriage, or of somehow not garnering adequate rewards through the marital process.

A University of Florida researcher, Beatriz Mileham, studied Internet infidelity as part of her doctoral dissertation, interviewing 76 men and 10 women who used popular chat rooms for the "Married But Looking" crowd. Most of the participants insisted they loved their spouses, but were still compelled to seek a romantic encounter via the Internet due to boredom or their partner's perceived lack of interest in sex.

It could be said that society is largely to blame for this problem, as we are taught from a very young age to have grandiose and largely unrealistic expectations of marriage. We watch romantic pictorials in television and media, and are socialized from a very young age to believe that marriage should be effortless and unexceptionally fulfilling to us as individuals. When "real life" sets in, and what is found is contrary to those ideals we’ve been brainwashed into striving for, what is experienced is an overwhelming sense of letdown.

Life, as it were, let us down, as our expectations were not met as we had believed they would be. Couple that with the messages in our society about what will make each of us truly happy as individuals, and the self-serving music behind the words of capitalism, and the stage is undoubtedly set for people to relish an avenue to pursue those ego-gratifying needs. However, the reality of consequence still exists in the physical realm; so, in line with the growing efficiency needs of our culture and society as a whole, the Internet is introduced, and has indeed provided an avenue for this sort of gratification without any perceived risk of physical-realm, real-life consequences.

Many people falsely assume that the primary reinforcement to engage in adultery is the sexual gratification received from the erotic and sexual behavior engaged in on the Internet. Studies have shown the experience itself is reinforced through a type of addictive "high", providing an emotional or mental escape and serving to reinforce the behavior, in turn leading to further compulsivity.

A lonely wife in an empty marriage can escape into a chat room where she is desired by an Internet affair partner. A sexually insecure husband can transform into a hot lover on the Internet that all the women in a given chat room may actually fight over. While sexual fulfillment may provide the initial reinforcement, the more potent reinforcement is the ability to cultivate a subjective fantasy world whereby the Internet identity can escape the stresses and strains that they face in real life.

The courts, however, have argued that the role of online compulsivity as a mental disorder in the defense of online sexual deviancy cases. For example, one landmark case, the United States versus McBroom, successfully demonstrated that the client’s downloading, viewing, and transferring of Internet pornography was less about erotic gratification and more about an emotional escape mechanism to relieve mental tension.

Gender Bias?

Are women any more at risk, or vice versa? Research indicates that the percentage of women who have extramarital affairs has increased the last few decades. In 1953, Alfred Kinsey found that 29 percent of married women admitted to at least one affair. However, this does not indicate that women are more prone than men to have an affair; this merely indicates that women are more prone today than they were in the past to engage in such behavior. Men still carry the leading statistic on infidelity in marriages; the reason that there has been so much more recent investigation into the rates among women is because our society has practiced an attitude of greater acceptance toward this same behavior in the male population through history.

Today, more women are employed outside the home than ever before; and, as may be expected, women who are employed are more likely to have an affair than full-time homemakers. One study found that 47 percent of wives who were employed full-time and 27 percent of full-time homemakers had been involved in an affair before they were 40 years old.

Men and women have affairs for different reasons. Research has shown that women seek affairs in order to be loved, have a friend, and feel needed. Men seek affairs for sexual fulfillment, friendship, and fun. Women report feeling thrilled by their lover’s interest in them physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They are also excited about the chance to know a different man; they experience intimacy with their cyber-lovers because they can talk about their feelings openly. The anonymity often serves as a defense mechanism, rendering the participant immune to any fear of rejection as is typical in real life relationships. When these affairs end, many women feel a great deal of guilt with regard to their husband and children.

Men report feeling excited about the sexual experience of the affair. They try to control their feelings in the affair, and their emotions may not compete at all with their feelings for their wife. Men also feel guilt and regret over deceit when an affair ends, but less so than most women.


The obviously most significant social consequence of any incidence of infidelity is divorce. Today's divorce rate is higher than 50 percent - and it seems to be increasing. While an affair that is discovered does not have to necessarily lead to divorce, that is often the reported result. Approximately one- third of couples remain together after the discovery of an adulterous affair, while the other two-thirds end the marriage in divorce. Divorce lawyers and marriage counselors claim that Internet infidelity is indeed now one of the leading factors in marital breakdowns.

According to the President of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Internet infidelity has accounted for a growing trend in divorce cases. However, the nature and scope of marital dissolution caused specifically by Internet infidelity has been greatly underestimated due to the Internet’s current popularity as a technological advancement. Furthermore, healthcare professionals, especially marital and family therapist who are most like to deal with such couples, are often unfamiliar with the dynamics associated with relatively new concept of Internet affairs and the electronic process of virtual-based "cheating".

A lesser-known fact is that those who divorce very rarely marry the person with whom they are having the affair. A survey of 4,100 people showed that only 3% who divorced their spouse later married their affair partners. Even further, the divorce rate among those who married their affair partners was over 75 percent; reasons for that high divorce rate include intervention of reality, guilt, expectations, and a general foundation of distrust in the marriage - not necessarily the incidence of another affair.

The lowest rate of divorce in married couples, logically enough, are those couples who report no incidence of affairs - either over the Internet or in real life.


Peggy Vaughn, the author of The Monogamy Myth, serves as an expert on problems caused by infidelity. She predicts that one role of the Internet in the future will be as an increasing avenue and source of affairs. She is writing a second book on the subject of adultery and says she could base half of it just on the letters she receives from people who started an affair online.

With the growing number of citizens who access the Internet every day, this is a social trend that can be expected to continue. Based upon the far-reaching expanse of the Internet, no one can claim they are immune to its charms. The appeal of Internet affairs in our society today should serve as a signal that we may need to re-think certain aspects of our lives in order to better and determine what is rooted in reality and what is not, as well as the consequences of crossing that boundary for ourselves. If we as a society do not find a way to do this, the successful future of the institution of marriage as whole remains tenuous.

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