We might not think that a husband could meet another woman and form a relationship which moves from flattery, to flirtation, to infatuation all from the comfort of his easy chair and within sight of his wife as she cooks his dinner, but with the Internet and digital devices this is just what can happen. As Brendan L. Smith, writing for the American Psychological Association, has said, “The typical affair used to start in the office and move to a seedy motel room, but the vast reach of the Internet has brought infidelity into many couples’ homes over the past decade.”
Dr. Al Cooper with his ground-breaking research at Stanford University illustrated the profound effect the Internet is having on relationships. He defined the special power of the Internet both to plant and to nourish the seeds of infidelity with his term The Triple A Engine: accessibility, affordability, and anonymity.
Accessiblity: Through the use of computers and social media, individuals have access to an unlimited number of potential partners. Once the partner is found, the same computer, tablet, or smart phone provides around the clock opportunities to connect and communicate. The problems of time and geography are overcome. Nor is it necessary to sneak around. The affair can often be carried on right in the same room with the unknowing spouse.
Affordablity: Computers, Internet service, and smart phones are affordable for much of the population and considered almost an essential of modern life. Infidelity does not add to the cost of the devices and services that most middle class people already pay for as part of their basic budget. Nor does Internet infidelity carry the cost of real life extramarital affairs. One does not have to so much as buy a cup of coffee for the potential partner. Online dating requires no wining or dining. There will be a cost to be paid, but it will be paid by the victims of the online affair, the betrayed spouse and children.
Anonymity: Of all Cooper’s Three As, perhaps anonymity is the most powerful and beneficial force to the online affair because in the virtual world the partners have much more control over how they present themselves than is possible in real world dating. When getting to know someone in person, many nonverbal cues are perceived that influence opinion and response. In addition, the visual information is vastly more complete than the carefully chosen photographs that are presented to the online prospect. With the Internet, both the personal information and the visuals can be edited and enhanced: one can, in effect, become a different person. This is especially appealing to those who are unhappy with who they are in real life. It is perhaps this cloak of anonymity which affects the findings of K.S. Young who, writing for the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, says that individuals feel less inhibited when communicating online. For this reason, they more readily share personal information than they would in person, and this can build feelings of trust and connection with the other party more quickly than would happen in real life relationship building.
While the pioneer work of Dr. Cooper laid the foundation for research on the effects of the Internet on relationships, many researchers are now adding to the body of knowledge in this field. Recent writing by Katherine M. Hertlein and Armeda Stevenson for Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace provides a meta-analysis of the impact of the Internet on infidelity by incorporating the work of other psychologists with that of Cooper. From this research, four additional A’s can be added to Cooper’s original Triple A Engine. They are approximation, acceptability, ambiguity, and accommodation.
Approximation: M. W. Ross, M.R. Kauth, and R. Tikkanen argue that the Internet experience goes far towards approximating the pleasure and excitement of getting to know someone and even falling in love that can happen in real life. The stress management benefit of real life relationships is found to be simulated by online relationships. M.T. Whitty’s research has revealed that the flip side of the approximation coin is that once the affair is discovered or revealed, the experience of being betrayed is just as painful to the spouse as a real life affair.
Acceptablity: The findings of S.A. King, K. Daneback, A. Cooper, and S. Manssoon reveal acceptability as an especially insidious contributor to the power of the Internet. Real life behaviors that are not accepted by the individual or by society are often found to be acceptable through the use of the Internet. For example, someone who would never go to a casino and engage in gambling may well do so online. Typing, chatting, and befriending people online is not viewed as inappropriate in the same way as going on a date with someone other than your spouse would be. If the online friendship is allowed to develop into an online affair, it will take on the negative judgment that real life infidelity carries, but, at least at its inception, it can begin with more innocence. It is this apparent initial innocence that enables some to begin a virtual affair when then would not so easily begin one in real life.
Ambiguity: The fact that different individuals vary in their view of what constitutes unfaithfulness contributes to internet infidelity according to researchers T.S. Parker, K.S. Wampler, K.M. Hertlein, and F. P. Piercy. It is as if there is a spectrum that begins with conduct that would be viewed by all as innocent and ends with conduct that all would view as unfaithful, but the precise moment or exact conversation or act when innocence tilts toward guilt is difficult to pinpoint. M.W. Ross is quoted as saying, “When the definition is diffuse, the involved partner’s likelihood of being accountable for their behavior drops, thus maintaining the problem the couple is having.”
In order to alleviate ambiguity and aid clinicians in their work with those whose relationships are affected by Internet infidelity, T. Docan-Morgan and C. A. Docan have developed a widely accepted definition which defines Internet infidelity as follows: “An act or actions engaged via the Internet by one person with a committed relationship, where such an act occurs outside the primary relationship, and constitutes a breach of trust and/or violation of agreed-upon norms (overt or covert) by one or both individuals in that relationship with regard to relational exclusivity, and is perceived as having a particular degree of severity by one or both partners.”
Popular media has also weighed in on the subject. For example, Andrea Miranda in an article for CBS Houston dismisses ambiguity and concludes that online affairs are emotional adultery. She goes on to add that “The problem with emotional adultery is the cheater is no longer actively securing the emotional bond with the spouse. In many cases of traditional and emotional affairs, spouses spoke to counselors about being treated worse shortly after the affair began. The need to be online or on the phone became more important than being physically present for real world activities.”
Accommodation: The final “A” in the list of contributors to Internet infidelity is accommodation. K. Hertlein and A. Stevenson draw on the “self-discrepancy theory” of E.T. Higgins when they make their case for accommodation as a contributing factor in online unfaithfulness. This theory holds that some individuals feel a strong conflict between their real and their ideal self or self image. Because they feel their own life is limited or lackluster, they turn to the Internet in the hope that it can provide the fantasy and excitement they crave. K.S. Young has found that, because contact through the Internet can be international and diverse, it can seem more “glamorous” than that of everyday life.
Heather Dugmore in her article “Divorce by Facebook” takes the Accommodation argument to its logical conclusion. The more the online relationship is seen to fulfill a fantasy and the more perfect its intimacy is perceived as being, the more the real life relationship will pale and wither in comparison.
The Rolling Stones once told us that murder was just a shot away. Research is now telling us that with seven powerful “engines” driving Internet infidelity, the destruction of home and family is just a click away.
Cooper, Al. Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the New Millennium. CyberPsychology & Behavior. SUMMER 1998, 1, 187-193.
Docan-Morgan, T., & Docan, C. A. (2007). Internet infidelity: Double standards and the differing views of women and men. Communication Quarterly, 55(3), 317-342.
Dugmore, Heather. Divorce by Facebook (2014). Retrieved February 19, 2015 from http://www.biznews.com/opinion/heather-dugmore/2014/09/20/divorce-by-facebook-why-online-affairs-dont-end-happily-ever-after/
Hertlein, K., & Stevenson, A. (2010). The Seven “As” Contributing to Internet-Related Intimacy Problems: A Literature Review. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 4(1), article 1.
Miranda, Amanda. Online Affairs Are Emotional Adultery (2011). CBS Houston. Retrieved February 19, 2015 from http://houston.cbslocal.com/2011/10/10/online-affairs-are-emotional-adultery/
Smith, Brenden L. Are Internet Affairs Different? Journal of the American Psychological Association. March 2100, Vol 42, No. 3, p. 48.