Monica Whitty (@cyberpsy on twitter) is a prolific online relationship researcher. But rather than overwhelm this blog with post after post after post summarising her extensive work on cyber-infidelity, I thought I’d consolidate her work here. Read on for links, notes and quotes from three papers, including what kinds of relationships people develop online, why they cheat, and what online affairs mean for offline partnerships.
Whitty, M.T. (2008). Liberating or debilitating? An examination of romantic relationships, sexual relationships and friendships on the Net. Computers in Human Behavior, 24, 1837-1850.
Ever since the beginnings of the internet researchers have questioned its utility in developing and maintaining psychological healthy romantic and sexual relations. Advocates of the Social Presence Theory and Media Richness Theory purport that in leaner media individuals can be quite aggressive towards one another (e.g., in the form of flaming). In contrast, others believe that the lack of traditional cues in CMC can in fact be overcome and instead lead to more personal, intimate relationships. As this paper will demonstrate, when we consider how beneficial it is to form relationships online we also need to consider individuals’ characteristics (e.g., personality characteristics, physical attractiveness), the amount of time people spend online, the duration of online relationships, and how these relationships effect individuals’ offline activities and relationships. Overall, the view here is that online relationships can be empowering for many people; that is, cyberspace provides a unique environment for people to experience and learn about relationships and sexuality.
notes and quotes:
on hyper-personal relationships facilitated by CMC:
As Walther et al. (2001) state: “CMC users sometimes experience intimacy, affection, and interpersonal assessments of their partners that exceed those occurring in parallel FTF activities or alternative CMC contexts” (p. 109). Net friends and lovers can sometimes offer greater emotional support and empathy compared to offline social networks.
although the study is more than a decade old now, here’s an interesting observation about the interaction between when to introduce more interpersonal information (a photograph) and what your intentions are:
Walther et al. (2001) found that the presence of a photograph prior to and during CMC had a positive effect on intimacy/affection and social attractiveness for short-term CMC partners. Moreover, CMC partners who met online felt less intimacy/affection and social attraction once a photograph was introduced compared to individuals with long-term CMC partners who never saw each other’s picture.
Whitty and her colleagues have argued that people construe acts such as cybersex, hotchatting, emotional self-disclosure, and falling in love online as relationship transgressions because partners view this as time and desire being taken away from oneself and given to another love object.
Next up, why people cyber-cheat:
Whitty, M.T. & Carr, A.N. (2005). Taking the good with the bad: Applying Klein’s work to further our understandings of cyber-cheating. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 4(2/3), 103-115.
Although there is a paucity of research available on cyber-cheating and its effects on the offline couple, the current research available suggests that Internet relationships and online erotic interactions can have a ‘real’ impact on couples. This paper builds on the current research by exploring theoretical explanations for how individuals might rationalise their online affairs. Drawing from Klein’s object-relations theory we suggest that while on one level individuals might perceive their online interactions to be ‘unreal’ and hence not ‘breaking the rules’ in respect to the offline relationship, on another level energy is being taken away from the relationship and given to another, which is indeed ‘breaking the rules’.
motivations may be the same, but the appeal of an online affair may be different, because they may be “in some ways more seductive than offline affairs”.
the authors propose that it’s because cyberspace is perceived a separate to the outside world, therefore, “it is potentially easier to split an online affair off from the rest of the individuals’ world”.
the online relationship can potentially cater to an unfettered, impotent fantasy this is difficult to measure up to in reality
It is possibly easier to idealise an individual online (the ‘good’ object) when you can more easily filter out the potential negative aspects of the relationship (the ‘bad’ object). The relationship can be turned on or off at one’s leisure and the communication content, to some extent, can be more easily controlled. Moreover, the Internet does provide an environment where it is easier to construct a more positive view of the self and avoid presenting the negative aspects of the self. In contrast, it is not so easy to indulge in one’s fantasies of perfection in an offline affair as one has to still deal with the ‘real’ person.
infidelity is outside the “script” for most Western, heterosexual relationships, but we’ve not yet written the scripts for online encounters.
given the lack of scripts currently available as to what is acceptable behaviour online and given the nature of cyberspace, some individuals might find it easier to justify or rationalise engaging in an online affair
infidelity can be identified when sexual activity (online or off) is involved, but it’s not necessarily a given that they feel the other partner has been betrayed. When a scenario about emotional online infidelity is given to participants, the majority of participants (81%) did feel that the aggrieved had been betrayed, but not everyone thought it was infidelity, and they gave these reasons:
• the interaction was ‘just a friendship’;
• the interaction was merely flirtation or fun;
• the relationship was with an object (computer) in virtual space, rather than with a real human being;
• the interaction was with two people who had never met and did not ever intend to meet; and,
• it could not be infidelity as there was no physical sex taking place.
finally, perceptions of online love affairs
Whitty, M.T. & Quigley, L. (2008). Emotional and sexual infidelity offline and in cyberspace. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(4), 461-468
This study investigated how men and women perceive online and offline sexual and emotional infidelity. Undergraduates from a large university in Northern Ireland participated in the study. It was found that men, when forced to decide, were more upset by sexual infidelity and women by emotional. It was also found that men were more likely to believe that women have sex when in love and that women believe that men have sex even when they are not in love. It was not, however, found that either men or women believed that having cybersex implied the other was also in love or that being in love online implied they were having cybersex. These results are explained through a social cognitive lens.
notes and quotes: although old studies, these perceptions and consequences of online infidelity are interes:
When Whitty (2003) asked her participants to rate whether they believed certain online behaviours were potential acts of infidelity she found that cybersex was rated very highly and almost as severe as sexual intercourse. In a follow-up study, instead of asking participants directly about what they believed were acts of internet betrayal, Whitty (2005) employed a qualitative method to investigate people’s representations of internet infidelity. In this study it was found that emotional infidelity was stressed as much as sexual infidelity. Importantly, Whitty (2005) also examined the kind of impact participants believed that cybercheating could have on the offline relationship. Sixty-five percent of the stories mentioned that the aggrieved had been hurt or upset by this virtual encounter. Emotional and sexual infidelity. Moreover, in many cases participants wrote that the online infidelity led to a break up of the relationship.
Monica’s hypotheses for this study exposes an interesting gender bias:
based on Harris and Christenfeld’s (1996) work we hypothesized that men are more likely to think that women have sex only when in love and that women are more likely to think that men have sex without love [they found evidence for this in this study]. Furthermore, we hypothesized that women are more likely to think if their partner is in love with another person they will have sex with them, and that women are more likely to think that men in love are certainly have sex [they didn’t find evidence for this in this study].
it thus follows that…
we hypothesized that men are more likely to think that women have cybersex only when in love and that women are more likely to think that men have cybersex without love. Furthermore, we hypothesized that women are more likely to think if their partner is in love with another person they will have cybersex with them, and that women are more likely to think that men in love are certainly have cybersex.
they didn’t find evidence for either of these hypotheses, and propose the reason for this was that,
given that cybersex is qualitatively different to sexual intercourse then, although individuals might still perceive it as a relationship transgression, they do not necessarily link it with love in the same way they would with offline relationship transgressions.