Professor Monica Whitty is a researcher at the University of Leicester with a hefty back catalogue of books, articles and chapters about online love. I contacted her to find out about the changes she’s observed in love - from the development of relationships to infidelity - since the dawn of the Web.
How is the typical trajectory of a relationship different from the development of an offline love affair?
The internet has provided a new medium to meet people. The Oxford Internet Surveys (OxIS) showed, for example, that in 2007, almost a quarter of Internet users (23%) had met someone online who they did not know before. In our study we found that people are meeting their spouses online 6% in the UK, 9% in Australia and 19.2% in the USA.
Digital technologies has provided new ways for people to end relationships. Given the lack of social presence experienced when one texts or sends an email, some individuals opt to use these technologies to end relationships.
For more on this subject, read Monica’s book, Cyberspace Romance: the psychology of online relationships, written with Adrian N. Carr and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2006.
If the concept of romantic love that is currently embedded in our culture is “centred around the concept of the ‘ideal self’” and involves “extensive self-disclosure and honesty with the loved one” (as you describe in tour chapter, Love Letters: the development of romantic relationships throughout the ages, in the Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology), what effect does our reported tendency to be more open and honest online (and to be our ‘true selves’) have on the development of relationships?
Indeed individuals often do feel more comfortable opening up about their ‘true selves’ online – the inner most aspects about themselves that are precious to them - and so it is risky opening these up to people, as rejection of these aspects of self would be quite hurtful. We used to argue that it was anonymity that afforded the opportunities for this openness; however, I would argue that it is more the lack of feeling of social presence and the ways different online spaces are constructed.
Being more open and honest allows a relationship to develop closely (especially if there is reciprocity). Sometimes these relationships become ‘hyper-personal’ – more intense and close than offline relationships. Sometimes the relationship moves to face-to-face.
What is different about online versus offline infidelity?
Infidelity - both online and offline - has to do with by mental and emotional fidelity. When people start desiring others online (e.g., engaging in cybersex) their partner will most likely construe this as an act of infidelity. I have found in my research that cybersex and sexual penetration are deemed equally upsetting for individuals. Moreover, falling in love with someone online is also seen as a relationship transgression.
Rules for couples about what is permitted in a relationship vary (both what is permitted online and offline). Women are typically more upset if their spouse falls in love with someone else and men more upset with their spouse having sex with someone else. Of course this is with respect to heterosexual relationships; however, homosexual relationships are also affected by relationship transgressions.
How has technology changed people’s perceptions of what infidelity is?
In many ways it hasn’t changed perceptions of infidelity. Similar rules apply online to offline. The Internet affords more opportunities to cheat or to set up affairs to meet offline.
Is online infidelity considered more or less forgivable than offline infidelity?
The research I have carried out suggests that the same actions would be applied to online betrayal as they would to offline. These of course vary for each individual (e.g., revenge, break up, lack of trust for the person, deep hurt).