Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have put a world of interpersonal connections quite literally in our hip pockets.
Experts say those same social networks have made it easier for people who are inclined to cheat on their significant other to do so with partners both familiar and previously unknown.
“Social media seems to have added fuel to the fire of infidelity,” says Joyce Marter, a licensed psychotherapist and the CEO of Chicago-based counseling practice Urban Balance. “Former flames are just a click away. Appropriate relationship boundaries can become blurry. For example, when does casual messaging cross the line into an emotional affair?”
“For people who are morally willing to and motivated to, social media offers an unprecedented opportunity to engage in unfaithful behavior,” adds Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at UCLA who has extensively studied interpersonal relationships and marriage. “You don’t even have to find somebody who is in your neighborhood. You can flirt and exchange sexual communication with anyone who is willing to do it on planet Earth who is holding a smartphone.”
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That’s something Anthony Weiner, the disgraced politician who has become the poster boy for cheating in the digital age, knows all too well.
Weiner repeatedly used social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to engage in affairs, getting caught in 2011, 2013 and again this year. The first time cost him his seat in Congress. The second cost him any chance he had of becoming the mayor of New York and any chance of reclaiming his once promising political career, period. The most recent time cost him his marriage to Huma Abedin.
“The negative costs of being caught again, for Anthony Weiner, were high and very humiliating,” Karney says. “For him to engage in this behavior suggests that he feels unable to stop.”
So why would someone whose spouse has cheated, on multiple occasions, stay in the marriage?
Relationship experts say there are a number of reasons.
“The history and bond built between couples doesn’t just go away when a partner cheats,” says Tyler Fortman, a licensed clinical psychologist with Chicago-based relationship counseling provider Couples Counseling Chicago. “Most of the time, it’s that loving bond, and either continued love or hope that love will be rekindled, that keeps relationships together.”
But marriages are about more than just loving each other, experts say, and love isn’t the only reason people stay with a partner who has been unfaithful.
“Some people are afraid of negative consequences of possibly losing the relationship, such as financial instability, impact on children, or change in social status or network,” Marter says. “Some people look at all they have invested in their relationship, such as time, money, creating a home, family and social network. Some people have cultural or religious beliefs that motivate them to stay in the marriage.”
“Even though, initially, you may feel like getting out, after time passes and there’s space for reflection, people often change their minds and want to work on it,” adds Anne Malec, a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder of Chicago-based Symmetry Counseling.
The partner who was cheated on may also look beyond the personal impact when deciding whether to end a relationship.
“If my partner betrays me because my partner does not love me enough or does not care about me and the family, that’s pretty hard to get over,” Karney says. “If my partner betrays me because my partner has an illness or an addiction, then you may be able to look beyond that.”
Relationship experts say that, for couples to stay together, both parties have to put in effort, and the partner who cheated has to do what it takes to be trusted again.
“It takes a lot of conversation,” Malec says. “It’s hard because, for the hurt partner, they are often devastated because the person they thought was always on their side, they feel betrayed. It takes transparency. It takes the unfaithful partner’s willingness to answer a lot of questions. Sometimes the same questions over and over.”
“The unfaithful partner must demonstrate actions that (they) can be trusted, over and over again,” Fortman adds. “The cheating partner must also work to demonstrate their understanding of the harm that they caused the relationship and their partner. Both partners must choose to forgive – either the other and/or themselves.”
There haven’t been any studies directly linking increased usage of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to an increased likelihood to cheat. That being said, experts say social media could lead to marital erosion, and not just because it provides an outlet where partners could kindle a flame outside of the marriage.
“Social media has added tremendous pressure in relationships,” says Mikki Meyer, a New York-based licensed marriage and family therapist. “Friendships are judged by the actions which are displayed on the internet, and information allows strangers to impose their views about what might be going on. No one really knows what happens behind closed doors, and information is often skewed depending upon the source or their perception and judgment.”
What’s displayed on the internet isn’t always reality, which is why couples shouldn’t necessarily benchmark themselves against the happy images portrayed by their friends and family online.
“People can look on Facebook and compare their own marriage negatively to the marriages they see on Facebook because people only post the good stuff on Facebook,” Malec says. “Sometimes, people just assume that everyone else’s marriage is much better than their own.”