As if the negotiation of Facebook officiality and the drawn-out dance of flirty texting weren’t obstacles enough, the Internet has visited a new affliction on modern love: It’s called “digital infidelity,” and it’s probably living on your phone.
A new study by researchers at the University of Indiana found that Facebook users in relationships frequently use the site to keep in touch with “back-burners” — exes or platonic friends they know they could connect with romantically, should their current relationships go south. Men have back-burners at roughly twice the rate of women, the study found. But among both genders, the practice is widespread: On average, respondents in relationships said they had romantic or sexual conversations with two people (!) besides their current partner.
That comes on top of a a recent release by the research agency OnePoll, which suggested as many as half of all women keep in touch with a “back-up husband” they could contact if their current husband doesn’t work out. (“With sites like Facebook and Twitter, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with an old flame,” a OnePoll rep told the Daily Mail.)
Meanwhile, sex researchers have recently begun to treat “remote infidelity” — emotional cheating, via social media or smartphone — as a valid topic of research. And it’s on the rise, the noted relationship scholar and anthropology professor Helen Fisher told Salon.
“If you’re rushing away from the dinner table with your family to check your e-mail,” Fisher said, “it’s affecting your relationship.”
… and these days, who doesn’t check their e-mail at dinner?
At some level, this idea of “digital cheating” or “remote infidelity” is just a very old concept in new, trendy clothes. People in relationships have always had back-burners, the Indiana researchers point out — and emotional infidelity, a sort of destructive, unconsummated affair, went down in bars and over cubicle walls long before we had Gchat records of it. To some extent, the Internet has only made these things more visible, better-documented: There are finally texts and emails to back up our suspicions.
But there are other things going on here, as well. Conversing by text or direct message is so inherently one-to-one, and so impossibly easy, that the technology lends a kind of intimacy to its contents — a text can be sent from anywhere, with anyone around, and no one else will know what it says.
And then, of course, there’s that much-discussed specter of the online dating industry: the dual blessing and curse of choice. Multiple studies have demonstrated that people who use social media and cellphones have much larger personal networks than people who do not — about a third larger, on average, Pew found in 2011. And on top of those existing connections, the Internet represents a previously unavailable, untapped source of endless new connections, endless choices.
That’s critical, because the strength of a relationship relies on three things, broadly speaking: satisfaction, emotional investment, and the availability of alternative partners. And that is, this new research suggests, exactly what social media promises — not constant temptation, exactly, but the constant, casual reminder that alternatives exist. Several years ago, when I first met my boyfriend, I remember being wildly offended by a particularly cynical, loud-mouthed acquaintance who mansplained relationships as a kind of mutual settling: “He’s the best you can get, and you’re the best he can get.”
“That’s a really grim take on humanity,” I assured him.
But in terms of social science, there’s actually some truth to that take (… even if it doesn’t, to my relief, totally explain a relationship’s success or failure). The existence of other potential partners changes the core economics of a relationship. And so you become aware of the options, both yours and your partner’s. You become aware of how many times he posts to exes’ Facebook walls, the average time it takes him to text back his female friends, the fact that you’ve fallen out of his Snapchat “top friends,” replaced by his brother-in-law and two women you’ve never met.
And by “you,” of course, I actually mean “me” — because like most honest, Internet-connected humans, I’ve experienced these feelings, too.
Some companies think they’ve found a solution to this kind of digital-age unease: In fact, an entire creepy, terrifying industry exists around spying on your partner’s digital activity. There is software to log his or her e-mails and text messages; apps to tell you where his phone is; parental control software to tell you which websites she browses.
“You and your partner are madly in love and want to be closer than ever before?” asks mCouple, an app that lets you view every text, call and Facebook messages sent from your partner’s phone. “mCouple is a mobile tracker that can help you stay in touch 24/7!”
That kind of vigilance, it turns out, is probably unnecessary. (Not to mention, pretty unhealthy/weird). It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but the Indiana University researchers found no correlation between the existence of Facebook back-burners and your partner’s commitment to the relationship. So digital infidelity, much like sexting and going “Facebook official,” might be just another wrinkle in modern love these days.