We live in a world where technology has drastically altered the way we exist–and continues to do so. It has touched our lives, careers, communication, transportation, medicine, and more. So, it only makes sense that technology would affect our love lives as well, right? 

Even in just the past two decades, people’s attitudes about infidelity have changed. People today expect more from a spouse than they did fifty years ago. They expect their partner to be their best friend, therapist, support system, AND a fantastic lover. While it’s ok to expect these things, there may be conflict between spouses about which expectations are reasonable. This conflict may extend to whether or not emotional cheating is cause for concern–or even divorce. 

Not everyone will agree on what counts as cheating and what doesn’t. Not everyone will agree whether emotional cheating is grounds for divorce. The concept of virtual infidelity highlights this issue.

What actually is cheating? Does emotional cheating “count”?

Does kissing count or only sexual intercourse? What about flirting? What about flirting online? Watching porn? Emotional cheating?

Cheating can happen in a monogamous relationship, where romantic relationships occur between only two partners, and can also be present in open or polyamorous relationships. In these situations, cheating can look more like a lack of communication or breakage of boundaries rather than the physical act of being with someone else.

Physical cheating involves a physical connection with someone other than your partner (or, in the case of an open or polyamorous relationship: a physical connection with someone outside of the agreed-upon boundaries). Emotional cheating is a little harder to define.

What is emotional cheating? 

Emotional cheating is an intimate connection with someone outside your relationship that weakens or undermines your primary romantic relationship. It occurs when one person in the relationship becomes emotionally attached to someone other than their spouse. This emotional connection can exist through prolonged communication, developing inside jokes, sharing fears, hopes, and dreams, and more. 

Though emotional cheating is not physically sexual, it often has an erotic component. Regardless of any erotic component, it is considered by many to “count” as cheating.

Emotional cheating can happen in poly or open relationships as well! Ultimately it is a breach of trust and a violation of the boundaries that exist in your relationship. It is a connection that draws attention away from the relationship or primary partner in a way that disrupts trust. 

One increasingly common form of cheating is virtual infidelity.

What are some examples of virtual infidelity?

Just as there are multiple ways to build and break someone’s trust physically, there are different ways to virtually break trust in a relationship. Building and breaking trust looks different to everyone! But the internet certainly complicates things by creating opportunities to break trust and emotionally cheat. 

What kinds of virtual infidelity exist? What do they look like? Here are some examples: 

  • Watching Pornography: Some people consider watching porn cheating while others don’t- we all make our own rules in relationships and determine the things that break those rules. Porn can both increase or decrease satisfaction in relationships. The problem is that lots of people don’t want to admit they watch porn and, therefore, never discuss it with their partners. Talk to your partner about porn! Let them know your boundaries and expectations. If watching porn violates you or your partner’s trust, it could be virtual infidelity.
  • Cybersex: There are so many different types of cybersex that this section could be a whole article on its own! And again, these activities are only cheating when they violate the trust or agreement in a marriage. Types of cybersex include online chat rooms, online video chatting, sexting (which can occur through text, email, social media, you name it), using connected sex toys to sexually engage with people online, contracting sex workers online through sites like OnlyFans, and more.
  • Cyber Affair: A cyber affair is a type of affair that can include any and all aspects of cybersex and can encompass one-time encounters or ongoing relationships. 

Virtual infidelity has become extremely common. The internet affords us a convenient place to be anonymous and seek escape. We can sit in the comfort of our own homes, be open and frank with less fear of judgment, and seek out exciting new connections. Though this may seem harmless at first glance, it can cause real detriment to a marriage. 

Can virtual infidelity be the same as emotional cheating? Absolutely. The two are not necessarily separate. 

Signs of virtual infidelity and emotional cheating

Every relationship is different, so signs of cheating for some may be meaningless to another. With that in mind, here are some things to look for if you believe your spouse is having an online or emotional affair: 

  1. They just want to get online! They seem distracted and are eager to spend most of their time online. 
  2. Change in their schedule. They stay up later or wake up earlier to be on their computer/ phone.
  3. They have increased privacy demands. It becomes super important for you not to touch their electronic devices. They close the door when you walk by, change their passwords, etc.
  4. Change in behavior. They start acting off, emotionally distant, being flakey, and getting defensive and angry with you. 
  5. Sexual desire changes. They either have a noticeably increased or decreased desire to engage with you physically and sexually. 
  6. They stop turning to you for comfort. They begin seeking solace in another relationship and become defensive about that relationship. 
  7. They become suddenly irritable with you, especially after being with the other person. 
  8. They are less inclined to work on the relationship with you. They communicate less and share less with you.

Emotional affairs can be devastating to marriages. Though certain risks come with physical affairs like unwanted pregnancies and STIs, a short lived-physical fling or a one-night-stand might carry less weight or be less painful than an ongoing relationship with another person that fosters emotional connection. 

So what do you do when your partner is having an online or emotional affair?

Is emotional cheating or virtual infidelity grounds for divorce? 

I can’t tell you whether or not to end your marriage; ultimately, that is your decision. What I can tell you is that if your relationship is suffering from the fallout of an emotional affair or virtual infidelity, you are not alone!

Infidelity is hard to handle in relationships. There are tons of reasons why people cheat, and it can trigger old wounds, create new wounds, and have you reassessing your whole life. The most crucial first step is to take care of yourself. Think about your goals, needs, and desires. Re-evaluate your values. Then decide if your partner fits into your life moving forward! 

If you do want to file for divorce, here are a few things you should know: 

Technically, in divorce law, physical contact of a sexual nature is required to claim adultery. With rapidly evolving technology, however, the lines of this definition are becoming blurred. So you CAN cite infidelity for an cyber affair, and you may be able to receive financial compensation. Especially if the cheating spouse spent money on gifts, paying for websites, buying webcams, etc. 

You are your number one, so take care of yourself! Lean on your people, find a support group, start therapy, practice mindfulness techniques, or scream into the void. Whatever you need to do to get yourself feeling like yourself again, PLEASE do it! No judgment here. 

On the other hand, if you want to rebuild your marriage (and your partner does, too!), the first place to start is with trust.

Moving forward: rebuilding trust and communication

Trust can mean different things to everyone, so talk to your partner, and figure out what you need to feel safe, respected, and open to vulnerability. Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Make sure all parties are committed to this; rebuilding a relationship will NOT work if only one person wants it to work. 
  2. Try to get to the route of the problem. There is not often one reason for a lie or a betrayal but try to figure out where it could have stemmed from. 
  3. COMMUNICATE! You have to do this together. It won’t always be fun or easy but try not to hold things in or cover things up. 
  4. Practice forgiving your partner and forgiving yourself. 
  5. Set goals. Do you only want them to end the affair? Do you want them to stop using the internet altogether? Think about what this looks like, be specific!
  6. Try not to dwell on the past. If you continue to bring up the infidelity from the past while your partner is attempting to move forward, it could create strife and resentment. 
  7. Practice empathetic listening. Use non-blaming statements and try to understand where your partner is coming from. 
  8. Give each other time! You can’t fix a breach of trust overnight, and we are not perfect. It will take time to process. 
  9. Consider couples therapy. You don’t have to do this alone! Marriage counseling can help to rebuild trust and create a safe space to move forward. 

The bottom line: 

This is all up to you. It is possible to rebuild trust after a betrayal, and it is also OK if you want to call it quits. You know your relationship better than anyone else, and you’re the best judge of whether emotional cheating is grounds for divorce. Take a deep breath, communicate with your partner, and forge your path forward. You got this!