1. a. Unfaithfulness to a sexual partner, especially a spouse.
b. An act of sexual unfaithfulness.
2. Lack of fidelity or loyalty.
3. Lack of religious belief.
(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)
There has always been a “gray zone” when it comes to defining infidelity and monogamy. Certainly, most people would agree that having sex with someone else would constitute infidelity. But what about a coworker you regularly flirt with? How about that person at the gym that you frequently fantasize about? And what about pornography use?
With the internet, that “gray zone” has become a lot larger and a lot grayer. While the above examples still exist, there are plethoras of new ways people are connecting sexually. Old college friends reconnect through Facebook and find themselves re-igniting an old flame through intimate emails. Avatars in online fantasy worlds kiss, date, and even marry. Sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or photographs between cell phones), direct message Tweeting (ala Rep.Weiner), cybersex chat rooms, and hot IMs (instant messaging) are just a few of the ways that people are engaged in “virtual” sexual contact with each other.
When Rep. Weiner acknowledged his behavior, he stated that while he had engaged in sexual tweeting with several women, he never had the desire to actually meet any of them in person. What, then, was he after when he engaged in this behavior? And if he didn’t really want a real relationship with them, what did he want? And if it was not actual sexual involvement, does this behavior constitute “infidelity?”
Part of why it may be difficult to figure out the answer to these questions may be because sex, itself, is difficult to figure out. The origins of desire, lust, and fantasy are often complex and mysterious, and can range from physiological urges, to emotions and needs that have little to do with sex. Additionally, the answers become further difficult to reach because we often don’t understand the principles that underlie monogamy. In other words, monogamy is often a reflexive and emotional choice without having a deeper spiritual and/or psychological understanding of the purpose. If this were understood, it might be easier to see clearly when lines were being crossed – indeed, it might be easier to make the choice not to cross the lines.
Among couples today, cybersex and Internet infidelity are leading causes of divorce. So while it may feel in the “gray zone” and be experienced as “not real” to the person engaging in the behaviors, it is often experienced as a betrayal and very real to their spouse. It is worthwhile work, then, for us to gain a deeper understanding of what monogamy, fidelity, and faithfulness look like, what they mean, and why they are there, so that we can catch-up our relationships to the high-speed blossoming of the sexual world of the internet.
Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.