The Truth About Online Cheating

Even if bodies never touch, you can seriously harm your relationship

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Online infidelity, or cheating online, is a kind of emotional affair in which the people involved develop a sexually intimate relationship without actually meeting—what's known as cybersex.

In the past, infidelity was a matter of clandestine meetings, lies about "business trips," awkward excuses about the scent of perfume on a dress shirt. Now it's possible to become involved with someone other than your spouse or partner by hooking up online. But while it may seem innocent enough—after all, you aren't in physical contact—online cheating really is just that: cheating. 

If you've been grappling with this question for any reason (you've been "seeing" someone over the internet or you're looking for a sexual outlet and are considering surfing around online for it), here's why you should think twice before you log on if you're married or in a committed relationship. 

Cheating Is Cheating, Even If It's Online

People who engage in online cheating may never even see each other's faces or hear each other's voices. Without actual physical contact, then, intimacy via the internet may not seem like a real affair.

However, an online affair is very much like a physical fling, one that can do lasting harm to a relationship or even an entire family. It can distract the unfaithful partner's attention from their real-life partner and children, robbing them of important time and attention and causing them to feel neglected and taken for granted. 

Online cheating can lead to:

  • Loss of trust
  • Feelings of betrayal
  • Insecurity
  • Anger
  • Jealousy
  • Breakups and divorce

And like traditional affairs, those that take place over the internet inevitably involve secrecy and lies that have the potential to destroy the trust that's necessary to hold a relationship together.

Even if the person being cheated on never discovers what's been going on behind his or her back, the bond of trust is broken when a spouse or partner is unfaithful. People having affairs also tend to get angry with their real-life partners, which can lead to further hurt. 

Signs of Cheating Online

If you are concerned that you or your partner might be engaging in online infidelity, there are some signs of cheating online to watch for. A few you might notice include:

  • Spending a lot of time on their phone or on the computer
  • Increased distance between you and your partner
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Lying or defensiveness when they try to talk about their concerns
  • Changing passwords on shared accounts
  • Moving computers or other devices to secluded locations in the house
  • Clearing search history often
  • Refusing to let the other person see their phone or computer screen

It is important to remember that everyone needs privacy and that it is not necessary for people to share everything about themselves with their partners. However, sudden changes in behavior and obvious efforts to hide online activity are a reason for concern.

If you feel that you need to hide your online behavior and interactions from your partner, it might be a sign that you need to evaluate your online relationships and how they might be affecting your relationship with your partner.

Causes of Cheating Online

There are a variety of factors that can contribute to online infidelity. While such relationships might initially start off as harmless, they can shift over time. Some factors that can contribute to cheating online include:

  • A desire to escape from reality
  • Underlying relationship problems
  • Wanting to pursue certain fantasies
  • Avoiding distress caused by the relationship
  • Poor communication and lack of trust
  • Self-esteem issues

Once two people begin having cybersex, they can quickly and easily get carried away. Some people even become addicted to online sex, which adds another dimension of difficulty to the situation.

For a person addicted to cybersex, time spent in front of a computer or screen will likely take up more and more free time, leaving less time and attention for spouse or partner, and family.

Another danger of cybersex is that the two people engaging in the affair decide to meet in person. At that point, of course, online infidelity can become physical infidelity, which takes cheating to a different level.

How to Avoid Cheating Online

If you are concerned that you or your partner may engage in online cheating, there are steps you can take to help you avoid potential problems.

  • Talk to your partner about your expectations
  • Create boundaries when it comes to online relationships
  • Set boundaries for social media, computer, and phone usage
  • Only talk to your friends online
  • Don't keep secrets from your partner
  • Discuss your online behavior with your partner
  • Stay off of dating sites
  • Spend more quality time with your partner
  • Turn off digital distractions to focus on your relationship

How to Cope With Cheating Online

It's important to keep in mind that online infidelity, like real-life infidelity, is often a sign that there are problems in a relationship and so ending an online affair may not be enough to put the incident to rest or prevent it from happening again.

Communicate With Your Partner

Rather than turning to the internet to try to find happiness or whatever you feel might be missing from your current relationship, talk to your spouse or partner.

Accept Responsibility

If you have engaged in cheating online, take responsibility for your behavior. Acknowledge your actions and accept the hurt that you have caused. Recognize that it will take work on your part to earn back your partner's trust.

Address Underlying Issues

It is also important to consider the underlying issues that might contribute to online infidelity. Communication and trust issues in your relationship might play a role, but underlying mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem might also be factors.

Talk to a Professional

Consider couples counseling or therapy for yourself if you can't seem to stop engaging in sexually compulsive behavior. You will save your loved ones from being deeply hurt and yourself from living with guilt or shame. 

It is possible to save your relationship if there has been online infidelity, but it takes work. Accepting responsibility for actions, doing the work to change, improving communication, and seeking professional help are important steps you can take.

A Word From Verywell

Cheating online can be every bit as serious as traditional infidelity. If you are concerned that you or your partner are engaging in online cheating or having an emotional affair, it is important to take steps to address the problem and repair the relationship. Setting boundaries around online interactions, communicating with your partner, and talking to a couple's therapist are strategies that can help you heal from online infidelity.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Adam A. Perceptions of infidelity: A comparison of sexual, emotional, cyber-, and parasocial behaviorsInterpers Int J Pers Relatsh. 2019;13(2):237-252. doi:10.5964/ijpr.v13i2.376

  2. American Psychological Association. Are internet affairs different?

  3. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Online Infidelity.

  4. Laier C, Pawlikowski M, Pekal J, Schulte FP, Brand M. Cybersex addiction: Experienced sexual arousal when watching pornography and not real-life sexual contacts makes the difference. J Behav Addict. 2013;2(2):100-107. doi:10.1556/JBA.2.2013.002

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.