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High Infidelity in the Information Age

Why romantic relationships in the digital age are too informed for their own good

Last fall I met a european man while vacationing on a Mediterranean island, and we hit it off like gangbusters. He had long golden eyelashes and one of those smiles that engaged his entire face, and within a few hours of meeting we seemed to be reading each other’s thoughts. It all felt more like a Richard Linklater plot than real life, but there we were—and it was actually happening to cynical old me, no less. We went our separate ways just two days after meeting, but immediately began texting nonstop. Next came the Skype dates, which regularly lasted three hours. He talked me through a series of post-election meltdowns while he was on a business trip in Asia; I always had words for the things he couldn’t articulate, even in his own language. We began to discuss visiting each other, but as I became more intent on it, something suddenly seemed to be holding him back. 

I suspected that something was another woman. I wasn’t thrilled, but we had never defined our relationship. I myself was thinking of going out with a man in New York, in part to feel out my own investment in this trans-Atlantic romance. I figured I’d let things play out for a while, but then confirmation of his other not-quite-relationship came in the most irritating of ways: a whole series of blatantly flirtatious exchanges on Facebook, right there on his public newsfeed where I, and who knows how many of the site’s billions of users, could see it. 

I brought it up, first by asking if anything was going on that would explain his newly-reticent behavior; I wanted to see if he would volunteer anything. His response: nothing “regarding us.” This seemed like a bizarre statement—maybe not a lie, but certainly not the whole truth, since this other girl (cute, young-looking, a big fan of emojis) was already affecting how he treated me, to say nothing of my feelings “regarding us.” I asked more direct questions, and he finally admitted that someone else had in fact just entered the picture. He’d been stressed because he didn’t like hiding it, but also didn’t want to tell me until he had a sense of how he felt about her. He was “afraid to lose me” but wasn’t comfortable with “expectations,” though he was openly upset when I raised the idea of cutting things off. 

Nevertheless, when the European left me a sweet, silly message for my birthday a few days later, I responded by telling him we should let it go. I was upset by the sloppy evasions he resorted to when confronted, and really grossed out at the idea of having a front seat to his dalliances on social media. The whole thing confounded me. Lying is nothing new, and neither is cheating, and neither are undefined relationships in which people screw up and hurt each other because they aren’t sure what the rules are. But the Internet—specifically the Internet of people and their interactions—has created seemingly limitless new ways to be careless with information, often without even realizing it. 

“I think [social media] is very harmful for relationships,” says Rachel A. Sussman, a New York City therapist whose work focuses on relationships. From her viewpoint, the rise of social media has taken a wrench to many nascent (and many mature, but more on that to come) romances. “People are watching their significant others, and if they’re talking to the wrong person it can definitely be a problem. . . .  It’s easier to cheat than it’s ever been—there are just so many avenues to do it. And along with those avenues, there are so many ways for people to read into the wrong thing and think something is happening that actually isn’t.”

She continues. “It’s also too easy for people to spy on their exes. Maybe someone isn’t planning on cheating but they go on their ex-girlfriend’s or ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page—and maybe it’s innocent, maybe it’s just human nature to wonder. But if your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife finds that you’ve done that, they can be really hurt or confused.”

Case in point: A friend recently told me about just such a scenario, in which her then-boyfriend went through his ex-flame’s Instagram profile one night and liked a bunch of her selfies—an act which popped up on my friend’s activity feed. It made her uncomfortable, like he’d checked out his ex while she was standing right there. She didn’t bring it up at the time, but when it came up randomly in conversation several months later, he was caught off-guard. “Oh yeah, that must have been weird,” he said. “I had no idea you could see that.” Whoops. People don’t bother to sort out that their “personal” transactions are actually public, bringing problems to a head in bizarre ways. Those of us on the receiving end have to figure out how to handle it without crossing over yet more boundaries. If no less than Beyoncé can be so overwhelmingly consumed by infidelity fears that she was able to spin them into a masterpiece album, what can the rest of us hope for? 

And frankly, the worst part is that our fears are far from unfounded. “[Technology] has affected infidelity, without a doubt,” Sussman says. “Forget texting—I’ve seen a lot of people conducting affairs on things like WhatsApp. It’s just easier. If things are really hard and really complicated there are some people who won’t do it. And there are other people who think, Well, if it’s this easy and I just had a fight with my boyfriend—girlfriend, husband, wife, whatever—I might just do that.”

Atlanta attorney Elizabeth Green Lindsey specializes in family law and has witnessed the evolution firsthand. “It started with everybody reconnecting with their high school sweethearts on Facebook. That was the first big deal,” she says. “And then early on there were a lot of issues with chat-room dating. Social media turned the world upside down in terms of making cheating easier, and in proving it, because people don’t understand that their Internet usage might actually be discoverable. . . .  Everybody who got busted with Ashley Madison thought they were going into these places anonymously and meeting people. It has the appearance of not being as visible, but finding that activity is a lot easier when you can grab the computer. These days the big evidence for infidelity is mainly coming from computer forensics as opposed to private investigators.” 

And the ways to be exposed are manifold. “One thing I see happening a lot is people sharing their iCloud accounts,” Lindsey says. “Apple updates are really a problem for people because the updates save all the pictures randomly and then they show up on people’s devices. I’ve seen some very horrific conduct turn up on someone’s kid’s iPad.”

“Another thing that happens is that people will give their child their old phone without wiping it,” Lindsey continues. “Mom looks at it and finds out Dad has been texting someone. That happens frequently.” These days, catching someone cheating is often the ultimate experience of adding insult to injury: That a loved one could be so careless and lazy with their efforts at deception is almost as insulting as the betrayal itself.

A last tale from my personal archive: A friend of mine recently spent a year stationed in an active conflict zone for work, and began to suspect that his girlfriend back home was cheating on him. “She might not answer the phone or reply [to a text] but then she’d post a pic of something in a park, or at a social event,” he says of her behavior, which struck him as off because she had always been hyper-responsive. But my friend didn’t call her on it, in part because he was trying to learn to be more trusting. “There was a lot of suspicion suppression on my part,” he says. “The struggle for me was not confronting her.” 

But her statements about where she was, who she was with and why she didn’t have time to talk were often contradicted by what she was posting on social media. When he increasingly called her on these issues, he says, “She tried to lie about it, to do damage control.” Eventually the truth came out—as it is wont to do—that she was seeing someone else, and the relationship went boom. “It was the lying that was disrespectful,” my friend opines. “Especially because I wasn’t even spying or anything. These were literally just things she was posting on the Internet for all to see.”

His was a fairly clear-cut situation, but it exemplifies a pattern with much broader implications. When universal relationship questions (whether someone is trustworthy, for example) meet careless Internet-age information sharing, the tug-of-war between reality and lurking insecurities becomes something even the most thick-skinned of us must constantly negotiate. The Internet, we are constantly told, is not real life. But it is. Social media means we’re bombarded with information about the very real people we want to trust with our feelings, and often that information exists in fragments that can be interpreted any number of ways. 

There’s often a sense of guilt around learning things that someone hasn’t explicitly told or shown you, and saying “I saw it on Facebook” can feel so . . . unseemly, somehow—even though that information is public. But in dating, where trust is fraught and has to be earned, you often need to act on these digital scraps for the sake of your sanity—let alone the health of your relationship. Everyone I’ve spoken to about this dilemma finds it agonizing. First you’re doing contortions over whether you have a “right” to be suspicious, and then over whether airing those suspicions will make you seem like an “internet stalker.” In this very non-private age, where people choose to publicize their most mundane activities, there is still a stigma around overstepping the bounds of privacy by digging—as well as confusion over what those bounds are. What’s suspicious behavior—a phone blowing up with texts at 1 A.M., an attractive coworker constantly commenting on an Instagram feed—and what’s just innocent, all-hours communication? Is the simple act of turning over a partner’s phone to read an incoming text a privacy violation—or just healthy curiosity? 

I have a couple of friends who, when faced with this problem, have sworn off connecting on social media at all until they feel like a new relationship is on very solid ground.  Personally, I try to wait until there have been several dates. But this only awvoids the earliest potential pitfalls, and only then if you weren’t somehow already connected before you started dating. That leaves the option of swearing off social media altogether, but modern reality makes this increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to do. For the time being we’re all stuck maneuvering, investigating and bemoaning each other’s apparent lack of respect—and maybe even our own. 

On page two, we look back at some of the most infamous cheaters in history.

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