Sites like Facebook are often praised as harbingers of a new era of
social connectedness. They bridge distances, allow us to keep in touch with old
friends and provide us with opportunities to kindle new relationships.
But what happens when they drive us apart?
A recently published study from Texas Tech's department of marriage and family therapy explores the more sordid side of online relationships -- infidelity.
The study, "Facebook Infidelity: When Poking Becomes Problematic," concludes affairs that start on Facebook, or in which Facebook is the primary vehicle for communication, can be just as damaging to a spurned partner as cheating in person. It outlines a series of common stages the non-cheating partner experiences after discovering a Facebook affair.
Jaclyn Cravens, a soon-to-be doctoral graduate in the department and the lead author of the study, said the specifics of what constitutes a Facebook affair differ from person to person, but there is a common theme in every case.
"The common element of each definition is secrecy," Cravens said, using examples of a person closing browser windows when his or her partner walks into the room, or regularly deleting the browsing history.
Cravens said the nature of the affairs can be emotional, sexual or both. The important stipulation is that the other partner feels betrayed.
Cravens decided to focus her research specifically on Facebook infidelity after finding little written about the topic while pursuing a master's degree at East Carolina University. Though there has been plenty of research on other forms of online infidelity -- pornography addiction, for example -- there was little about the comparatively non-anonymous world of Facebook.
"For a lot of people on Facebook, we are who we say we are -- we interact with people with pictures of ourselves and with our accurate information," Cravens said. "So when we think about who's on our friends' list, a lot of times it's people we know offline. Would someone be more threatened if their partner had a Facebook affair because it's often with someone they could have an offline relationship with?"
The study began as a project in Cravens' qualitative methods course. Working with Kaitlin Leckie, another graduate student in the marriage and family therapy program, and Jason Whiting, an associate professor, Cravens combed through posts on the website facebookcheating.com for data.
The site is a forum where users can anonymously post personal stories of their partners engaging in online affairs.
In a story from May, a man recounts how his 27-year marriage collapsed -- his wife started sending messages to an old friend from college, dismissed it when her husband raised concerns, and eventually began a physical affair with her Facebook pal. She and her husband divorced.
Cravens and Leckie examined every story on the website, eliminating the stories that named email, texting or other forms of digital communication as the main vehicle for the affair. They were left with 90 stories that specifically dealt with Facebook. From those, the team was able to develop a five-stage model for how those who are cheated on react to discovering an online affair:
--Recognizing warning signs like the cheating partner minimizing windows and clearing the browser history.
--Discovering the infidelity by finding incriminating messages accidentally or on their own.
--Appraising whether the act was in violation of the relationship.
--Acting on the appraisal by confronting the cheating partner or the third party.
--Making a decision about whether or not to end the relationship with the cheating partner.
As the team examined the material, it became clear the online nature of the infidelity didn't soften the blow for the non-cheating partners.
Leckie said even if the affairs never turned physical, the emotional aspect could be just as hurtful. For her, the most important result of the study was providing a framework for counselors to facilitate discussion by their clients about their definitions of fidelity.
"There was a lot of pain in these stories, a lot of people trying to seek advice," Cravens said. "That tells me that my research is for a good cause. We as couples counselors have to understand how technology impacts the people we work with, and how to help them set those boundaries."
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