Still Think It’s Not Really Cheating? A New Study Says This Action Weakens Relationships

Does it have to be cheating to be cheating? It’s a question that many people ask in the therapy chair after “innocent” online chats create real-world trouble in paradise. Don’t assume that hitting the reply button is safe the next time someone slides into your DMs just because your relationship is strong. Technology has blurred the lines between harmless chats and infidelity. In fact, researchers have linked online chatting with a complete relationship breakdown.

A July 2022 study on “mate poaching” attempts finds that being flirted with online can have devastating consequences for a relationship. Researchers found that people who were flirted with online had worse perceptions of their current partner compared to the control group. Researchers also discovered that people who were flirted with were more likely to have sexual fantasies related to an alternative partner than their current partner when compared to the control group.

It’s important to note that study participants weren’t the ones reaching out to others. They were being flirted with. As a therapist, it’s easy to see why this creates such an easy gateway to destruction. The person being flirted with can easily justify answering back without guilt. They may justify their actions by telling themselves that it’s rude not to reply. After all, it’s not like they were actively seeking a conversation outside of their relationship using dating apps.

Flirting can feel like a drug. When we’re in a monogamous relationship for any period of time, it’s natural for flirtatious behaviors with our partners to die off after a while. This can leave us feeling undesirable. When a new person initiates flirtatious behaviors, we experience a rush of endorphins that can actually create an addictive experience. We begin to look forward to chats where we’re told that we’re beautiful, desirable, smart, and funny. This extra attention can be especially addictive if our partner is neglecting our needs in any way.

How do you know when a friendly, harmless conversation has steered into flirtation town? You may be playing with fire if any of the following apply:

  • You wouldn’t feel comfortable with your partner reading the content of the text messages.
  • You feel the need to go into the next room when conversing with this person.
  • You find yourself smiling, laughing, or having romantic feelings whenever you read what this person has written
  • Your day feels empty and gloomy if you don’t hear from the person you’re chatting with.
  • You find yourself “stalking” the person you’re chatting with online to see who they’re spending time with. You feel jealous if you see them spending time with another person.
  • You’ve fantasized about being with the person you’re chatting with.
  • Your desire for your partner has diminished since you’ve started talking to this other person.

Nobody can police your heart for you. Only you can decide if the conversations you’re having online are honoring the commitment you’ve made to your partner. However, the data backs up the idea that Internet flirting harms relationships.