When I got my first cellphone in 2004, I immediately noticed something. “These things are designed to help people cheat,” I pointed out to my then-husband. They really were: you could delete sent texts one by one or erase a whole thread, you could save someone’s number as something totally innocuous (“Chimney Guy”), you could even change the date or time on outgoing and incoming messages. You could send pictures. This was before smartphones, so the cameras were terrible, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see the inherent potential for someone who likes sneaking around.
Now that technology has basically infested every aspect of our social interactions—do you even remember anybody’s phone number anymore? Because I sure don’t—we spend a lot of time communicating with people we may not exactly know very well, using tiny powerful computers that we carry in our pockets. And, just as in 2004, the possibilities for cheating seem endless. From flirting through repeated “likes” of someone’s posted Facebook photos or commenting on their every status update, to setting up surreptitious OKCupid or Ashley Madison accounts, cheating looks very different in 2014 than it did ten years ago.
Sexologist and counselor Mylene St. Pierre tells Nerve, “I think previously cheating was something you did not bring up in public, it was only discussed behind closed doors. In the last decade, we’ve even seen reality TV shows on the subject!” Remember that horrifying show Temptation Island? It brought dozens of couples to a remote island…and then placed one of the pair in cheat-prone situations with sexily-clad members of the opposite sex (no same sex attractions allowed) and then asked partners to watch on closed circuit TV as a smarmy host patted their hand and said things like, “Wow, it would really hurt me if my wife acted the way your husband is acting.” People cheated on network television, and we ate popcorn instead of getting outraged.
A few years ago, my friend Stella called me in tears to ask my advice: her long-time boyfriend had found a Craigslist Missed Connection that was obviously about him, and, giggling, Stella encouraged him to respond. He showed her the messages he exchanged with the girl, until she stopped messaging him when he said he had a girlfriend. In reality, he’d taken the conversation private, and it quickly escalated to trading erotic photos and descriptions of what they’d like to do to each other. How did Stella know this? Because she’d received every email the two exchanged, plus pictures, bundled up in an email sent by the “other woman.” She said that her boyfriend had cheated on her with someone on Craigslist, so she was finding guys with girlfriends, entrapping them into “cheating,” and then sending all the evidence to their girlfriends. And let’s not even mention all the posts in Casual Encounters looking for “discreet” one-night stands or mid-afternoon stands. The internet is an all-access pass to finding someone new.
Remember LiveJournal? I know several people who found out about partners’ indiscretions through revealing, public LiveJournal blogs, back when pouring out our hearts online was a novel and exciting process, instead of something we do on a daily basis. One friend started dating a woman he really liked. He only found out she was theoretically monogamous with another guy when she forbade my friend from discussing their relationship on LiveJournal at all. Eventually, the whole situation went south and they broke up. My friend wrote a huge post about it to his LJ community, looking for advice and sympathy, only to have this woman call him at 6 a.m. asking him what the hell he thought he was doing, since she’d never actually told her real boyfriend about the situation. Yikes.
Another friend was pregnant with her first child and staying at her husband’s parents’ place in Mississippi for Christmas, when she plugged in his iPhone and the lock screen lit up with a text that read “I want you in my bed”. Opening the phone, she read a series of messages that revealed the extent of her husband’s ongoing affair. It had started through simple texting with a work colleague and quickly escalated into sexting, then meeting in hotels. My first thought on hearing this story was, “What kind of nitwit has an affair and doesn’t passcode-lock his phone?”
With so much of a focus on personal privacy and the prevention of identity theft, a lot of people are more suspicious of unwarranted access to their personal electronic spaces than they were ten years ago. It’s a lot more common for people to password-lock phones and laptops, to have separate accounts for users on the same computer, and to engage in other behaviors that could facilitate (or come across as) sneaking around.
A 36 year-old video game designer told me, “The red flag for me is a change in habits. If someone never cared about locking their phone and all of a sudden started, or was abruptly texting a lot more than usual, those would be signs something was up.” I was in an open relationship with a musician in 2009—he was allowed to sleep with anyone he wanted so long as he at least mentioned it to me—and I could always tell when he was really interested in someone else because you couldn’t pry the phone out of his hand; he even kept it tucked against his napkin while we went to dinner. This was before Tinder, or I would have gotten whiplash from watching him swipe right seventy times a day.
As dating and casual sex apps make it easier to find someone literally just around the corner if you’re in the mood (I once had a quickie with a guy from OKCupid who delivered himself to my front door on his lunch break), the increased reliance on technology to bridge geographical and cultural gaps in social groups makes it easier to accept the creation of emotional bonds on a computer screen. In 2000, we were still making fun of people for believing that you could trust anyone you “met” on the web. Consistent Reddit posters, forum regulars, even anonymous programs like Omegle or Chatroulette: all of these are ways to build actual lasting relationships today with people who might be countries away from you. Just chatting with someone while you’re playing a game could lead to an intense emotional connection, which could then lead to flying across the country to fulfill your forbidden love.
But has fidelity really changed that much with the advent of technology? A mid-30s entrepreneur says, “The world doesn’t have a uniform conception of fidelity. The rich have historically had their sexual deviations treated with more tolerance than those of the poor. Those who have the power get to do what they want, while those who don’t are punished.” Historical records are full of kings, nobles, and other members of the aristocracy swapping partners like they’re in a line dance. Part of our modern conception of romance itself is based on 14th century ideals of “courtly love,” which dismissed being in love with your actual spouse as bad form, and encouraged pining, lusting, and dallying with anybody else who caught your fancy.
One guy friend confessed, “For people in monogamous relationships, cheating is starting to be less and less acceptable, but appearing more and more inevitable. We’re less inhibited when it comes to pre-relationship sex these days, so maybe people are less tolerant of cheaters because they could have just had the sex without the commitment.” As “nonstandard” relationship types, like open marriages or polyamory, become more common, cheating looks less like sleeping around and more like breaking the explicitly-stated rules. Cheating has traditionally been defined by monogamous relationships, but if you have permission to have sex provided you remain within certain rules, breaking those negotiated rules still counts as cheating — even when the sex itself isn’t a problem. In fact, so much work often goes into negotiating boundaries and honestly discussing the rules for these alternative relationship styles, that someone sneaking around and breaking said rules can feel twice as hurtful.
When you get down to it, the same emotions are present in both cheaters and cheatees as have been all along: people are lonely or unfulfilled and find someone else who they think will help them solve their problem. Invariably, people are hurt and upset to find out. I’m not one of those people who believes that every cheater will get caught, either: one friend repeatedly cheated, even driving to a hotel in the middle of the afternoon to meet an out-of-town booty call and going straight out afterwards to meet her husband for dinner. He never found out.
Ultimately, people who are unhappy are a lot more likely to end up cheating, whether they have fancy phones to help them do it or not. It’s just that the ever-ready Tinder app, the quick Facebook Messenger flirt, the cute girl at the coffee shop that lets you know she’s polyamorous, that makes it just that much easier to get distracted from the person who’s waiting at home. A million ways to communicate might be tearing relationships apart, but in the end, it’s the one thing that can save them, too.