Couples who discover online acts of infidelity are as traumatised by it as they would be if the cheating was committed in-person, according to a new study.
Texas Tech University found that although the stages of coping with online infidelity are unique, the infidelity itself creates similar emotional experiences for the partner who was cheated on.
"This is very important because there is a line of thought that if the infidelity was discovered online, or confined to online activity, then it shouldn't be as painful," said Jaclyn Cravens, a doctoral candidate in the Marriage & Family Therapy Program and lead author of the study.
Cravens and her team found that many of her clients' relationship issues stemmed from online infidelity thanks to an increasing number of people using social media sites, especially Facebook.
"We used Facebookcheating.com to determine the coping process for people who have discovered a partner's infidelity on Facebook," Cravens said.
"We discovered several main themes and were able to create a process model that moves through different stages of the ways people deal with the information," she said.
The model includes five stages. First, there are warning signs: the partner who was cheated on notices gut feelings and/or suspicious behaviour on the internet, such as minimising windows, habitually clearing out browser history and adding passwords.
Next, the individual either takes it upon themselves to investigate the warning signs, or the individual accidentally discovers the infidelity.
The third stage is damage appraisal where the individual determines whether the discovered acts was or was not a violation of the relationship.
If the individual determines that the act or acts were a violation of the relationship, he or she either confronts or avoids the partner. Sometimes the individual decides that the evidence wasn't concrete enough to be able to approach partner.
Others retaliate, which typically includes posting messages online or sending a message to the third party, or the third party's partner. The last stage includes making a relationship decision.
"For many couples, step three can be very difficult because couples often don't have clearly established rules about online behaviour. They aren't totally sure whether or not something can count as cheating," Cravens said.
Regardless, she said the emotional impact for the party who has discovered online acts of infidelity is no less severe than acts committed in-person.
"People have ability to be more vulnerable online, which facilitates a greater emotional response. This can be just as devastating if not more devastating than an offline response," she said.