Marriage and Fidelity in the Internet Age

There’s a link between what happens online and what happens in the real world.

Revolutions have a way of upending not only political landscapes but also marital and family terrain. The French Revolution’s emphasis on individual rights shifted marital norms well into the post-Napoleonic era, while the Industrial Revolution took women and children out of the home and into the factories. Even today, aftershocks still reverberate from the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.

What of the iRevolution? Does the Internet’s seismic impact on our professional and personal lives portend major or minor upheavals to our sexual norms? Do rumors of screen-addicted Millennials destroying marriage, or of Facebook liaisons spawning Boomer divorces, have any basis in reality? And is monogamy — as explained by Vox on Netflix — no longer attainable or desirable?

We have just released iFidelity: The State of Our Unions 2019. Using data drawn from a survey conducted by YouGov, the study examines the links between sexual fidelity online and relationship quality among American men and women. The iFidelity report also offers the first generational overview of how Americans think about sexual fidelity in the wake of the iRevolution.

One of the major takeaways: Today’s young adults are markedly more likely to cross online boundaries related to sex and romance. For example, of Millennials who have ever been in a cohabiting or married relationship, 18 percent have engaged in sexual talk online with someone besides their partner/spouse. This is compared with 3 percent of Greatest/Silent-generation participants, 6 percent of Baby Boomers, and 16 percent of Gen Xers.

Other conclusions, some predictable and others more counterintuitive:

1. We still prize fidelity and the ability to stick together. While the General Social Survey records an alarming eight-percentage-point drop over the past decade in the belief that extramarital sex is “always wrong,” the vast majority (75 percent) of Americans still consider it so. Even more telling, in responding to our follow-up question asking “How would you feel if your spouse/partner” engaged in sexual infidelity on or offline “without your knowledge and consent,” the vast majority (70 percent) called most of the infidelity behaviors listed cheating. For example, 89 percent of participants felt that if a partner or spouse engaged in vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone other than them, that would be cheating. Furthermore, 82 percent of participants labeled sexting as cheating, and 76 percent called having a secret emotional relationship “in real life” cheating. Even in 2019, most Americans don’t want their partners having a relationship online or in real life with someone else.

2. Generation X started it, not Millennials. Yes, the kids who grew up with The Brady Bunch, not Full House, are the ones who began blurring online boundaries. Behaviorally, both Generation X and Millennials admit to real-life affairs at the same rates as their parents and grandparents in the Silent/Greatest and Boomer generations (about 15 percent), with the majority in all generations faithful to their partners. However, both GenXers and Millennials are much more likely to create porous Internet boundaries — including sexting, cybersex, and following a former boyfriend/girlfriend online.

3. The cohabitation effect persists, and men still claim the permissiveness prize. While eclipsed by the report’s more significant generational findings, worth noting are differences that emerged between relationship types and genders. What researchers call the “cohabitation effect” exists in our survey as well, with individuals in cohabiting relationships being more likely than married individuals to admit to both real-life and online infidelity. Men and women also distinguished themselves, with men responding more permissively in both cheating behaviors and attitudes.

4. Most important: i-Infidelity matters, and following your ex has repercussions. Porous electronic boundaries equate to more problematic relationships, with those most open to online infidelity the least happy and most likely to feel their current marriages or relationships will break up. Conversely, American men and women who refrain from emotional and sexual entanglements in the real and virtual worlds enjoy the most committed, stable, and happy relationships.

A tendency to jettison boundaries once a computer screen lights up puts younger generations onto riskier paths that threaten their future marital and relationship well-being. Where the Sexual Revolution of the ’60s dismantled barriers, perhaps the iRevolution calls for reconstructing a few of the barricades that once kept our relationships intact.

— Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer specializing in marriage and family issues. Jeffrey P. Dew is a visiting fellow at the Wheatley Institution, a fellow at the National Marriage Project, and an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. W. Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.


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