Online infidelity, online affairs, cyber infidelity, cyber-affairs, internet affairs, even social media cheating. These are some of the many terms given to the act of being unfaithful to your partner by engaging in either emotional or sexual involvement with someone over social media sites, the internet, or the phone.

There has been a healthy debate in the past few years as to how to define “online infidelity” and its trademark behaviors. How similar is it to meeting in person? Is watching pornography included in this definition? What’s the harm in sending a text to someone with an emoji?

It has been suggested that some of these online behaviors are micro-cheating rather than an actual infidelity.

But what many people may find to be completely normal online etiquette and behaviors may be crossing the line for others. Perhaps, the blurred lines and unset rules surrounding online behavior may explain why online infidelity is so widespread.

The reasons are more complex.

An understanding of the appeal of online infidelity is needed before trying to figure out how you can prevent this from occurring in your relationship. Let’s explore why online infidelity has been such a relevant and debated topic over the past few years, and why it has become such a pressing issue for couples.

Unlimited Options and False Hope

The internet and its reach has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, and with it, various websites, apps, forums, and the like that allow people to connect in a way that was previously impossible. The ever-changing nature of this technology has created a culture of unlimited options at our fingertips – quite literally. A potential partner, friend, or confidant is just a click or message away, and there are an infinite number of means to find them on the internet. Human connection has become a chase in which we tell ourselves we can “always do better.”

This is the great paradox — despite having a partner who we chose in real life, we think we can find someone suited better to us based off the little information others selectively give to us over the internet.

In reality, this connection is superficial.

These “options” for connection may not even be people you will ever communicate or meet with, but might offer you the false sense of hope that you can find someone better than your current partner, that your current partner isn’t good enough, or that there’s something missing between you and your current partner.

Falling Down a Slippery Slope

The experience of being one “click” or “message” away provides potential for people to fall down a slippery slope; what might seem like harmless communications or behaviors with others online may quickly, and without one noticing, become something more.

There is such a comfort of sharing personal information online or over text because there are no immediate repercussions, no face to match to a name. This makes it hard to determine what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to possible online infidelity. The lines are blurred. At what point does the communication become an emotional connection?

It’s Easy to Be Secretive

Lastly, using the internet or social media to connect can be so alluring because it is easy to keep others from discovering your online behaviors. Covering up becomes as easy as changing a password, deleting your history, or erasing a message thread. Not to mention the thousands upon thousands of different websites, forums, and apps that allow you to create personas and accounts with unidentifiable information. It’s impossible for your partner to find each and every platform you use, and every account you keep.

For better or for worse, unlimited opportunities for connection, the appeal of online communication, and the ease of anonymity makes it much easier for anyone to create an emotional, and sometimes sexual, connection with another over the internet.

This is especially true for millennials and other young adults in a romantic relationship who have known and grown with the internet and social media for most, if not all, of their lives.

(A continuation of this topic will be posted soon, in which strategies to help protect your relationship from online infidelity are discussed.)