Is cheating only physical?

Published: November 21, 2014

Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Skype and similar social media and networking platforms provide a private, comfortable and easy avenue to share intimate feelings, fantasies and thoughts.

Cheating on a partner or having an affair whilst being in a steady, committed relationship has been an area of interest to people for as long as one can trace back the history of humankind. Since the last decade, social scientists have been trying to understand the phenomenon of online affairs or ‘digital cheating’.

Several studies focus on what they call the ‘AAA engine’ of online affairs – Affordability, Accessibility and Anonymity. Social media makes it more comfortable for people to share their fantasies and problems while sitting in the protection of their home or workplace. Several studies also show that while committed men have traditionally been more engaged in such activities, the number of women having online affairs is also on the increase.

A study conducted at the University of Indiana found that Facebook is widely used by people in steady relationships to keep in touch with their exes or platonic friends whom they call ‘backburners’. This study found that besides their current partner, each of the respondents, on an average, had romantic or sexual conversations with two people.

Another study conducted at the University of Nevada highlights the opportunity social media provides to both men and women to act out their fantasies which they might not be able to in reality. It acknowledges the impact of emotional infidelity and states that online affairs can affect the relationship in ways similar to traditional affairs, resulting in feelings of insecurity, anger and jealousy. Other studies also show that online affairs lead to neglect of work and children, and less interest in sex in the existing relationship.

A friend of mine shared her experience saying:

“Initially, it was just internet pornography and then it became Facebook, Skype and Whatsapp chat with girls he meets socially and through work. He is extremely social and successful in his work. Even when he is at home with us, he is busy on his phone and we have many fights over this issue which is affecting my children now. He continues doing so and there is not much I can do to stop this.” – A woman in her late 30s.

No formal studies have been conducted in Pakistan to understand the extent, dynamics and impact of online affairs. Based on limited experience of working with clients and that of friends and acquaintances, the use of the Internet to initiate and maintain affairs is on the rise both among married men and women. Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Skype and similar social networking platforms provide a private, comfortable and easy avenue to share intimate feelings, fantasies and thoughts. Inhibitions are lowered while talking to someone online as opposed to in a face-to-face conversation. The nature of the online relationships and the level of intimacy vary from case to case with each person having their own definition of the behaviour that constitutes cheating.

For some, it only includes casual flirtatious exchange of messages with someone they had met briefly either socially or through work, while for others it leads to a more explicit exchange of sexual information or sharing of personal feelings, problems etcetera. Many times, the strong emotional connection formed over social networks also leads the relationship to the next level of communication over the phone and then meeting in person.

An acquaintance in his late 40s explained,

“It started with me reconnecting with a distant relative who I emailed about problems at home. We were both very open and comfortable with each other. From the emails, we moved to exchanging Whatsapp and text messages and became more intimate with each other over time.”

The online exchange in most of the cases is not with a complete stranger and involves someone they know socially, through work, an ex or an old school friend. Some pick people to connect with who they think are ‘safe’, would not tell or would not have to meet on a regular basis, while some are drawn towards those who would be willing to engage eventually in an actual physical relationship.

Another friend revealed that,

“I have reconnected with acquaintances whenever I have felt that my spouse is not taking interest or appreciating me. I am not emotionally involved; it’s just flirtation, purely to have that need fulfilled. These acquaintances I chat with are ‘happily married men’. I chose to speak to those who I don’t have to meet on a regular basis.” – A woman in her mid-20s.

Owing to the complex nature of online cheating and dearth of research, no single reason or pattern can be generalised to understand why men and women engage in an online affair while being in steady committed relationships. It would also be difficult to comment on why people who themselves report being ‘happy, satisfied and in love’ in their current relationship, resort to seeking online relationships. While this area needs to be studied in greater depth, some reasons that were commonly shared include lack of attraction or interest in sex with or from the partner, need to experiment and play out fantasies, boredom, loneliness, need for emotional connection, dissatisfaction with the current relationship, personal need for validation and appreciation, wanting more than what is already available, personal complexes and fears etcetera.

The fact that some of these relationships may not lead to actual physical contact make people believe that it does not constitute as cheating and thus may not be seen as a problem. As a result, the behaviour might continue parallel to the committed relationship, often without the spouse or partner being aware that there is a problem in the relationship that needs to be addressed. As a result, the devastating impact of emotional and online cheating without any physical contact is underplayed. While the online affair may continue to remain hidden from the spouse, there is a negative impact of the affair on the current relationship in the form of lack of interest and motivation to work through the personal and relationship issues leading to the behaviour.

Human beings are complex and so are their needs, desires and motivations. Affairs and relationships have existed in the past even before the internet and social media facilitated them. Individual counselling can be beneficial for those who feel that online relationships could become an unhealthy pattern affecting their current ones, their work and other aspects of life, while couple counselling can be beneficial for those who have unresolved emotional and sexual issues and communication gaps.

Zehra Kamal Alam

Zehra Kamal Alam

An Islamabad based practising Clinical Psychologist with 16 years of experience working with children and adults especially on trauma and violence related issues. She also works freelance in the development sector and tweets as @zehrakamal (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Tortoise

    U missed the most important thing why people engage in all this. its just because they miss the thrill, the thrill of doing something wrong, the thrill of new adventure..Recommend

  • abreez

    By educating children that sex is very important exercise for internal
    immunity system one can force his or her children to willingly avoid unnecessary
    friends. Now we’re living in a world
    where we can teach better and quicker our children about human immunity system. One of my friend when we started our college involved
    with a lady much older than he is and got skin infection. When he told his close friends about the
    infection we were shocked and consulted a doctor. Doctor was a great man, he asked for 20,000
    rupee and warned that if we delayed treatment any doctor left with no option
    other then cut the penius. We all the
    friends belong to lower middle class families and for us 20,000 then was very
    big amount. Those fifteen or twenty days were such that we even we discuss theft
    of our teacher’s bike but then our friend told us that he is getting well by every
    passing day. Doctor took his regular fee
    and told us about different sexual disease and up till now neither I nor my
    friends had an affair and we all are happily married.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Who said chatting is cheating .I have made many close acquaintances and confidates on the net who are males ( and I have never met them till date) . I am equally happy with my family. Stop trying to make judgements and explanations .Recommend

  • Muhammed Waqar Younis

    only Minds that wander towards mischief may seek such actions…Recommend

  • Dan

    It’s not surprising men are mostly accused of cheating. After all such “studies” blindly hypothesize that its the man at fault before fact-finding even begins. What about all the ladies who cheat behind their husbands?Recommend

  • Sami

    Believe me i live in Europe and in my view Europeans have less online affairs than Pakistanis living in Pakistan. Almost all of my friends back home have online acquaintances and what is worse that almost all of them are married. Also i worked in the past in one company before coming to Europe and to my utter disgust almost all the bosses have an eye on their secretaries and they talk about them in their personal meetings.
    Even in our desi Professional work ethics hitting upon your colleagues is a norm and it is a sad but the real truth.
    But anyway I have seen that it have something to do with the culture of Sub-continent. My Indian friends surpass us in such affairs so we cannot blame us only. May be it is the South Asian culture of not discussing any issue with your elders and even with your wife and in the end you resort to online activities to fulfill your inhibited and taboo based desires.Recommend

  • The Litmus Test

    There are physical/emotional/digital affairs… literally dozens of ways to cheat,that don’t even involve,touching. (The one’s which aren’t yet physical are hotly contested by persons involved, their partners,saying,”You’re crazy,that person and I are just friends!”

    There is a simple two-question,self-assessment test,for such persons to ask themselves-
    A. Are you okay with your spouse doing exactly,what you’re doing right now,behind your back ?
    B. Would you be doing this same thing in exactly the same way,if your spouse was present ,right here,right now ?
    If the answer to EITHER question ,is ‘No’- then ,you ARE cheating on your partner.

  • TLT

    Madam,read the whole article. Who says its about you ..Recommend

  • TLT

    Alls well that ends well ..
    Nice of you all to worry about your friend.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Very interesting read.
    In days of old, the lady would drop a handkerchief or a man would send a flower to make their intentions known….now they Facebook or WhatsApp each other. Firstly where’s the romance in that ? ….and secondly the intent is the same only the modus operandi has changed.and that too with the speed of light.
    My view is that life can be simple or complicated……the choice is yours to make.Recommend

  • Malik Abdul Rehman

    i got to get psychotherapy session after mental trauma i suffered after reading thisRecommend

  • Alizay

    Chatting can lead to cheating…i have seen many married men here who are doing this on social sites. So no matter these relationships are virtual but still we cant call an act of betrayal a right one…Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    the thrill of getting booted out of your house when your wife finds out. Yes this doesn’t happen here because women are badly oppressed but I hope it does.Recommend

  • sharabi

    Then you are lyingRecommend

  • -SHAGY-

    anyone want names of such married guys I have come in contact with?! that will require much more space than this comment box!!!!
    I can relate 100% with this article…an yes most of these men are not in fact MAN enough to actually fix things at home rather than fooling other girls with their lies and sob stories….and looking outside to fulfill their kinky fantasies!Recommend

  • Dr.Anon

    The patriarchal mindset on the sub-continent,means that men respect only their mothers/grandmas & police their daughters/sisters, while any other woman who catches their fancy is fair game (as long as she’s not a relative) -hence,the disgusting work place sexual politics.
    If the woman is even remotely attractive – God save her from bosses/colleagues.
    If she’s attractive & unscruplous-she can use the attention to her advantage.
    If she is attractive & ethical & doesn’t reciprocate- she will have a very hard time at work.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Jaan , can’t one have close confidantes in the opp X ?Recommend

  • Parvez

    I shouldn’t step in but your harsh comment just forced me to………don’t judge someone you don’t know by applying your standards to them.Recommend

  • hari mirch

    I am really happy to read your blog as i asked the same question to my class fellows and result was a complete chaotic fight,,, they did not give me a satisfactory answer if they are committed why do they need more? Or may be “temporary flirt” is so tempting that they forget everything for that particular moment. The reason might be weak family bonding … family ignores and results in frustration.. We human beings are always un thankful,, we urge for more and never get “satisfied”. Men smell fresh flowers( the charming young girls) and move on ,,, it causes frustration and competence in women and “they fly from man to man”.Recommend

  • hari mirch

    even oppression results in rebellious attitude leading towards corruption. Our maids when are beaten by their bread earners ,,,do flirt and they find a temporary relaxation ,,, u need to look around more carefully ,its not abt a particular class ,,, everyone is indulged in it now ..only few blessed ppl are safe from this disease.Recommend

  • hari mirch

    oppression leads to rebellious attitude which leads to the corruption. Even the maids who are beaten bitterly by their bread earners (i won’t call those savage their husbands) they flirt and rejoice themselves. this disease has prevailed in our society and not a single community is un-affected (except for few blessed people).Recommend

  • hari mirch

    plz et do publish my comment. i am really pleased reading this blog as i recently discussed the same issue with few ppl who “claimed to be in intense love and fully committed” inspite of that i found them indulged in flirting as part time job :p hypocrite men …. men fly from blooming flower to flower and once it is smelt they move on ,,,i hv found the left over frustrated women in order to take revenge flying from men to men. specially most of my colleagues and students felt neglected at home and experienced the same trauma. I can call it a delusion or may be a trap …. Recommend

  • Come on..

    Now ,that’s judgemental.
    (Maybe,she passes the litmus test,mentioned above )Recommend

  • Banana

    Your comment proves that you simply did not understand this article. There exists a difference between online/offline friendship with a member of the opposite gender and an emotional affair. Answer this. Does your male friend provide any of the following that you would rather get from him than your husband? Conversation, Affection, recreational companionship (being a tennis partner or a jogging partner or an online game-partner),physical needs (you know what I mean), admiration, financial support, domestic support. Now if you ever felt that one of your male friends will be able to fulfill this in a way better than your husband, then you are having an emotional affair. Mere chatting is not an affair. Now keep this in mind and read the article again. The author implies that these adulterers will rather spend hours chatting with their affair partner than with their spouses and consequentially neglect their spouses. You can share intimate details with persons of opposite sex besides your spouse. That satisfies the need for conversation. But if it ever happens that you share it only with him or feel that you’d rather share it only with him and not your husband then that person has satisfied one your most important emotional needs i.e conversation. Naturally you will be attracted to him and that is the beginning of the affair. You should read books on this by Shirley Glass, Willard Harley Jr., etc. In fact Glass’ book “Not just friends” clearly explains where “friendship” crosses the boundary and wades into affair territory.Recommend

  • Fareed


  • Milind A

    You’re probably one of a kind then…. Welcome to the real world and please take of your rose-tinted glasses before you do that…Recommend

  • Benita111

    I couldn’t figure out if my man was cheating on me because he was always texting on his smartphone, I had to get some assurance by getting to know what he was really up to on his phone without his detection.
    I had some help of course, I accessed his devices remotely to get a glimpse of what he was doing, his location, messages, calls and so on. The remote access was another level and i was able to ascertain a lot of things about my relationship. I am happy to share more about my experience if you want to know more. Recommend