Digital disloyalty: Study says online flirting can destroy real-life relationships

HERZLIYA, Israel — Some consider flirting harmless, but new research suggests flirting online can ruin a real-life relationship. Scientists at Reichman University report flirty online interactions with someone who isn’t your romantic partner can have a subtle, unconscious effect on how that person perceives their real-life loved ones. In other words, flirting online may lead to someone seeing their partner as less attractive.

According to the research team, this can have a domino effect, making individuals more likely to “release passionate feelings” towards people other than their partner. If they hadn’t flirted online, study authors say, those same individuals would have been far less inclined to act on their feelings.

Maintaining a healthy, long-term monogamous relationship has always required work, but researchers explain the modern age presents a unique set of obstacles. There’s no shortage of temptations available at any given moment online, and a long list of websites to visit if someone is feeling lonely.

How do modern, monogamous couples navigate the temptations of the current day? Typically, people turn to “relationship-protective strategies,” such as ignoring potential suitors or purposely perceiving them as less attractive.

For this latest research project, study authors set out to investigate how people suppress short-term temptation in favor of long-term plans. In simpler terms, researchers examined which factors strengthen their resistance to temptation and which factors weaken it.

Chatting quickly turns into fantasizing

The team conducted two experiments in which romantically attached participants talked online with an attractive person — who just happened to be a member of the research team. Half of the participants chatted with a research member who kept the conversation casual, serving as the control group. The other half talked to a flirty research team member.

During the first experiment, participants across both groups had to rate how attracted they felt toward their real-life partner after chatting online with the research member. Additionally, participants took part in a task examining their unconscious perceptions of their partner. Ultimately, this experiment showed that people who spoke with a flirty chat partner started viewing their current partner in a less positive light – both consciously and unconsciously.

Meanwhile, the second experiment switched things up. After talking with the “stranger,” the volunteers had to write down the first sexual fantasy that popped into their minds. A group of independent judges analyzed the fantasies, looking at desire levels apparent in each fantasy towards the person’s real-life partner and the chat partner.

Once again, people talking to a flirty chat partner fantasized more about that person and expressed more desire towards them.

“Previous studies that examined factors predicting infidelity focused on partners’ personalities or characteristics of the couple’s relationship. In the current study, I chose to focus on the behavior of the suitors, and to assess whether a suitor who is more active in expressing his interest in an individual who is already in a relationship is better able to penetrate the defense mechanisms, jeopardizing relationship quality and stability,” says study author Prof. Gurit Birnbaum from the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology in a media release.

The study is published in the journal Personal Relationships.

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