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Wired to stray?: What's 'cheating' in the digital age?

  • New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner's recent sexting woes have sparked conversations about fidelity and technology
  • We asked an expert: What it mean to cheat nowadays?
Wired to stray?: What's 'cheating' in the digital age?

Another day, another political powerhouse hoisted by the petard of his own libidinous Internet games.

Anthony Weiner and various parts of his body are back in the headlines. Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 after some lewd pictures and messages surfaced on social media, and now the New York City mayoral candidate has apologized in a press conference for a second round of suggestive messages and pictures he exchanged with a 22-year-old woman.His wife, Huma Abedin, also spoke during the latest conference, and said she has forgiven her husband.

Double apologies and dumb sexting handles aside (why hello, Carlos Danger), Weiner's latest woes open up a whole new conversation. In an age in which people can forge connections from halfway across the world and bad decisions can be made in a keystroke, what does infidelity really mean?

HLN spoke to relationship expert Dr. Jamie Turndorf. Turndorf is known to millions as Dr. Love, through her website -- the Web’s first relationship advice site.

HLN: How has technology and social media changed the way people cheat?
Dr. Jamie Turndorf: In the past, before electronic media, if you wanted to show your [private parts], you'd have to open your raincoat to flash somebody. Having to show your face (while exposing yourself) is certainly a disincentive! Now, thanks to electronic media, it's easier to expose oneself anonymously. When a man flashes online, he doesn't have to face the instant consequences (the laughter, the horrified facial expressions) that would occur if he were to whip it out in person. In essence, the new media make it easier to not keep your junk in the trunk!

HLN: How does ‘virtual infidelity’ affect relationships?
Turndorf: It’s devastating. What we’re really talking about is a larger issue -- what I call the worldwide epidemic of anemic impulse control. People are not keeping "it" in their pants... nor are we keeping a civil tongue in our mouths. Due to the immediate nature of the new technologies, it's easier than ever for people to instantly act on impulse before thinking. Now, with a click of a button, you can easily shoot off verbal ammunition and also whip out body parts. Obviously, once the impulse is released and you click send, the act can't be undone.

Relationships are being destroyed right and left by all this impulsive behavior. In the past, if a guy wanted to satisfy his natural desire for variety, he would open up a Playboy. If a man wanted to cheat, he would actively have to go out looking for it. Now, with the click of a mouse, with little effort, you can find a playmate in these virtual chat rooms. But these virtual encounters are real. The people are real. Everyone knows that it's possible to make a date and meet these people. So, virtual flings and flirtations can easily become a prelude to an actual relationship.  

HLN: How has the definition of cheating changed?
Turndorf: Cheating is the same thing it always was. Don't kid yourself. A virtual flirtation is still real. And if you're having a flirtation or a verbal sexual engagement with someone who isn’t your partner, you are still going into action. And just because you haven’t actually touched someone doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

HLN: How can someone know if their online behavior is crossing the line?
Turndorf: Study your partner’s reaction. If your partner is distressed by your behavior, you have crossed the line.

HLN: What would lead someone to act out in this way?
Turndorf: We have to understand that cheating, infidelity, and even virtual infidelity are generally symptoms of an ailing relationship. When a person cheats, it's often a symptom that something is lacking in the relationship. When a guy isn't getting adequate attention or appreciation, he may well look elsewhere for "stroking." While many men may turn to cheating in order to satisfy their hunger for admiration and appreciation, which may be lacking in their primary relationship.

Flashing is an entirely different animal. While it's true that when a guy flashes his [private parts], he's also saying "Look at me, admire me," these cries for attention and appreciation do not suggest a lack in the primary relationship. In other words, most men who don't feel admired and appreciated by their partners don't think of flashing as a way of filling their emotional void. When a man flashes, there is generally a deeper cause for such behavior.

In a nutshell, if you'll pardon the pun, there’s a normal phase of childhood development called the exhibitionistic phase. This is a normal phase in which kids display their private parts. Now if something went wrong during that phase, if a kid was punished or scolded, the need to self-expose goes underground. Then, later in life, that can rear its ugly head, so to speak. Now, you have a grownup whose inner child still craves to show off and have people say, "Wow, look at you. What a big boy you are!"

The point is, whenever there’s an infidelity, virtual or actual, there is a root cause. In some cases, the cause is due to a problem in the primary relationship. And in the case of virtual flashing, there are more deep-seated reasons for the behavior, reasons that go beyond the current relationship.

HLN: Obviously, Anthony Weiner’s trials are a classic illustration of this. What do you make of his situation, where he has a relative amount of power, a beautiful, successful wife, and enough visibility to attract the attention of strangers?
Turndorf: His flashing is unrelated to his wife's status or degree of attractiveness. When a man flashes, we know that he didn’t get enough admiration or recognition at a critical phase of childhood development. By the way, studies show that when guys cheat, it’s not because they’re not getting enough sex or their partner isn’t attractive enough. Cheating is due to an unmet need in the current relationship or a scar from early childhood. When you heal the old scars and learn how to communicate and respond to each other's needs, cheating (and flashing) becomes a thing of the past.

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