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January 17, 2018

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Couples may need fresh definition of infidelity in digital age

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Dr. Katherine Hertlein, a UNLV professor of marriage and family counseling, says strong relationships can prevent infidelity.

Instant messaging via Twitter, Facebook and smart phones allows people to reach out to others at all times, and for instant support.

But there's a dangerous downside: It can lead to Internet infidelity.

Katherine Hertlein, an assistant professor in UNLV’s marriage and family therapy department, says Internet infidelity can occur with an act as simple as chatting online with someone else to the exclusion of a person’s primary partner.

Texting someone while in another person’s physical presence may create closeness between the people texting, but it creates a distance between the two people who are together, says Hertlein.

One reason Internet infidelity may plague a couple, Hertlein says, is because couples rarely take the time to define their definition of infidelity.

“You’ll have one person who says ‘It’s a breach in the relationship, you cheated on me,’” Hertlein said, “and the other person is saying ‘No, I never touched anyone. Yes I was talking to people but that’s not a breach.'”

Couples may not be taking the time to determine what constitutes a breach in the contract. Other times, therapists are finding longtime couples who previously had a clear definition of infidelity need to revisit their definitions.

“Everybody kind of intuitively knows that physical contact is a huge piece of infidelity, but couples often stop there, and the fact is they need to talk more about that in order to avoid some of the challenges” she says.

Computers and new media change relationships in structure and process, according to Hertlein. Structure consists of the roles, rules and boundaries; the process deals with the actual act of being in a relationship.

The Internet introduces people who are both known and unknown to users, which forces people to be clear about the structure of their relationships. If they are not taking the time to discuss these boundaries, then strain on the relationship is inevitable, Hertlein said.

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