Editor’s note: This article is part of the Deseret News’ annual Ten Today series, which explores the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.
Online activities, like maintaining an active online dating profile while in a relationship or following an ex on social media, are blurring the lines of fidelity, making it difficult for individuals and couples to decide what counts as cheating, according to a new Deseret News poll on national attitudes about adultery.
Roughly three quarters of Americans agree that having sex or kissing someone other than your partner is always cheating, but they bring less clarity to questions about online and other non-physical activities.
For example, 51 percent say sending flirtatious messages is always cheating, 19 percent say the same about watching pornography without a partner and 16 percent say following an ex on social media is always cheating. But in each of these cases, at least 25 percent of respondents say these activities “sometimes” constitute cheating.
New technologies muddle old assumptions about adultery, creating a gray area that couples can struggle to navigate together, said Katherine Hertlein, a therapist and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies how technology affects family life.
“I’m very surprised when I ask a couple about their definition of infidelity during premarital counseling and they respond, ‘What are you talking about? It means physically touching someone else,'” she said. “I tell them they need to wake up. It’s 2017!”
The survey also found a deep gender divide on what constitutes adultery, with women more likely than men to define 11 behaviors on the survey as cheating. The gap was especially large on activities enabled by the internet, such as maintaining an online dating profile, which 70 percent of women but only 55 percent of men say is always cheating.
The Deseret News poll was conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov from March 17-19, 2017. It includes responses from 1,000 U.S. adults and an oversample of 250 Mormons and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent. The survey is a key component to the Deseret News’ annual Ten Today project exploring the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.
On the seventh commandment of “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” millennials are generally less strict than their elders, according to the poll, though there are some issues on which they are stricter than Generation X. There are also significant differences of opinion among members of different faiths. Evangelicals and Mormons consistently stand out, including on the question of whether going to dinner with someone you are attracted to would be considered cheating — an issue brought into the spotlight last month when Vice President Mike Pence sparked confusion and even outrage in some circles over a 2002 interview in which he said he avoids being alone with women other than his wife to avoid the temptation and appearance of infidelity.
In the absence of shared rules regarding appropriate online behavior, the internet can become a source of tension and conflict in a relationship and a place to escape the responsibility of resolving those conflicts, weakening the bond that a couple shares. The one thing that’s clear in a new age of internet-aided (and addled) relationships is that cheating hurts as much as it always has, Hertlein said.
“Whether it’s offline or online, betrayal is betrayal,” she said.
Adultery has been an issue in committed relationships since before Moses came down off Mount Sinai with the code of conduct known today as the Ten Commandments. People stray in response to stress, aging, emotional distance and any number of other factors, choosing an exciting new fling over the hard work of maintaining a long relationship, said Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and author.