Thanks to a new study by Texas Tech University researchers, treating infidelity among couples may change due to the unique aspect of social networking sites, specifically Facebook.
Using data from Facebookcheating.com, researchers found that although the stages of coping with online infidelity are unique, the infidelity itself creates similar emotional experiences for the partner who was cheated on.
"This is very important because there is a line of thought that if the infidelity was discovered online, or confined to online activity, then it shouldn't be as painful," said Jaclyn Cravens, a doctoral candidate in the Marriage & Family Therapy Program and lead author of the study.
During her master's program clinical work, Cravens discovered many of her clients' relationship issues stemmed from online infidelity thanks to an increasing number of people using social media sites, especially Facebook.
"Facebook already has changed the dynamics of relationships," Cravens said. "We see when our 'friends' are getting into a relationship. We say a relationship isn't 'official' until it's 'Facebook-official.'"
She found that many of her clients had discovered instances of their partner exchanging suggestive messages with a third party on the social networking site, even though the two were supposedly in a monogamous relationship.
Cravens found that outside of issues like porn addiction, there hadn't yet been much research to back treatment for these kinds of relationship problems confined to the Internet.
Surprised at the lack of information about a topic so pervasive in society -- Facebook had more than 1 billion users as of March 2013 -- Cravens decided to pursue the topic for a qualitative methods course project, along with the help of Kaitlin Leckie, who also is a graduate student in the Marriage & Family Therapy Program and Jason Whiting, an associate professor in the program.
"We used Facebookcheating.com to determine the coping process for people who have discovered a partner's infidelity on Facebook," Cravens said. "We discovered several main themes and were able to create a process model that moves through different stages of the ways people deal with the information."
The model includes the following five stages:
"For many couples, step three can be very difficult because couples often don't have clearly established rules about online behavior," Cravens said. "They aren't totally sure whether or not something can count as cheating."
Regardless, Cravens said the emotional impact for the party who has discovered online acts of infidelity is no less severe than acts committed in-person.
"People have ability to be more vulnerable online, which facilitates a greater emotional response," Cravens said. "This can be just as devastating if not more devastating than an offline response."
For a clinical setting, Cravens explained that the research can help counselors treat marital problems that have root causes in online infidelity.
"It's important from our perspective to be able to find out what has been violated," Cravens said. "We need to be able to recognize the emotional experience and process emotions for both partners."
Cravens currently is a visiting lecturer at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Her research was published in "Contemporary Family Therapy."
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