Social media, websites like OnlyFans and other subscription sites have impacted many couples’ relationships. Some of these sites involve subscribing to specific creators or models, “sugaring” (typically monetarily providing for a younger, attractive person), or camming (watching people perform sexually via webcam). Without having to interact face-to-face, people in relationships are often emboldened to share intimately with others – a form of “hyperconnectivity” unique to online encounters. These online interactions have shifted how people view breaches of trust and define infidelity in monogamous relationships.

Some may not feel comfortable with their partner ‘liking’ or ‘following’ specific people, making friends online, or chatting with others via direct message. Exchanging money (e.g., tipping, giving allowances) and emotional intimacy can also ignite feelings of betrayal. Many websites allow subscribers to explore their sexual interests and engage in fantasies in real-time, especially those they may not feel comfortable expressing to their partner. Consuming this type of pornography is acceptable in some relationships while others consider it a breach of trust. As ways to experience both pleasure and betrayal expand, we encourage couples to expand their approaches to communicating, coping with, and healing from these influences.

Words Matter

In this article, we use the following terms:

Breach of trust – any action or communication perceived as a boundary violation; may be intentional or unintentional  

Injured partner – a partner experiencing hurt from a breach of trust

Participating partner – a partner who engaged in behavior that breaches trust

Rather than arguing whether a specific action “counts” as cheating, start with what matters: the underlying feeling. If you are hurt, say so. Your partner may not agree with your interpretation of the breach of trust. But they cannot argue with your feelings.  

If you are the participating partner, acknowledge your partner’s feelings and apologize for contributing to their pain. Then, assess whether you can see their point of view. You do not need to agree with each other’s perspective to show empathy.

Less Is More

When your relationship is suffering, it is natural to seek advice or support. But think before you share. There can be tremendous social pressure to mend OR end a relationship after a breach of trust. Your relationship and wellbeing deserve your full focus. Sifting through others’ opinions and judgments can be distracting. However, discussing your concerns with a small number of people can help. Resist the urge to share more widely once you identify these trusted few. You can always say more, but it is impossible to take back disclosures. Individual or couples therapy sessions can be good neutral spaces for support.

Is an Open Relationship a Work Around?

In short, no. Many monogamous couples consider opening up their relationship in response to flagging desire or the discovery of a breach of trust. Some do this successfully and find happiness in flexibility. Others find widening the range of acceptable behavior in their relationship simply highlights pre-existing problems or triggers jealousy. The decision to open a monogamous relationship can work well when made proactively rather than reactively. “Decriminalizing” sexual or online behavior without adjusting a couple’s values rarely results in satisfaction and trust. If both partners truly assess and decide that contact of any kind with others can be pleasurable and respectful as an addition to – instead of a replacement for – their relationship, opening up a relationship can be safe and exciting.

However, open relationships are not immune to breaches of trust. In fact, partners who experience betrayal in open relationships may experience more intense hurt. Because open relationships require a high level of communication, it can be painful when someone learns their partner failed to adhere to intentional and mutually negotiated guidelines and rules.

How to Avoid Repeating Mistakes

Communicate now and set expectations that can evolve along with technology. Ask questions about the general concept rather than specific incidents, even if you don’t have all the answers.

For example, if your partner saw evidence of strong attraction to someone else, did it hurt? Is it necessary to eliminate this type of exposure in the future, or can attraction to others exist comfortably in your relationship? Is paid or personal online interaction okay? Are messages, photos, or direct two-way communication with others acceptable? Do you want full openness, or is “don’t ask don’t tell” a better solution about behavior you deem acceptable but still feel jealous about? Do your boundaries and behaviors need to be identical to feel fair?  

Simply getting more comfortable being uncomfortable in these conversations is a positive step. Stamina for difficult conversations is critical to any healthy relationship. Having trust that you and your partner are capable of communicating can help rebuild your connection. 

When to Be Specific

During the healing process, it helps to be specific rather than general about triggers. Participating partners should ask injured partners if there is anything they can do to reduce triggers or reminders of online beaches of trust. For example, if the injured partner is reminded of sexual messages when the participating partner gets notifications on their phone, the participating partner can volunteer to minimize notifications for certain apps (at least temporarily). Participating partners offer reassurance and closeness when the injured partner is working toward feeling comfortable and safe in the relationship. If you decide the breach of trust is too large to overcome and choose to end the relationship, these discussions can still help clarify individual expectations. 

Regardless of if and how a relationship moves forward, considering some of the questions posed here can be useful to set boundaries. The ways to experience sexuality and pleasure will continue to grow. You and your partner can safely explore whatever you choose if you develop the tools and language to negotiate clear expectations.