Evidence on the mental health implications of the pandemic lockdown has been mounting. The more we are stressed by COVID-19, the more we seek relief…and a possible increase in virtual affairs is attracting attention from researchers.
Recently two University of Tennessee Knoxville psychologists, Kristina Coop Gordon and Erica Mitchell asked a compelling question:
Is the stress from the coronavirus pandemic driving spouses into virtual affairs by way of dating apps, social media, and video-conferencing?
Dr. Kristina Coop Gordon is an important thought leader in couples therapy.
She is a published researcher, and co-author of one of the best books ever written on affair recovery, Getting Past the Affair.
Her new research paper, Infidelity in the time of COVID-19 is a “must” read for science-based couples therapists.
Unrelenting stress from COVID-19 is a risk factor that could drive spouses into emotional cheating and virtual affairs.
Current cheating behavior is being actively shaped by COVID-19, and here’s some hard data to support that assumption.
Mysterious data obtained from what Gordon & Mitchell coyly described as a “dating site for married people” offers some intriguing insights.
They report that 17,000 new customers have signed up every day during the pandemic lock down…1,500 more new members per day than the same time last year.
It’s important to emphasize that Gordon & Mitchell see the relationship between external COVID stress and virtual affairs as playing out in real-time. Too many external stressors will lead to reduced marital satisfaction, and reduced marital satisfaction is correlated with an increased risk of infidelity.
Their research suggests that emotional cheating and virtual affairs during COVID may be on the rise, but it’s way too soon to tell with certainty.
It’s also no secret that the use of Zoom, Facetime, and Skype has exploded during lock down (Warren, 2020). Technology and social media, such as Facebook, allow past partners and new “attractive others” to easily enter our daily emotional lives.
The novelty of engaging with someone other than your spouse, while being emotionally supported and validated was immensely gratifying for some, but for others, sexual fantasies were a more powerful lure (Takahashi, 2020).
Unfortunately, our current focus on social distancing may render dating sites such as Ashley Madison the perfect gateway venue for impulsive micro-cheating, which may lead to emotional infidelity, and virtual affairs.
When kids discover that their parents cheat, it often triggers internalizing coping behaviors, such as anxiety and depression, and troublesome externalizing behaviors (Ablow et al., 2009).
In addition, previous research indicates that there is an intergenerational pattern of infidelity within families.
Kids that witness parental infidelity during childhood are more likely to struggle with infidelity in their adult relationships (Hunyady et al., 2008; Lusterman, 2005; Platt et al., 2008). This further perpetuates the cycle of infidelity and its regrettable consequences for the family’s fragile future.
The Kinsey Institute has also recently undertaken critical research to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on relationships.
Recently, researchers at the Kinsey Institute launched an online study called “Sex and Relationships in the Time of Covid-19.”
Kinsey is casting a wide net. They are including both study subjects who are single as well as those in a committed relationship.
One of the most intriguing initial findings from a sample of 1,200 subjects, is that half of the study subjects are having less sex now than before the start of the pandemic lockdown.
The 50% who are still having as much sex as before the pandemic, report that they are often pursuing sexual novelty.
This was particularly true among younger study subjects, those who reported feeling lonely, as well as those who lived alone, or described themselves as “risk-takers.”
According to Kinsey, the most commonly reported new behaviors were sexting, sending nude selfies, trying new sexual positions, and sharing sexual fantasies with a partner.
Both the Kinsey Institute and Gordon & Mitchell both noticed the role that loneliness, boredom, and curiosity play a part in encouraging virtual affairs.
Gordon & Mitchell noted the reasons offered by 13% of the Kinsey study subjects in committed relationships for contacting an ex‐partner.
Many reported feelings of loneliness, boredom, and expressed curiosity about how well their exes were dealing with the lockdown.
Others frankly admitted to pursuing opportunities for sexual or emotional gratification.
It will be interesting to learn what the upcoming Kinsey data will tell us about the spouses engaging in virtual affairs.
The Kinsey research team hopes that the study’s data will unpack COVID-19’s long-term impact on such important issues as fertility, marriage, and divorce.
“We have a real opportunity to understand which kinds of people can experience this chaotic time and use it to help their relationships thrive, and which relationships will simply get pushed over the edge.” Justin Garcia, the Kinsey Institute.
The Kinsey Institute has made a long-term commitment to COVID-19 research. Although they plan to continue collecting data longitudinally, they will discuss the results of their findings soon after they compile them. Their initial research will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Leisure Sciences.
The internet continues to offer toxic, yet tantalizing distractions on demand. Although many virtual affair partners might not risk in-person meetups, Gordon and Mitchell are concerned that online dating services, smartphones, and video conferencing apps will continue to facilitate online infidelity.
“Individuals who are dissatisfied in their current relationship are more likely to explore alternative options and the increased stress from the pandemic may be contributing to more negative perceptions for individuals of both their partner and their relationship.” Gordon & Mitchell.
Sexual and emotional cheating erode trust, and couples typically take two years of hard work to recover. Gordon & Mitchell are concerned when hurt partners discover the virtual affair, COVID -19’s many stressors; economic, social, and emotional could seriously impede their affair recovery unless they get some good couples therapy.
Gordon & Mitchell have an additional concern about how COVID stress may fuel a sharp rise in face-to-face infidelity once we all emerge from lockdown.
Affair recovery is challenging enough under ordinary circumstances.
Multiple stressors from the COVID-19 lockdown are making it harder for some couples to find the emotional toughness and resilience to recover from a virtual affair without some expert help.
For many couples in lockdown, online couples therapy can offer a chance to safely address and explore these issues. External stress has been correlated with not only a likely increase in virtual affairs but also with an increase in COVID-era divorce actions as well.
Some couples are breaking up but others find that grief and sorrow from a virtual affair propel them to prioritize their relationship. They sincerely want to navigate these extraordinary times, together.
We help them do that.
2004). An integrative intervention for promoting recovery from extramarital affairs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 30(2), 213– 231. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752‐0606.2004.tb01235.x, , & (
2008). Parental conflict and infidelity as predictors of adult children’s attachment style and infidelity. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36, 149– 161. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180701236258, , , & (
2020, March 28). Ashley Madison: Affairs in the time of coronavirus. Venture Beat. Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2020/03/28/ashley‐madison‐affairs‐in‐the‐time‐of‐coronavirus/(
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.