Home Health 'It's like Covid-19, it's everywhere': Dating apps, social media make it easy for people to swipe right into infidelity – TODAY

'It's like Covid-19, it's everywhere': Dating apps, social media make it easy for people to swipe right into infidelity – TODAY

23 min read

SINGAPORE — Adultery and extramarital flings are ancient vices, but with dating applications such as Tinder, and other social media platforms, a whole new world of infidelity is now an easy swipe or a click away.
SINGAPORE — Adultery and extramarital flings are ancient vices, but with dating applications such as Tinder, and other social media platforms, a whole new world of infidelity is now an easy swipe or a click away.
Marriage counsellors and therapists who spoke to TODAY said that the accessibility of online platforms has provided wider opportunities for people to engage in illicit affairs and have sex outside committed relationships — with most of these activities exposed only when the person is caught.
Last week, a 47-year-old married man was jailed for engaging in paid sex acts with a 15-year-old girl he had met on Sugarbook. The dating site links up younger women, or “sugar babies”, with older men who are expected to pay for their companionship.
Dr Martha Tara Lee, a relationship counsellor and clinical sexologist with Eros Coaching, said that online cheating has been happening for some time.
Although technology is an enabler, Dr Lee pointed out that it depends on how the individual uses it.
“It can be used to facilitate romance in a long-term relationship or marriage, for example, for flirting, to set up time and space for romance. Those who have the intention to (have affairs) can also use it to facilitate cheating,” she said.
Besides dating apps that allow people to connect, there are also apps that facilitate timed messages that expire, providing a channel for discreet communication. One can also find and potentially hook up with random strangers on messaging apps such as WeChat and Telegram, Dr Lee said.
“There are people who try their luck as long as you have a female name, for instance.”
Mr Ronald Lim, head of Reach Counselling Service, said that online cheating may be harder to detect, given its discreet nature. Coupled with easy access, it may be tempting for people who are unhappy with their relationships or are looking for excitement outside marriage.
“As we are now always on our phones reading the news, texting, emailing, watching videos, the person may not know what her spouse is doing unless she’s seated next to him,” Mr Lim added.
Mr Kirby Chua, a counselling psychologist and coordinator at Grace Counselling Centre, has a different view.
Even though everyone now uses a smartphone, it is not true that online cheating is harder to detect, he said.
“It works both ways. I’ve seen people who are caught, because their wives checked their phones or other devices that are linked to it.”
Over at the Grace Counselling Centre, Mr Chua estimated that couples seeking counselling due to online infidelity have doubled since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s becoming very common and I’m not surprised to hear about such cases. It’s like Covid-19 — it’s everywhere. And it’s not just the guys (who are straying),” he added. 
In about a fifth of the cases he has seen, it is the woman who has strayed. Most are in their 30s.
Among the cases that Mr Chua recently encountered is a Singaporean couple in their 30s who had sought professional help to save their marriage, after a family friend saw the husband’s profile on Tinder.
It turned out that he was having sex with various people he had met through the dating app.
“He was doing it for months and his wife never noticed. When she found out, she was super shocked — something I would consider a red flag in their marriage,” Mr Chua said. 
“Because if they had an attuned love life, she might have seen the signs. I believe the couple had communications issues right from the beginning (even before the affairs started).”
However, not all the cases that Mr Chua sees cross the “physical line”, where the parties meet up.
“Some of them are purely online or chat-based, but it still disturbs the marriage. Some were discovered at an early stage so they weren’t able to escalate to a stage where they meet up and go to the next level of their liaison,” he said.
“I believe that since the affairs are app-based, people become emotionally distant to the activity and may not see it as cheating… they have found ways to psychologically downplay what they are doing.”
A telling sign that your spouse may be having an online affair is change.
“For example, changes in phone usage patterns. Suddenly, there is a password to the phone, or there is another phone — all of these are signs,” Mr Chua added.
Dr Martha Lee said that there are other telling signs. They include:
Ms Sophia Goh, principal counsellor and psychotherapist at Sofia Wellness Clinic, said that in general, anything that makes extramarital cheating more accessible will increase its frequency.
For example, she pointed out that long before dating apps and internet sites were readily available, research showed that people who travelled more frequently were more inclined to have extramarital sex and affairs.
“And ever since women entered the workforce, and have higher status and monetary power, you see them having affairs as well,” Ms Goh added.
Online channels that make it sound like it is generally accepted to have extramarital affairs may also drive such behaviour.
“With dating apps and sites that market themselves as platforms that facilitate cheating, they normalise it as a lifestyle choice option,” Dr Lee said.
Mr Chua believes that the increase in such counselling cases that he has encountered in the past two years may partly stem from the loss of usual coping mechanisms that people had before the pandemic.  
“It’s self-soothing behaviour. The pandemic has cut down a lot of coping mechanisms and means of ‘escape’, like travelling or even going to the pub,” he said.
The experts said that more often than not, the infidelity is a “symptom” of a wider problem within the relationship.
While some people in fulfilling relationships may engage in online affairs and extramarital sex “for fun” and thrill, Mr Lim from Reach Counselling Service said that there is another group whose marriage is already in trouble.
“That’s when they look outside their marriage. The infidelity is a presenting problem. If you look deeper, the marriage may already be on the rocks before the straying. In such cases, the couple must work on their marriage,” he added.
Mr Chua from Grace Counselling Centre said: “Some people will say things like, ‘This guy has a sex addiction’, but I’m very careful when it comes to making a diagnosis.
“It’s rarely sex addiction, but something more emotional and may reflect the marriage — which is what most people don’t want to hear.”
Ms Goh from Sofia Wellness Clinic is of the view that modern-day relationships are more stressful than those in the past due to the challenges of juggling multiple roles within a relationship.
“If you think about how we used to live, our community was larger and our needs were supported by a wider group of people. In modern-day relationships, however, there is an expectation for one person to be your best friend, lover, parental partner and more,” she explained. 
“Even when couples reach the commitment phase of their relationship, sometimes they may still be looking for adventure and excitement while seeking a sense of stability in the same person.
“Everything has to be met and supported by one single person, which can be very stressful.”
Dr Lee from Eros Coaching said that extramarital sex is not always solely about an unfaithful spouse seeking sexual satisfaction.
“Sometimes, what they are craving for is attention from a non-judgemental person and their spouse is not providing them that.”
When a person in a long-term relationship strays, Dr Lee said that it is more often a case of emotional neglect and baggage that makes reconnecting with their partner seemingly impossible, rather than the notion of seeking excitement.
“When one partner is busy, distracted, exhausted or focused on children, all too often, the spouse will feel like the ‘bad person’ to ask for emotional or physical intimacy. As such, they view having an affair as a possible solution,” she added.
Ms Goh said international research showed that only around 10 per cent of infidelity cases involved one-night stands, meaning a single sexual encounter in which the parties are not expected to have further relations.
The rest involved affairs that lasted for a longer period of time.
“Extrapolating from this data, some people do seek out extramarital sex for sexual needs. But the rest, I think they may be looking for sex and also emotional connection because the affairs last for a period of time,” Ms Goh added.
“Sex is not only just physical. There is also an emotional component to it that leads to arousal. When you are more emotionally connected, you may feel more sexual desire for the person. This also applies to men.”
The experts said that there is hope for a marriage to be saved in the aftermath of an affair, whether it was carried out online or offline.
Dr Lee said that talking things through, brainstorming for solutions and seeking counselling are some ways that may bring a couple closer and more on the same page.
Ms Goh said that couple therapy may help spouses understand each other better, although it will “take a lot of work” to build a relationship a second time round.
In supporting couples affected by infidelity issues, Mr Chua said that his role in the counselling process is to guide them to the stage of forgiveness. After that, it is to work on rebuilding the trust that has been broken.
It can only work if the person is repentant and wants to stop the behaviour, and the spouse is willing to forgive and give a second chance, Mr Lim added. 
“If the spouse says things like, ‘What’s the problem?’, ‘I’m a guy. I have needs and my sex drive is higher than yours’, then the spouse is likely to leave. Having said that, it may take a very long time for trust to be rebuilt, even if the spouse is repentant,” he said.  
As to whether stricter regulations of dating apps and social media platforms may help prevent the breakdown of marriage, Mr Lim said: “Infidelity will unfortunately continue forever, with or without these dating apps.
“You can have stricter measures, for example, to prevent girls from advertising themselves, but it will still happen one way or another. Even if it is not through dating apps, there will still be some other ways of getting extramarital sex.”
More importantly, the experts said, couples have to take steps to work on building trust, two-way communication and find ways to keep romance going in a relationship.
“Many fail to realise that when the honeymoon period is over, they need to consciously take steps to keep the romance going and not just take the easy way out for themselves,” Dr Lee said.
This also applies when couples take on new roles, such as becoming parents, which may leave them with less energy to connect emotionally with each other, Ms Goh said.
Research shows that marriage satisfaction decreases after having children, especially during the first few years.
“I would encourage couples to continue connecting and tuning in to their partners even after having kids. The foundation of your relationship can also have a big impact on the well-being of your children,” Ms Goh added.
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