Chris knew it was over as soon as his girlfriend saw it. He’d left for a minute, leaving his computer screen open. Normally, he wouldn’t have been so careless, but it was nearly midnight and she was in bed. Or so he thought. As he returned, he saw her, up to get a drink, staring blankly at what was on his screen. It wasn’t a webcam or some explicit material, but a Facebook message from a woman named Nancy. An old co-worker. In the chat window were months of casual late-night flirtation, inside jokes, and, recently, the mention of two after-work rendezvous. His infidelity was obvious. His relationship had no chance of surviving it.
“It wasn’t that I was intending to do anything,” says Chris, whose two-year relationship ended that night, “it was just nice to have another woman who I could relate to. But it just kind of happened. Do I think my relationship had its problems? Yes. But do I think I would’ve done what I did if Facebook didn’t exist? No.”
Social media ruins relationships, lighting up the dark end of the street. In James Carr’s classic 1967 ode to cheating, illicit lovers meet in the shadows to “hide their wrong.” Modern cheaters — or those considering cheating or keeping “back burners” — don’t need to skulk. With Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media, they can carry on affairs from the comfort of their couch, illuminated by the light of their computer or a smartphone screen.
Facebook plays a central role in modern infidelity. The average user spends 50 minutes a day on the site, more time than they do on any other leisure activity except for watching TV or movies. Extreme amounts of usage have been shown to skew perceptions of reality and enable furtive communications. Moreover, Facebook encourages the cultivation of “back burners,” people prospective cheaters size up for future affairs. The proof is in the divorce proceedings: In 2014, a British study revealed that the social media giant was cited in a third of U.K. separation cases.
Sex and family therapist Jaclyn Cravens Pickens, who is also the director of Texas Tech’s Addictive Disorders and Recovery Studies Program, has studied the relationship between infidelity and social media for almost a decade and shared her findings in such papers as Facebook Infidelity: When Poking Becomes Problematic and Fooling Around on Facebook: The Perception of Infidelity Behavior in Social Networking Sites. She says that Facebook and other social media platforms abet cheating by offering a false view into people’s lives.
“The majority of people going online aren’t posting about their woes or their struggles,” Cravens says. “It’s mostly ‘I’m on vacation,’ or ‘I did this wonderful thing,’ or ‘Here’s this great meal that I’m having.’ This version of life often looks more attractive than the unedited real one of the person scrolling through the feed. “If you’re doubting your relationship or your own happiness, you go to Facebook and you look at somebody else, you may think, ‘Wow, they have it all together,’ ” Craven says. “ ‘They’re this happy, attractive person.’ ”
Facebook makes reigniting old flames all too easy. You’re likely to share friends, former cities, schools or employers with an ex or someone you once crushed on — that’s more than enough for the social media’s algorithm to put your ex’s photo at the center of your computer screen. When that happy, attractive person is someone with whom you’ve already shared an intimate connection, people are even more inclined to connect.
“I’ve seen couples who’ve been married for 15 to 20 years getting on Facebook, reconnecting with old flings from high school that they hadn’t seen in forever,” says Cravens.
“It starts as an innocent conversation of ‘How’s life? What have you been doing the last 20 years?’ ” Cravens says. “Very quickly, over computer-mediated communication, it develops into ‘Well, marriage is hard and I’m not happy.’ ‘Oh, no, neither am I.’ ”
Combine curated photos, constant Facebook use, and the ease with which the social media platform allows you to connect with a whisper of marital woe and things can accelerate quickly. “Before we know it, it’s this slippery slope where we formed an intimate emotional connection with the person on the other end of the keyboard,” says Cravens.
Chris says he started his relationship by simply posting a “Happy Birthday” on her wall. She responded by thanking him in a DM and then the chat began from there. “We had a familiarity from working with one another and it just kind of spun out from there,” he says. “It gradually became flirtatious over time.”
Of course, sometimes, a smirk emoji is just a smirk emoji. But it can be a smirking gun. Photo reactions, comments, or emoji usage allow people to gradually lure in potential future romantic partners. It’s low-commitment communication signaling that while someone isn’t interested in doing anything drastic anytime soon, they want to keep their options open. It’s the phenomenon researchers have termed “back burners.”
“Back burners are the people that you are attracted to, that you keep in touch with just in case your current relationship situation either fails or changes,” says Dr. Jayson Dibble. Or, to stick with the fire imagery: “There are embers of the attraction between you two, but you don’t want to flame it full on into a primary relationship,” he says.
Dibble is assistant professor of communications at Hope College and the researcher who coined the term “back burner.” In his 2014 study, Using Modern Technology to Keep in Touch With Back Burners: An Investment Model Analysis, Dibble found that, while men are likely to have nearly twice the number of back burners as women, both genders have them. Of the more than 300 people surveyed for the study, nearly all of them said they’d had sexual conversations with at least two people outside of their partner.
Dibble says it’s well-established in social psychology that even people who are happily involved in committed relationships still consider their options. So while someone may have no intention of leaving, they still search the horizon.
“Your scanners are still on,” Dibble says. “Even if they’re dulled and blunted a little bit, they’re still on, they’re still kinda noticing who else is out there, if for no other reason than you want to remember, or you still want to know that you got the best deal.”
This behavior is natural. It’s the relationship equivalent of flipping the channels. But by triggering that ‘What if?’ sensibility, Facebook distracts you from your own relationship, making it harder for you to be fully present. People don’t set out to cross a boundary or set the groundwork for an affair behavior, but internet communication makes it easy to tumble into.
“When you’re behind a keyboard, you have time to cultivate the perfect response and be the best version of yourself,” Cravens says. “Or even a version of yourself that in real life doesn’t even exist.”
Now, is digital infidelity a crisis? It’s hard to say. What is certain is that it makes it so much easier to find connection outside of your own marriage. And, per Dibble, it’s impossible to recognize warning signs because, keeping a back burner is almost universal behavior on Facebook.
“What the research is starting to show is it’s actually pretty common,” Dibble said. “It may now be easier than ever to talk to our back burners. And we’re not exactly sure what the consequences of that will be yet.”