It's Not Cheating, But Research Says This Action May Weaken Your Relationship

If someone has ever “slid into your DMs” while you were already in a monogamous relationship, it might seem like no big deal. You ignore it or tell them you’re not available—harmless, right? But according to new research published in the journal Personal Relationships, being flirted with online might be more harmful to your relationship than you think.

Looking at the impact of online flirting.

This research was composed of two separate studies. Both studies involved having participants in romantic relationships talk to an attractive person online (who was actually a member of the research team). For half of the participants, the attractive person directly flirted with them, and for the other half, the conversation was neutral, to serve as a control group.

After chatting with the attractive stranger, one study had participants then report on how attracted they were to their current partner, and further, complete a task that revealed unconscious perceptions of that partner.

For the second study, after chatting with the attractive stranger, participants were instructed to write down the first sexual fantasy they could think of. Those fantasies were then analyzed to gauge how desirable the participants found their current partner versus an alternative mate.

Based on the findings of the two studies, it seems that flirtatious interactions with internet strangers are far from harmless to our romantic relationships. In fact, in the first study, those who were flirted with had worse perceptions of their current partner (consciously and unconsciously) than the control group.

And in the second study, those who were flirted with were more likely to desire and have sexual fantasies related to an alternative partner than their current partner, compared to the control.

All together, these findings point to a risky apparent truth with online flirting: Even if you’re not reciprocating or acting on the flirtations, being the recipient of someone’s flirting online may still unconsciously lead you to view your partner in a less positive light and to desire alternative options more.

As study author and professor of psychology Gurit Birnbaum, Ph.D., explains in a news release, “My findings highlight the circumstances that weaken resistance to temptations of alternative partners, pointing to a route by which online interactions may diminish relationship well-being and lead to offline affairs.”

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Conversations about social media and relationships tend to revolve around what does or doesn’t count as micro-cheating. But this study suggests that even one-directional online flirting can loosen loyalties.

While you can’t really stop anyone from flirting with you initially, nor is it out of the ordinary to find other people attractive even when you’re in a committed relationship, it’s important to be aware of how these interactions may affect your feelings for your current partner. If you want to protect your relationship as deep as the unconscious level, it may be in your best interest to shut online flirting down fast and focus that energy on the relationship you already have.

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