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updated 6/9/2011 10:48:53 AM ET 2011-06-09T14:48:53

When Congressman Anthony Weiner tweeted a sexually suggestive photo to women other than his wife, his actions revealed how a click of a mouse could seriously damage a reputation and marriage.

Is the same true for other couples?

Experts say social media websites and the Internet can both help and harm relationships. The key is establishing boundaries of what's appropriate -- or what's inappropriate -- online. As highlighted in Weiner's scandal, not everyone agrees about what constitutes cheating, especially when pixels replace physical contact.

WIDE ANGLE: Why People Cheat

Katherine Hertlein, a licensed marriage and family therapist and assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, helps clients with similar cases.

"The first thing I do is try to resolve the ambiguity of what constitutes an affair and what doesn't," Hertlein told Discovery News. Infidelity varies by couple and depends on whether the partner of a wandering lover feels betrayed, even if the perpetrator thinks flirtatious actions fall short of cheating.

As Internet use increases, the structure and process of marriages will also change, Hertlein said. On a structural level, couples need to establish limitations and expectations within the relationship. Social media and dating sites affect the process of forming and maintaining intimate connections, too. But the pros of such technology are frequently overshadowed by the cons.


"Social media and the Internet allow us to be this person that we feel we can't be in our offline life," Hertlein said, pointing out that others may not realize they're behaving inappropriately outside their marriages or relationships. "You don't actually recognize that you're growing closer to someone on the Internet because it just looks like you're having conversation, and that's why I think it could be really seductive in some ways."

Social sites make cheating easy, she said -- so much so that women are catching up to men in the infidelity department. Hertlein said married women may be more likely to pursue affairs online because of the medium's emotional appeal. The trend also results from women having equal professional opportunities as men, leading to meeting new people outside of the home, she said.

Another researcher believes the self-revelatory nature of online communication ripens conditions for cheating -- a fact he suspects may lead to an even larger increase in divorce rates as online communication continues to pervade people's personal lives.

"That's the power of this kind of technology -- it's right at your fingertips, it's handy and you can take it everywhere," Temple University educational psychology professor Frank Farley told Discovery News.

In addition to the devastating effects of cheating for spouses and families, Farley said social media and the Internet will hurt marriages if people don't understand they're dealing with a global platform that rarely forgets.

"There's no hiding online," he said. "[It's risky because] you're sending things to the world that you might not have talked about with the person you're lying next to in bed."

Secretive activities involving pornographic websites and cybersex take away sexual attention a person could be giving his or her partner, he said. Yet the unsavory actions of accomplished public figures such as Congressman Weiner demonstrate that, regardless of marital commitment, civility is needed to maintain professional and romantic relationships in a digital age.

"We have a positive job to do here," Farley said. "We need to adapt because technology is not going away, it's only going to get more sophisticated."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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