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Julie Baumgardner

The National Marriage Project has monitored marital health and well-being in America for decades. In July, the "2019 State of our Unions: iFidelity: Interactive Technology and Relationship Faithfulness" report revealed some interesting findings.

This report is a collaborative effort between the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the Wheatley Institution and the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Utilizing a YouGov survey of 2,000 married, cohabiting and single Americans and findings from the General Social Survey, researchers examined relationship attitudes and behaviors online and in real life.

The Silent/Greatest Generation, who are 75 or older, were included because this is a nationally representative sample. Furthermore, a Pew Research Center study reports that 60% of seniors aged 75 to 79 and 44% of those 80 or older use the internet. Many older seniors are now dating or cohabiting, either because they are widowed, divorced or never married, so this issue cuts across age groups.

The report offers three key findings.

First, a majority of Americans in all generations express support for sexual fidelity in their relationships and report they are sexually faithful in real life. However, today's young adults are markedly more likely to cross online boundaries related to sex and romance. For example, 18% of millennial participants engaged in sexual talk online with someone besides their partner. Only 3% of Greatest/Silent Generation participants, 6% of baby boomers and 16% of Gen Xers did so.

Additionally, many online behaviors are rated by most Americans (70% or more) as "unfaithful" or "cheating." This would include having a secret emotional relationship or sexting with someone other than a partner/spouse without the partner's/spouse's knowledge and consent. Only 18% of millennials think that electronic behaviors that blur romantic and sexual lines with others are inappropriate, compared to 26% of baby boomers.

The third finding can have a major impact on relationships if couples were to set and enforce online boundaries: Married and cohabiting men and women who maintain strong online boundaries against potential sexual and romantic alternatives are more likely to be happy in their relationships. Currently married or cohabiting couples who blur those boundaries are significantly less happy, less committed and more likely to break up. On the other hand, couples who take a more careful stance online are happier, more committed and less likely to separate. For example, married and cohabiting people who did not follow a former girlfriend/boyfriend online had a 62% likelihood of reporting that they were "very happy" in their relationship, while only 46% of those who followed an old flame online reported being very happy.

"We are in a Wild West situation with online behaviors, and couples are scrambling to understand them," says Dr. Jason Whiting, marriage and family therapist and BYU professor.

According to the report, the internet has impacted our personal and professional lives in such a way that our definitions of romantic and sexual loyalty and commitment are changing. While most Americans still clearly oppose sexual unfaithfulness in marriage, younger adults are significantly more likely to engage in internet infidelity than older generations.

Researchers believe the weakening of marital and relationship boundaries matters, and the data in this report shows a generational divide in both behaviors and attitudes, with younger generations having weaker boundaries. Younger Americans are more likely to be unfaithful online, and it's clear that relationship outcomes are markedly worse when iFidelity becomes i-Infidelity. For example, married and cohabiting Americans who break three or more romantic or sexual boundaries online are 26 percentage points less likely to be "very happy" in their real-life relationship, compared to those who push none of those boundaries.

The General Social Survey regularly gauges American attitudes and has asked the same questions regarding marital fidelity from 1998 to 2018. For example, "What about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her husband or wife, is it ?" The percentage of people responding, "Always wrong" dropped 8 points over a 20-year span to 75%. This indicates an increase in more permissive attitudes, but statistical tests confirm that an attitudinal shift of 8 percentage points in the last 10 years is not likely due to chance.

According to this report, young adults who have grown up in the age of the internet are the least committed to iFidelity. It also shows that crossing emotional and sexual boundaries results in lower-quality relationships. iFidelity, then, suggests that our online conduct is linked to the health of our real-life relationships. Is your online conduct helping or hurting your relationship?

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at Julieb@firstthings.org.

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