Since I began couple counselling, there has been a complete turnaround in couples’ attitudes to what constitutes infidelity. In my recent experience, by far the greatest threat to relationships is ‘sexting’, whereby people send each other intimate messages.
A few years ago, such texts and e-mails only contained confidences and chat, no pictures. This also felt like a great threat to their relationship for some couples, but now this has gone on to include sexual banter, which often escalates to highly sexually explicit messaging and photographs of sexual acts and body parts.
Sometimes this continues into online sex, including the use of webcams, or may remain at the level of messaging only. People doing this may be acquaintances or former partners, or they may just have met online.
These texts and messages are frequently hidden from partners for a considerable time but, when they find out about them, they often say they feel more betrayed than if the partner had a physical sexual affair.
This may be because they mind the close conversations and confidences the couple share. Often, though, the reality of seeing explicit texts and messages is very shocking. It is even more of a shock if there are also graphic photographs.
Many people say they don’t feel they know their partner if they have been sending photos of their own bodies, or they feel disgusted and cheapened by the thought of sex with their partner if s/he has been receiving photos with a sexual nature.
Though many partners who feel betrayed want to be told the details of affairs, this is very rarely helpful and something we usually discourage. However, hearing details is nowhere near as shocking as actually seeing sexual texts and pictures.
They can be very difficult to erase from the mind, so that, even if no real sexual act has ever taken place, and the whole thing was felt to be a bit of a harmless fantasy, partners find this very difficult to recover from, however hard they try, and I have recently seen a number of long relationships fail as a result.
The online revolution has created more opportunity for sexting and other online sexual activities. Many people see it as no more than something to pass the time during a boring day and don’t consider the potential consequences of being found out. As well as partners discovering their online activity, it can be stumbled across by employers and other family members, including children.
Continued sexting or other online behaviour can happen when the activity is being used to alleviate unpleasant moods or feelings. If this is the case, the person needs to find other ways to take care of themselves and to try to use their phone as little as possible.
Some people ask their partner to control their phone or internet use, but this is unhelpful. It gives the partner too much responsibility and tempts them to keep checking the equipment for more evidence of contact.
This maintains stress and mistrust and prevents the person sexting from learning to take control and manage their own behaviour. It may even escalate the sexting.
To change, it may be necessary to develop ways to be able to notice stress and ways to soothe it. For instance, the mindfulness exercises contained in The Relate Guide to Sex and Intimacy help you to notice the physical symptoms of stress, anger, low mood, anxiety, boredom, or whatever it is that feels bad, and offer a way to calm down and recover your equilibrium.
Once you become aware of situations which cause the unpleasant feelings, you can avoid them and/or find ways to make yourself feel better. Building small treats into the day such as a breath of fresh air, a good cup of coffee or a run can be used to ‘top up’ well-being with or without the presence of unpleasant feelings.
If the sexting relationship was important, it is important to ask yourself why you needed it. Does your primary relationship feel too close or smothering? Is it insecure or unhappy? Is there a pattern of sabotaging close relationships or seeking solace outside the relationship with your partner?
Or do you feel that you shouldn’t bother your partner with worries and concerns and so seek another (reasonably anonymous) relationship so that you have someone to confide in? Often, what begins as the exchange of confidences escalates into sexting because of the closeness this creates or because one or both of those involved feel the other is owed something for listening.
Though it may comfort a partner to be reassured that no physical touch took place, details of what happened are usually unhelpful and may even introduce new concerns. Similarly, it doesn’t usually help to confront the person or people the partner has been sexting; often, this just proves embarrassing and frustrating.
Feelings of intimacy may be shattered, so couples may need to make a conscious effort to renegotiate boundaries and rebuild pleasure in each other’s company. Being able to listen to each others’ processing of the events without recriminations is extremely hard but will pay off in terms of improving understanding and communication.
Knowing that the sexting partner is having counselling to improve their ability to manage stress and negative feelings may be incredibly helpful, and relationship or psychosexual therapy will help strengthen the relationship too.
If it is really difficult to give up the sexting, if it is associated with sexual arousal, or if the person spends a lot of time thinking about or doing it, it may be that it has developed a compulsive element which will require specialist treatment to bring under control. Other behaviours, such as excessive use of pornography, may co-exist.
The relationship stands the best chance if the couple are able to discuss what has happened and consider their own role, both in the past and for the future, though discussion should not be used as an opportunity for blame. Regaining trust and conquering compulsive sexting can take time but, given help and forbearance, relationships can be better than ever afterwards.
Cate Campbell is the author of The Relate Guide to Sex and Intimacy, published by Vermilion. Out now, £9.99