Q: Hello, Ex-Etiquette readers. Rather than answer a reader question this week, I’m going to address a trend I’m seeing in the e-mails you send me.

This COVID virus has affected us all — whether you’ve had it or not — and because we are home more, many are online much more, too. The mind goes back to when you used to have fun, and you have lots of people connecting via social media, possibly who shouldn’t reconnect because they are now in a relationship with someone else. And I’m getting the questions from both sides — those searching out the past as a diversion and those who are hurt by their partner’s actions.

So, let’s settle this question once and for all: Is flirting over social media cheating? There’s no harm in connecting with a past girlfriend or boyfriend, especially now when everyone is on lockdown — I mean, you’re just talking, right? How could it be cheating?

A: Well, here’s the aftermath of just such a scenario. At one point in my career I was seeing quite a few different couples, all in the midst of the breakup of their second marriages. All had met their new partner online, left their former partner, and were now struggling to stay married to the new partner. Some uprooted their kids and moved long distances to be together, and here they were, after all that, facing another breakup. They were depressed and confused. I remember one of the men asking, “How could life pitch him such a curve?”

“Well,” I told him, “The sexiest organ in your body is your mind.” The fantasy he created with his now-wife was way more exciting than real life. The feelings conjured up when reminiscing and fantasizing about taking those feelings into the future was the best aphrodisiac around. You feel wanted and desired, handsome or beautiful, but most of all, appreciated. What better diversion from no job, no social life, the kids crying, home schooling and Monopoly for the 200th time? Conversations with the past can become the Great Diversion, to the point where you’re sneaking off just to check your text messages.

But most see it happening. Most in this position know what they are doing — and the truth is, it’s no different than any drug. Take alcohol, for example: It’s a great diversion from a problem — until it becomes the problem. Flirting on social media when you’re already in a relationship can be a great diversion from the problem — until it becomes the problem.

The answer here is really “intent.” It’s great to connect with old friends, but if you’re sneaking around to do it, that’s a red flag. If you are including your partner in the conversation — or at least letting them know that you have reconnected with someone and you are not embarrassed to let them read anything each of you have written to each other — then I wouldn’t categorize it as cheating. But if there is any degree of dishonesty attached to the act (Ex-Etiquette rule No. 8, “Be honest and straightforward), then it’s cheating.


Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation” and the founder of Bonus Families.