Joe Schweon knew instantly that his
fiancée was cheating. Normally chatty, his bride-to-be was suspiciously eager to get off the phone when he called from a business trip this spring. Lindsay Hoffman’s little secret? She was watching “Mad Men” — a show the couple had been enjoying together — and she wanted to get back to Don Draper.
“Joe travels a lot for work,” said Hoffman, a software saleswoman from Brookline, by way of excusing a solo binge that took her through the show’s entire third season and part of the fourth while her betrothed was on the road.
“I did feel bad,” she added, “at first.”
Oh, her streamin’ heart.
In a TV-obsessed culture, with ever more platforms on which to watch addictive series, lovers have yet another way to betray each other: by sneaking off and watching a shared show alone.
“Honey, that’s not ‘Breaking Bad’ I hear coming from your iPhone, is it?”
With wedding season upon us, it may be time to rewrite the marital vows. Forget that business about “In sickness and in health.” More relevant to today’s couples is this: “In streaming and on disc. On tablet and on laptop. By Amazon Prime, or on Hulu Plus.”
More than half of American adults who are in a relationship have considered “cheating” by streaming a program without their significant other present, according to a recent Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Netflix. And 12 percent said they have already strayed by streaming solo. And those are just the ones who admitted it.
‘The trouble is the shows we watch together are really good, and I have trouble waiting.’
As the amount of time Americans spend watching TV grows — average daily viewing reached 5 hours and 26 minutes in 2012, up from 5 hours and 14 minutes in 2008, and that’s not even counting shows that are streamed, according to Nielsen — Netflix infidelity is starting to show up as an issue in marriage counseling.
“A couple has never come in with this as their only issue,” said Anthony Centore, a therapist with Thriveworks , a Cambridge counseling firm. “If your spouse is doing everything right but is not going to wait to watch ‘Arrested Development,’ that’s not going to ruin a relationship. But if it becomes one more way your spouse is inconsiderate, it can be a big deal.”
But staying true is harder than it was even just a few years ago. In 2006, 89 percent of the television Americans watched was live, and in their homes, according to Nielsen. By 2011, we watched only 85 percent of TV shows live and at home, and enjoyed a growing number of shows free from spousal surveillance on the train to work, perhaps, or in the dentist’s waiting room.
“There is a lot of sneaking around going on,” said A.J. Jacobs, author of “The Know-It-All,” “The Year of Living Biblically,” and “My Life as an Experiment.”
Jacobs and his wife have adopted a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, he said, but even so television has become a source of stress. “The trouble is the shows we watch together are really good, and I have trouble waiting.”
In other words, don’t probe about the HBO show “Girls.” He and his wife were supposed to watch it together, but he had some free time, and well. . .
“I hope she loses interest in the show and never brings it up,” is all Jacobs would say.
Although the issue of TV cheating has been growing along with DVR ownership and on-demand options, betrayal has become even easier since 2010, said Amanda Lotz, a University of Michigan professor of communications studies, and the author of “The Television Will Be Revolutionized.”
That year, several factors combined to make opportunistic viewing easier and more tempting: Tablets hit the market, streaming options increased, and tech advances that reduced buffering lags made viewing smoother.
Also around that time, major cable providers began offering subscribers access to programming on devices beyond their televisions, she added.
“As we can do things that we have never been able to do with TV,” she said, “our behaviors will change.”
Case in point: the long-awaited Netflix release of 15 new episodes of “Arrested Development” on May 26.
“Before it was released, my husband and I had to make a pact,” said humorist Laurie Notaro , author of the just-published "The Potty Mouth at the Table.” “We’ve been waiting seven years for this — our dreams were realized — but it was coming out on a day I was going to be gone. The pact was we would wait for each other.”
Both were faithful, but other issues emerged. “We had to figure out how we were going to watch. Would we go through the whole thing in two days? Watch one episode every day?”
The Harris survey found that 14 percent of cheaters confess their video crime, but 12 percent simply re-watch the show and feign surprise at plot twists. That’s the ploy used by Heather Neal, a seventh-grade math teacher in Milton. When her husband was off at a singing lesson recently she secretly watched an episode of “Glee,” then intentionally predicted the wrong outcome for a plot involving the character Rachel.
When Neal admitted her crime in front of her husband, he pretended to be outraged.
“You watched it without me?” said Robin Neal, an English teacher in Chestnut Hill.
“Yes,” his wife replied, a triumphant grin spreading across her face.
But in Allston, Jen Prince, an Emerson College student, can’t quite bring herself to act shocked nor can she confess to sneakily watching episodes on her own, putting her in that awkward middle ground. One Sunday in April she watched “Game of Thrones” with friends, and then rewatched it with her boyfriend — without revealing it was her second time around.
When the Jaime Lannister character got his right hand chopped off — a shocking act of violence — Prince’s boyfriend “freaked out,” she recalled. But Prince remained calm, unable to feign a gasp. “Did you see that?” he asked. She pretended she’d been distracted for a moment.
Dishonesty in a relationship is rarely good, but sometimes the cheaters aren’t to blame. As Mark Harris, a columnist with Entertainment Weekly, pointed out, with spoilers all around us, waiting is a dangerous game, particularly with contest shows like “The Voice” or “Dancing With the Stars.” Cheating, he said, is “more forgivable” when the outcome of a show could be ruined.
And with scripted shows, he said, “A big factor is how long are you being asked to wait. If it’s a couple of hours because someone is working late, it’s wrong to cheat. But if it’s more than a week, then it’s wrong to ask someone not to cheat.”
Meanwhile, as Joe Schweon and Lindsay Hoffman start their new life together — they married on the Cape over Memorial Day weekend — Schweon might possess the perfect qualities for a spouse in 2013. Not only did he overlook Hoffman’s “Mad Men” transgression — and an earlier “Friday Night Lights” infidelity — but he has a relaxed attitude toward remaining current with a show.
“I have no problem missing a season and going on to the next one,” he said.Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.