Three weeks ago I cheated on my boyfriend. He was perhaps twenty feet away from me, sleeping in my bed with the door open while I betrayed his trust on the living room sofa. At one point, he woke up and walked right by. "You're not watching House of Cards without me, are you?" he asked. "No," I lied without hitting pause. With my ear buds in, you could say Netflix was actually inside of me as my boyfriend returned to bed. I stayed in the living room and kept watching.
A few days later I confessed my crime. “But when?” he asked, at first in disbelief. “Wait, that night you stayed up late? And I asked what you were doing, and you said ‘working’? Mauree-ee-een!” Feebly, I offered to re-watch the episodes. “It won’t be the same,” he said. Overwhelmed with guilt, I lied again: “I only watched two episodes! You can catch up!” I had watched five episodes in one night and finished the season.
We consume TV differently when it’s available instantly. We binge-watch soap operas; we turn serialized dramas into thirteen-hour movies. Streaming a show is intimate: You watch at your own pace, often on a personal computer calibrated for privacy. Sharing that experience, then, is a small act of interpersonal intimacy. But with every new form of intimacy comes a corollary set of betrayals. Netflix adultery may be among the pettiest of modern deceptions, but it is real. It causes rifts and guilt trips. It causes fights.
Most disastrously, Netflix keeps a record when you cheat.
“He knows when I cheat because it shows up in our ‘recently watched’ list,” said Sara, who shares an apartment and Netflix account with her boyfriend. ”One time he watched How I Met Your Mother without me. I did the thing where I pretended to be pretend-upset, but I was actually upset." She needed to catch up before he moved further ahead, before the rift became too great to overcome. "So I made him watch it again with me. He did a lot of build-up, ‘This part is so good,’ ‘Something big is going to happen,’ that kind of thing. It annoyed me.” Already the imbalance was too significant; the experience, Sara said, was worse than watching alone.
That's why a dedicated Netflix cheat will cover her tracks, then feign surprise during a re-watch. With a previous boyfriend I embarked on three-part mini-series Carlos, about international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, a man whom I have been led to believe smoldered while murdering innocents. Powerless to resist Carlos’s sexy violence, I binge-watched to completion alone — then clicked back to the spot my ex and I had left off, so the “Resume” button would not betray me. “Resume” returned us to a moment when we were united in knowledge and ignorance. I gasped as Carlos stormed OPEC headquarters in 1975, my boyfriend none the wiser. Then I grew overconfident: I started showing off, predicting what would happen next. “Did you already see this?” he asked, suspicious. “No!” I lied, then to shield myself from further inquiry sunk to a new low: “I mean, it’s history. I think there was an article in The New Yorker about it? You must have read about it, too.” Manipulating loved ones — had I hit rock bottom? As my boyfriend slipped back into the comfortable fugue of Netflix absorption, I realized the saying was true: The best defense is offense.
Just as a man with a cheating heart will find inventive ways to betray — emotional adultery, borderline flirtations — a Netflix adulterer may channel her addiction into alternative media. “I always watched Downton Abbey on PBS with my mom,” explained a co-worker. “And I would read spoilers online, but pretend I didn’t. During season three’s finale I fake-predicted Matthew’s death, then acted shocked when it happened. My mom turned to me and was like, ‘I read it online months ago! But I was so good and kept it to myself!’ There was a lot of emotion in that room. I never admitted I’d looked at the spoilers, too.”
“Rachel used to hide it but she’s pretty brazen now,” said Ted of his girlfriend. “Usually what happens is she’ll watch an extra episode if I’m out for the night or working late. Then she gives me a chance to catch up, but if I miss it, she keeps going and I give up. At that point it’s not even adultery, it just becomes a show that she watches and I don’t.
“We watched the first few episodes of Alias the other month, and we were going to keep watching together, but we got in a fight and I stayed out a couple nights in a row. She went ahead five or six episodes and didn’t tell me until we made up.”
How did it feel to discover Rachel’s deceit at the very moment of their reunion, I asked?
“I lived. I would have been angrier if I was into Alias.”
Did he think Rachel was acting out in the domestic sphere, to punish him for abandoning her?
“No," he replied. "I think she just gets bored.” After getting through their rough patch, Ted and Rachel have returned to tandem Netflix-watching. “Sometimes I’ll get ahead of her on 30 Rock or something, but only shows I’d watch twice. I don’t tell her I already watched it.” Does Rachel mind? “I don’t know. I doubt she puts much thought into it.” An open Netflix relationship, so highly evolved as to be thoughtlessly devoid of jealousy.
Though my boyfriend failed to catch my initial House of Cards deceit, he recognized the second one. “Only two episodes?” he frowned. “You were up really late that night. Are you sure didn’t watch more?” Trapped in a web of lies of my own making, I confessed it all: I had watched the entire series and I knew how it ended. I knew he would love it, but I knew also that I was no longer a suitable watching companion. If he wanted to leave me, House of Cards–wise, he could. If he never trusted me again, Netflix-wise, I would understand. I had driven a wedge between us; never again would we experience House of Cards together as we once had.
He pretended to be pretend-upset, but I knew he was actually upset. He said it was okay, and that he would watch the show on his own later. He has yet to watch another episode.
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.