What is “cheating”? Defining infidelity in the modern world

cheatingThis has become a very big issue and apparent as I read various blogs, field comments and listen to various radio shrinks.  There is not total agreement out there about what constitutes “cheating.”

Surely, EVERYONE knows what “cheating” is.  I read it here all the time on the blogs!   “He cheated!!”  (often all in caps, with 55 exclamation points after it) is pretty common to read. And most of the time, the spouse did cheat.  But in some cases, I have delved further into these blogs and found that this “unforgivable offense” seemed minor, harmless,  and so brief you can hardly believe it’s even an issue.  But for some spouses, even a wink at another person is “cheating”.  One silly, flirtatious email.  And their lives are now, apparently,  in tatters because of it.  For years!!

But what is cheating?  And is having a long-term sexual relationship with someone to be treated the same as a 2-week, intimate email-only relationship? Is being caught doing your best friend to be treated the same as one drunken kiss on New Year’s Eve with your neighbor?

I even read a study which concluded that because some people don’t define their own questionable behavior as “cheating,” the statistics on how many people have cheated (and admit to it) may actually be low.  We as humans have a tendency to justify our behavior internally as a defense mechanism — I mean, who wants to feel bad about themselves?   I’ve read that men and women cheat at about the same rate and that about 60% of marriages experience infidelity.   I’m guessing that figure is low because it’s self-reported.

For most adults,  fidelity is absolutely necessary for the survival of any relationship.  Therefore, it is essential in any relationship – no matter what stage it’s at – to explicitly agree to what constitutes cheating in this partnership.  It’s an awkward and fragile discussion but one which will undoubtedly save many, many arguments and hurt in the future.  Different people have a variety of views on what exactly counts as cheating, depending on family background, where you’re from and especially past relationships.   For you it might be simple, black and white:  if s/he is caught texting a member of the opposite sex without telling you, that’s cheating.  Your trust has been betrayed and you no longer feel like the most important person in your partner’s life.   However, for someone else, unless you have been physically intimate with someone other than your partner, you’ve done nothing wrong.  I’ve heard numerous females on the radio saying that if they had sex with another woman, it “doesn’t count.”   Homosexual/lesbian encounters without the consent of the the person your in a relationship with don’t count as sex and cheating?  Huh? Really?  Again, it can be about how each of us defines cheating.

The terms of cheating cannot be easily defined as they depend on emotions and stability.  When you put two people with two extreme but opposite views on what constitutes cheating, there is going to be a problem, whether it’s now or further down the line.

While it’s obvious to most people (but not all), if you are having sex with someone, you’re cheating (and yes, people, “oral sex” IS sex, unless you think that gay men and women don’t actually have sex with each other!)…but after that, it gets a bit dicier sometimes.  Is flirting cheating? (and if it is, what is “flirting” anyway?? That’s a whole separate discussion to have).   If your other half was seen chatting and flirting to a random man or woman on a night out, how would you react? Would you feel justified in ripping him/her to shreds or would you be too embarrassed to say anything because in the eyes of many in society, they haven’t really done anything terribly wrong?

There may even be generational differences in opinions on this subject.  As one article stated, “Between an increasingly permissive social attitude toward noncommittal sex and young people’s willingness to explore less traditional routes to courtship and marriage, what exactly constitutes a relationship (and cheating, for that matter) is increasingly unclear….Mind you, I think people are just as capable of telling right from wrong, but when the lines that define the parameters are blurred, it’s a lot easier to justify your wrongdoings. It used to be that if you were “going steady” with a girl, being seen out with another woman was enough to raise the wrong eyebrows. Nowadays, it’s OK because, “You know, she’s just a girl I’m kind of seeing, just like this other girl I’m dating except we’ve talked about moving in together. No, not her — we just hook up every so often. The other one.”

I don’t think it should surprise anyone that infidelity is so rampant when (younger) people of both genders are taking such a cavalier approach to dating and relationships.”

And maybe we need to relax our attitudes about “mental cheating” a bit here.   There are some out there that believe that their partner should never look at someone else.  Never THINK about someone else!  That they have to be the subject of every romantic and sexual thought in their partner’s head, or their partner is being unfaithful to them.  Really?    Is it realistic to think that your partner must be 100% faithful to you even in their heads?  I think we are setting ourselves up for failure if we do. EVERYONE fantasizes.  Everyone glances at people they find attractive. We may even be undressing them with our eyes. It’s human. It’s NORMAL.  Heck, if all of you out there are really honest, you would agree that you’ve probably fantasized at least one time about someone else or some sexual situation while making love to your spouse.  Admit it.

So what is cheating then anyway?   I found these stats interesting on the subject and the results of a survey:

After making a commitment to your current partner, have you ever

If I read that, the majority of people in committed relationships have done things both in their heads and in actuality that I think would make their partners furious.   And there’s no way of knowing whether people were really being honest here.   The same survey also stated that nearly half of men and women have cheated at some point in their lives.  Twenty-two percent of people have cheated on their current partner!  And those are the ones being honest! I’ll bet it’s higher. So much for “once a cheater, always a cheater?”  The majority of the population would, under that scenario, not be marriage material.  Well, that’s not true, is it?

Not surprisingly, nearly all participants say sexual intercourse with another partner is cheating — ditto, for having oral sex.   Eighty-nine percent of women and 77 percent of men say it’s cheating to romantically kiss another person. (This made me wonder. Almost 1/4 men think that romantically kissing someone else isn’t cheating?  Maybe some people define the difference between “cheating” and “wrong” differently?  “Cheating” carries a stigma in terms of a word. They might think that kissing someone is wrong, but not cheating…interesting).

We’ve got pretty strict definitions of fidelity even when it comes to flirting. The majorities of both men (53 percent) and women (73 percent) consider sending a sexually flirtatious e-mail to a co-worker cheating.  (Huge gender gap here. Why?  My guess is that if you have engaged in this behavior, you are wanting to not classify it as ‘cheating’. ….that means you men out there! *cough cough*)

In the same survey, 6% of men and 16% of women considered looking at porn to be “cheating”.    I found that one to be a bit of a head-scratcher at minimum, and a massive misunderstanding of male sexuality (which tends to be visual) by women.  Plus, I know lots of women that have no problem looking at porn and like it (even my wife and I have no problem with that at all).  It may make you feel insecure, and some may see it as “wrong,” “unhelpful” and “immoral”, but honestly, how does it constitute “cheating?”   Seriously!  I tend to believe that this kind of objection to porn – assuming it’s not being used in place of a normal sexual relationship — is rooted mostly in insecurity and a fundamental misunderstanding of human, and especially male, sexuality. But that could be the topic of another blog.  If you have a huge problem with your spouse or SO looking at porn, you absolutely should only be with/marry someone who agrees with you. Otherwise they will merely take it underground and have to lie about it to you.  Is that what you want?

I never judge how anyone ‘gets off’, presuming it’s legal and consensual.  I’ve heard women on radio shows claim their husband was cheating because they caught him masturbating!  WFT??  (no, I’ve yet to hear a man state this on the radio. Sorry, ladies).  Masturbation is a normal adult activity, even within the context of a relationship.  It’s healthy.  Trying to shame your partner for masturbating is very controlling and represents backward thinking.   Or so I’ve read and so I’ve heard over and over again from psychologists.  It’s not cheating to me.  Don’t judge my eyes and hand and I won’t judge your romance novels, fingers or sex toys!  But that aside, if you think masturbating is cheating, you need to have this discussion with your partner up front so they can decide whether this is a relationship they want to pursue. It’s only fair.

When is cheating justifiable? More than 70 percent of people say it’s never OK to cheat for any reason. Still, 26 percent of men and 9 percent of women say it’s justified if the other partner has lost interest in sex.  I find that to be an interesting statistic and should send a chill through the spine of anyone who is purposely avoiding sex with their spouse or significant other.

That being said, I am in the camp which says that cheating is never justified. If sex is important to you, and it’s not to your spouse, you need to be pretty plain with them.  If they won’t listen, then you need to get out.  Cheating is never the answer.  It’s self-indulgent, dangerous and will in most cases erode your self-image and soul. Don’t do it.

All that being said, what does this come down to??  Communication.  The definition of “Cheating” needs to be discussed and agreed to by both partners in a marriage/committed relationship.  I think what’s key is that the two people in a relationship need to mutually agree on boundaries and what constitutes cheating.  If you have very differing views, you could be headed for trouble as a couple. What if you enjoy some harmless flirting every now and again, knowing in your heart that it means nothing and in no way affects your feelings for your partner? Well, if your other half has made it clear that this behaviour would be deeply hurtful for them, then you have a serious choice to make.  Are you willing to sacrifice the meaningless chats for the sake of your partner’s happiness?  Often the reason people are reluctant to make sacrifices like this is because they do not want to feel controlled or weak, but the fact is that you don’t want to hurt your partner. Why would you ever consciously want to do something that would hurt someone you love? Especially if it wouldn’t make a huge difference to your life if you just didn’t do it.   This is the choice you have to make and it will be different for every relationship. You may not agree 100%, but compromising to some extent so that you have mutually-acceptable boundaries is a relationship must.  Compromise is the essence of any relationship.  You can’t always win 100%, but you must be at least clear to each other what constitutes a “deal-breaker.”

As one author put it so eloquently, “Don’t let your relationship suffer because of a lack of communication. Know what you want and expect from your partner and vice versa. Remember that cheating is not just physical – there are a million ways to destroy a relationship without even knowing it.



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