Defining Infidelity In A World Of Hookup Apps & Internet Porn

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Once upon a time, it was pretty easy to know if you were cheating on your partner. If you were sexual with someone other than your spouse, you were guilty of infidelity. Yes, sometimes one partner (usually the wife) had to explain to the other (usually the husband) that things like oral sex and hand jobs count as cheating, but otherwise infidelity was relatively easy to identify.

Then came the Internet, and the once clear line between sexual fidelity and infidelity got very, very blurry. Consider the following:

  • Does looking at online porn count as cheating?
  • Does it matter if there is (or isn’t) masturbation in conjunction with online porn use?
  • Does it matter how much porn you look at or how often you look at it?
  • Is flirting with a former flame on social media a form of cheating?
  • Is flirting with strangers on social media a form of cheating?
  • Does having a profile on Ashley Madison, even if you’re not actually hooking up with anyone, count as cheating?
  • What if you sext with people met on Ashley Madison but don’t actually hook up?
  • Does romantic/sexy video chat count as cheating?
  • Does it matter if the person you’re video chatting with lives thousands of miles away?
  • Is playing the video game Grand Theft Auto, which now offers “realistic sex with prostitutes” as part of the action, a form of cheating?

Honestly, the gray areas are almost limitless, with the primary question centering on whether digital sex counts as much as in-the-flesh sex.

A few years ago, in an attempt to answer this question (and a few others), Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Dr. Charles Samenow, and I conducted a survey of people whose spouses were engaging in online and sometimes in-person sexual activity.

One of our study’s most important findings was that when it comes to the negative effects of sex outside a supposedly monogamous relationship, digital and real-world sex are no different. The pain of betrayal feels exactly the same, regardless of where and how the cheating took place.

Basically, what we found was that it’s not the specifics of the sexual act that cause the most emotional pain and damage to a supposedly monogamous relationship. Instead, it’s the constant lying, the emotional distancing, and the loss of relationship trust.

In other words, relationships don’t disintegrate because one partner had sex with someone else (either online or in person); they disintegrate because he or she lied about that behavior (and usually a lot of other important stuff). Without trust, the relationship will fragment and collapse.

Based on this study plus decades of experience as a therapist specializing in the treatment of sex and intimacy issues, I have formulated the following digital age definition:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when important secrets are kept from a primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition of cheating does not mention affairs, hookups, porn, sexting, video chat, or any other specific sexual act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner—the loss of relationship trust. Nor does this definition distinguish between online and real-world sexual activity. It simply says, if you’re engaging in any romantic or sexual activity that you’re covering up with lies and secrets, you’re cheating.

Importantly, this definition is flexible depending on the couple. In other words, it lets couples define their personalized version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision making. This means that it may be acceptable to engage in certain forms of extracurricular sexual activity as long as both partners have agreed, up front, that this is acceptable within the bounds of their relationship.

However, if one person is cruising hookup apps (or whatever) and keeping this behavior secret, or if the partner knows about this behavior but doesn’t find this behavior acceptable within the mutually agreed upon boundaries of the relationship, then infidelity has occurred. So, once again, cheating is less about sexual behavior and more about secrets, lies, and the loss of relationship trust.

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