Is Cheating Ever OK? A Sex Therapist Explains

Is Cheating Ever OK? A Sex Therapist Explains Hero Image
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In my book, I define infidelity as the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.

I use this definition for three very important reasons:

  1. It encompasses both online and real-world sexual activity. Thus, it is effective in the digital era.
  2. It encompasses sexual activities other than actual penis-in-vagina intercourse.
  3. It focuses on the loss of relationship trust rather than on specific sexual and/or romantic acts.

Based on both research and clinical experience, I can tell you that the third item on that list—the loss of relationship trust—is by far the most important facet of infidelity. Put simply, for a cheated-on partner it's not any specific sexual or romantic act that causes the most pain; instead, it's the lying, the secrets, and the newfound inability to believe anything the cheater says or does.

So is there ever a good reason to engage in infidelity? In my opinion, there is not.

This does not, however, mean that every relationship must be monogamous. In fact, many couples that I know, both personally and professionally, have perfectly happy relationships that are, in one way or another, nonmonogamous. That said, having a relationship that is not monogamous in the traditional "till death do us part" sense is not something one partner should ever force onto or keep secret from his or her significant other.

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Instead, open relationships should be approached with integrity, with both partners having an equal say and mutually agreeing, without coercion of any kind, that certain activities are (or are not) acceptable within the bounds of their relationship.

There are many reasons for a couple to have some form of an open relationship, including but by no means limited to the following:

  • Both partners are tech-savvy and enjoy using things like digital pornography, webcam sex, sexting, and hookup apps, and neither wants to give these things up just because they're in a committed romantic relationship.
  • One partner has a much greater sex drive than the other, and they can mutually agree that satisfying this drive, within certain limits, is acceptable.
  • One partner consistently refuses to have sex or is reviled by the experience of sex and doesn't mind if the other partner seeks sex elsewhere.
  • A couple is separated for long periods of time thanks to career, family, or other commitments, and both still want to have an active in-person (rather than purely digital) sex life.

Any and all of the above are perfectly good reasons for having a nonmonogamous relationship. However, there is no excuse for doing this in secret. If two people truly love each other, and they are psychologically capable of having an honest, open-minded discussion about their sexual desires, that is the approach they should take.

Consider the case of Sam and Mary. In 2005, Mary was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident. Afterward, she was unable to perform sexually. Plus, she lost all interest in sex. For Sam, this was a problem. Because they loved each other very much and had no interest in ending their marriage, they were able to mutually agree on certain sexual boundaries. For instance, Sam could watch and masturbate to porn, and if he truly felt the need for physical sexual contact he could hire an escort. He did not need to tell Mary about his use of porn or escorts, but he did need to be honest afterward if she asked him where he'd been or what he'd been doing. Twelve years later, they are still happily married.

My point here is that monogamy and traditional visions of marriage and fidelity are not absolutes in today's world. Many couples happily engage in all sorts of sextracurricular activity with the knowledge and consent of their primary partner. Sometimes these relationships are open from the start; other times life creates circumstances where sex outside a previously monogamous relationship makes sense.

As long as secrets aren't kept and lies aren't being told, such behavior does not qualify as cheating. As such, as stated above, it is my belief that there is never a good reason to betray a partner by engaging in infidelity.


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