Cheating is a painful specter that, when experienced, can loom large over a person's heart for many years. But what exactly is considered cheating? And what should you do if you find yourself in the unenviable situation of discovering that your partner has been unfaithful?
What counts as cheating?
The thing about cheating is that there's no simple list of behaviors that can be flagged as definitely "cheating" or "not cheating." Ultimately it comes down to the people in the relationship to define for themselves (in collaboration with each other!) what acts are off limits within the bounds of their bond.
Relationship therapist Jeanae M. Hopgood, LMFT, M.Ed., PMH-C, explains it as such: "Cheating is pretty subjective and can be anything from flirting with someone who isn't your partner, to full-out sexual acts with another person. Cheating is really anything that violates the boundaries of your romantic relationship and results in a breach of trust between its members."
If you even need to think, "Would my spouse/partner be OK with this behavior?” then this is a pretty good indication that you might be nearing the cheating zone. In the end, the only people who can know if you cheated or not are you and your partner(s). Together as a unit, it's you who set the rules and promise to live by them.
Types of cheating:
Physical cheating is the kind that most people immediately think of and assume cheating to be. It's quite simply the physical intimacy that you're not supposed to share with someone else if you have a monogamous relationship. (And notably, even people in polyamorous arrangements can cheat and be cheated on if one or more parties engages in behavior that goes against the rules they may have set for themselves.) While it can range in severity, physical cheating is all about using your body to cross a line.
- Making out with someone at the club
- Having sex with someone while out of town
- Dancing sexily with someone
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Emotional cheating is where things can start to feel a bit blurry. When you emotionally cheat on your partner, you share intimate details and everyday closeness with someone outside of your relationship. To emotionally cheat is to tell yourself lies like "We haven't even kissed, so nothing's happened that I should feel ashamed of" or "We're just friends!"
To be clear, a true friendship is not an example of emotional cheating. You need and deserve emotional closeness with people outside of your romantic partnership. The problem is when you imbue said friendships with secrecy and frissons of sexual or romantic excitement. The problem is telling your partner that "Linda" is "just a work friend," while you're telling her all your hopes, dreams, and desires (that you don't share with your partner).
"An emotional cheater is someone who channels their emotional energy, time, and attention to someone outside of the relationship. As a result, they spend less time with their partners, leading to feelings of neglect," says AASECT-certified sex therapist Aliyah Moore, Ph.D.
- Closing off from your partner emotionally and finding solace in someone else
- Writing long romantic/sexual letters to someone else
- Having deep phone calls with someone else about everything you think and feel—without your partner's knowledge and permission
- Keeping your relationship with a certain person secret from your partner because you're worried what your partner will think
- Acting like a couple with someone else, just minus the sex
Digital cheating, or online cheating, has obviously exploded over the last 15 years or so, as dating apps and social media have become an entrenched part of our lives. Online cheating doesn't have to lead to IRL meetups to count as cheating; it's still infidelity if it involves secret romantically or erotically charged interactions with people outside the relationship, says couples' and sex therapist Kyle Zrenchik, Ph.D., ACS, LMFT.
When people cheat using the internet, they might become secretive about their phones or laptops or develop new habits such as spending a lot of time glued to their phone.
- Maintaining a secret Tinder profile where you pretend to be single
- Sending flirty messages to someone you follow on Twitter, Instagram, etc.
- Sending and soliciting nudes
- Oversharing emotional information that you're not telling your partner to someone else via email, without your partner's knowledge or consent
Micro-cheating refers to all those little behaviors that you know would upset your partner or spouse but that aren't immediately apparent as capital "C" cheating. Micro-cheating is about slowly pushing at and breaking down the integrity of your relationship by intentionally choosing to engage in acts that undermine the trust of your partner(s). "Micro-cheaters often don't want to compromise their current partners but choose to stay in the game without committing to a third-party relationship," says Moore.
- Trying to cultivate or create intimate energy and vibes with people who aren't your partner
- Hitting up your ex "just to catch up" but seeking emotional intimacy
- Leaning into crushes instead of away from them
- Repeatedly fantasizing about someone who isn't your partner in a way that takes you away from being present
Creating boundaries in your relationship.
Importantly, not every single behavior listed above will count as cheating in every single relationship. Everyone has a different definition of cheating, and it's on the partners themselves to establish what is and isn't OK for them. Making sure that these boundaries are established early on is key to the later success of the relationship.
"Infidelity is one of the most cited reasons partners give for getting a divorce," says AASECT-certified sex therapist Sari Cooper, CST, LCSW-R, of the Center for Love and Sex. "I think that people initially don't even ask themselves what situations they feel might be tempting to them and feel confident enough to discuss this with a partner as well."
Try to be truly honest with yourself and your partner(s) when you set up the terms of your relationship. If you know that you're a flirty person, be upfront about that; don't try to squash it down. It will only bite you in the behind later. If your partner has insight into your behavior, they are more likely to be able to come to terms with it. Together you can think of a compromise that honors both of/all of you.
"It's important that each person only agrees to boundaries that they actually believe in," Zrenchik adds. "If you feel like pornography is not cheating but your partner does (or vice versa), it's important not to simply agree just to move the conversation along. Talk it out as long as it needs to be discussed until you both arrive at an agreeable consensus (like, perhaps, movies and clips are OK but camming with a live person is not)."
How to deal with infidelity in a relationship.
For the person who has been cheated on:
If you find yourself confronting the fact that your partner has cheated, it's important to not make any rash decisions, says Zrenchik. Instead, take time to process what's happened and what you want to do moving forward. Cooper emphasizes the importance of finding professional help from an individual therapist "to explore whether you want to work on this relationship. It's totally normal to feel ambivalent about staying and leaving in the first stage post-discovery."
One of the hardest things to deal with when discovering your partner's betrayal is a lost sense of trust for all future partners. Whether you decide to stay or go, getting a trusted friend or therapist whom you can pour your heart out to or joining a support group is so important as you go through your own mourning process, Cooper says.
And there are ways to work on rebuilding the relationship if you choose, Zrenchik notes. "If desired, work on reestablishing commitment, trust, and respect with the other person, finding small things to do together, and allowing for hurt and pain to be present," Zrenchik suggests.
It''s really important to take things slowly. Mourning isn't some curriculum that should take a certain amount of time. The feelings will come in waves. Try not to be harsh with yourself if you reach out to your partner for sex, for solace, or for comfort, while at other times you regard them as awful. Your body and mind are going through a lot, says Cooper, so have compassion for yourself.
And as a last note, Cooper recommends that you get an STI test to check your sexual health status in case you have been exposed. Even if your partner says it's not necessary, it can be good for your peace of mind.
For the person who has cheated:
It's imperative that you take responsibility and accountability if you're the one who has cheated. The pain that you have caused your partner can be immeasurable, but telling the truth can help to soften the blow.
"There is a dramatic difference with how painful infidelity is when the hurt partner finds out from the cheating partner compared to when they find out by discovering it themselves," advises Zrenchik. "People discover infidelity in very unexpected ways. If you have cheated, it is typically best to come clean and address the issue."
Facing up to the cheating can be a chance to dramatically improve your relationship together, but this will only happen if you are open, honest, sincere, brave, and accountable, he says. You will need to be extra sensitive to your partner's needs at this time.
You should also look into getting individual therapy to figure out why you felt compelled to betray your partner's trust and how it can be avoided in the future. (Here are some reasons people cheat that aren't what you might think.)
For both/all of you:
Enter therapy together with a therapist who specializes in sex and relationships. "A licensed therapist is your neutral party in the discussions, and they'll help you and your partner recognize and process unmet needs in the relationship," says Moore.
After couples' therapy, couples will have a deeper understanding of what happened, have compassion for each other, and find effective ways to solve problems and move forward.
"After a cheating incident, your relationship will have to change," says Moore. "I often tell my clients to forget their first relationship and instead think that they're starting a brand-new one. And in this new relationship, you must put in the same work and effort to care for and learn about each other."
If cheating has been a pattern, then the cycle needs to be broken. Either way, you must begin to invest in healthy and honest communication and reconnect with why you wanted to be together in the beginning.
Kesiena Boom, M.S., is a sociologist, writer, and poet. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from Lund University. Her work has been featured at Slate, Buzzfeed, Vice, Autostraddle, and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on sex, pleasure, queer experience and community, feminist theory and practice, and race and anti-racism.