There Is No Universal Definition Of "Cheating"

A very disturbing thing I found here.

Every time I read a women’s website or magazine these days, I come upon a headline that demands to know, “IS THIS CHEATING?!?!” Is sending flirty Facebook messages to someone else cheating? Is sending them nude pics cheating? Is flirting cheating? Is there a chance you could actually be cheating on your boyfriend and not even realize it?

Technology seems to exacerbate these existential questions because it keeps giving us new ways to violate our partners’ trust (but, on the flipside, it keeps giving us new ways to be sexual). Coming up to someone in person and stripping naked is one thing; sending a nude photo of yourself to them is another (or feels like another). And so we have to have these endless conversations about what exactly cheating is.

Here’s the thing, though. If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner.

Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one. In monogamous relationships, most people take the “default” definition of cheating, which includes any sort of sexual contact with someone else. But even then, what about flirty Facebook messages? What about “emotional cheating,” when you have feelings for someone else (even if you don’t act on them)? Some people count these things as cheating; others don’t.

Monogamous relationships can have a lot of wiggle room, too. I’ve known many couples in which one partner is straight and the other is bisexual, and the straight partner doesn’t mind if the bisexual partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s just hooking up). Long-distance relationships can also have certain “rules” for what the partners can do while they’re apart.

In non-monogamous relationships, there’s an even greater variety of configurations and definitions of cheating. Some couples restrict which types of sexual acts they can do outside of the primary relationship, or they specify that sex without barriers outside of that relationship would be cheating. Some people form triads or group marriages and forbid all sexual contact outside of that established group. Some decide that you can only hook up outside of the relationship at certain events or in particular spaces, or if your primary partner is present and either watching or participating.

Meanwhile, in other non-monogamous relationships–for instance, mine–the boundaries aren’t about specific acts or people, but rather about communication. If my partner or I act secretively about other people we’re seeing, we’re cheating. If we’re not considerate to each other in terms of making plans with those other people, we’re cheating.

But people don’t just come to these agreements by separately reading Cosmo articles about what cheating is and then never discussing it.

So, if you’re unsure of what counts as cheating in your relationship, you have three options:

1. Say nothing and avoid all activities that could possibly be considered cheating, thus potentially missing out on some great opportunities;

2. Say nothing and do whatever you feel like doing while convincing yourself that your partner wouldn’t see it as cheating, thus potentially, you know, cheating on your partner;

3. Ask your partner what they would like the boundaries of the relationship to be.

I can see why that third option might feel awkward or uncomfortable. If you ask your partner, “What are our boundaries as a couple? What could I potentially do that would make you feel like I cheated on you?”, there’s a chance that your partner will interpret that as you “looking for permission” to get involved in some way with other people. But if they understand the importance of communication in relationships, they’ll see it for what it is–an attempt to make sure that you’re on the same page and that neither of you will be hurt by a misunderstanding about relationship boundaries.

That’s also why it’s a good idea to have that discussion at the beginning of a relationship rather than once it’s been going on for a while, but late is definitely better than never.

The great thing about a discussion like this is that it also allows for discussing things that aren’t “cheating” per se, but nevertheless feel like a violation of boundaries. For some people, it’s not “cheating” if their partner flirts harmlessly (as in, with no intentions for anything else) with someone else, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable if their partner did that right in front of them. For some people–it’s hard for me to imagine this myself, but I’ve heard of it–it feels “wrong” somehow if their partner dances with someone else at a party. Some people would want to know if their partner develops a crush on someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s “cheating” if they do. Nevertheless, finding out that their partner has been keeping a new crush secret would feel like a violation of trust.

All of these nuances can be made clear by a conversation about boundaries.

Prescriptive definitions of cheating (i.e. “this is what cheating must mean for everyone”) don’t serve anyone. They keep people stuck in a very restrictive version of monogamy (not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, as long as you consciously choose it). They allow for misunderstandings that hurt people, such as when one partner thinks flirting with others is okay and the other feels like it’s cheating. They prevent people from creating their own relationship models that work best for them, and encourage them instead to conform to the dominant cultural conception of what a committed, “faithful” relationship is.

Edit: A reader and fellow blogger, Patrick, noted that the part of this post that deals with relationships between straight and bisexual people might be reinforcing the stereotype that all such relationships involve an agreement that the bisexual person can hook up with others of their gender. I definitely don’t want to reinforce that stereotype, so I asked him how I might have rephrased that in a way that was clearer and less stereotype-y. He suggested this:

“I’ve known many mixed-orientation couples (one partner is straight and the other is bisexual), and in some of them the straight partner doesn’t mind if their partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s within their negotiated boundaries).”

I like this phrasing a lot more, so I decided to append this here. A huge thank-you to Patrick for pointing this out and suggesting an improvement. 🙂

There Is No Universal Definition Of "Cheating"

20 thoughts on “There Is No Universal Definition Of "Cheating"

  1. 1

    Well, there is the thought that if you’re reading a ‘woman’s magazine’ to learn something you are not only doing it wrong, remedial education may not be enough to fix what ails you. Men’s health or MTV is not the place to get relationship counsel… and so on.

    1. 1.1

      Of course. 😛 But I can see how some people, especially those who haven’t yet learned how to be comfortable with serious conversations like these in their relationships, might turn to them for support.

  2. 2

    I kind of also think that the person who is participating in the activity in question can determine if they are cheating. Our conscience works like that. We know when we have stepped over a line… when we are honest with ourselves.

    1. 2.1

      Well, yes and no. Conscience is an important “tool” to use when making ethical decisions, especially if you’re operating from the perspective of “better safe than sorry.” But sometimes people are actually totally okay with their partners doing things that are generally considered “cheating” and that would set someone’s conscience off.

      Of course, many people are completely monogamous and have no desire to do anything with anyone else, but it’s still good to know where their partner’s boundaries lie in case things ever change.

        1. This can be a bit nuanced, though. For example, I know a lot of poly people (myself included) who can have twinges of guilt sometimes doing things that are actually considered perfectly okay within our relationships, and that our partners are fine with. Sometimes it takes a while to get away from decades of monogamous saturation and all the assumptions that go with that.

          1. Yes, I agree that while you’re working out what is okay, it can be ‘nuanced’ but in general following your own regulating conscience is pretty useful since to not do so only punishes you when your conscience warms you that something you’re about to do is wrong.

          2. Maybe it’s because I was watching Darrel Ray’s Skepticon video last night, but there’s also the possibility that some of that guilt is a result of conditioning from religious authorities who’s power depends on people being ashamed of their sexuality so there’s only one place (them) to find relief. It’s similar to the “monogamous saturation” you were discussing, really. Controlling our sexuality is a really effective way to control us.

          3. Kaoru: Exactly! After years of conditioning, I think that we need to be skeptical of our gut feelings when it comes to this. It’s far, far better to work on being open and communicative with ourselves and our partner(s) to work out what is actually going to cause harm and distress and what won’t. We live in a culture that makes us feel bad about almost any kind of sexual expression! We tend to have so much unlearning to do before we can get a decent perspective on what is actually harmful.

          4. myatheistlife: I’m not saying that we should ignore our consciences at all. I’m saying that when it comes to sexuality, our consciences can be severely warped by this sex-negative culture we’re all steeped in. I think that it’s a good idea to step back a little from our gut feelings, be a little skeptical, interrogate where they come from and see what’s actually going on.

          5. Very much so. We can confront our feelings and our actions by examining their cause. So many times I’ve felt guilty about something until I realized it was because I thought I was supposed to feel guilty about it.

          6. Yeah, I definitely agree with Kaoru and Aoife here. Conscience is too often the same thing as guilt, which is too often a response to social pressures and not to one’s internal sense of right and wrong.

  3. 3

    I also think it is useful to re-address this particular relationship discussion occasionally over time. Feelings change – we change. It is ridiculous to assume that how we feel about the nature of relations outside the relationship is going to remain static. The problem is that a lot of times when people’s feelings about that change, they don’t feel comfortable trying to renegotiate – hell, most people have issues with negotiating in the first place. In relationships where both partners care a great deal for the other, the other partner is likely to be amenable to reasonable changes – in some cases, they might be amenable to things you never would have imagined they would (I particularly remember fretting for a couple hours, many years ago, about asking a lover if she would be willing to play with a woman who had been eyeing us at a party – only to learn they had made plans less than half an hour after we arrived at the party, long before I had even noticed her).

    I have seen (and had) a lot of relationships go terribly wrong, due to fears about renegotiating. When we change, we should always be willing to discover whether our partners are ok with those changes, rather than either stewing about it until is fizzles out or simply splitting up.

    1. 3.1

      That’s a really good point! The nice thing about starting off a new relationship with conversations like these is that it establishes a precedent that this is how we’re going to do things in this relationship, which makes renegotiating easier. But even then, as you said, change is hard.

      Also, I like your story about the party. I’ve definitely had things like that happen, too. 😛

  4. 4

    I think in many respects, the idea that somehow a magazine that has never met you (well, the editors who haven’t met you, since clearly the magazine itself knows you well enough to be comfortable being held by you) can tell you if “he” is cheating goes to a very basic human desire for things to be simple, no better emphasized than the heteronormative assumptions and the gender stereotypes they imply. So many of the arguments I have with people boil down to their unwillingness to accept that we live in a complex world of diverse human beings with various feelings on a number of subjects.

    For example, I am non-monogamous. My current primary partner knew this coming into the relationship and we were able to discuss what does and does not count as “cheating.” Basically, we ask permission in advance if it’s convenient, and tell as soon as things happen if there was a “moment” and we didn’t have time to ask. We take one another’s opinions into account and try to make sure the other person is comfortable. I am especially careful since this is her first open relationship and I want to make sure she’s ok with things, whereas I really don’t get very jealous about sex.

    Still, that’s a paragraph that simplifies a very complicated agreement between us that was discussed and re-discussed at length. It works for us because we’re able to talk about it. When magazines attempt to short circuit that conversation, starting it from a rather flawed formula (i.e. x behavior + y situation = he’s cheating on you), it prevents relationships from finding a situation that works for them.

  5. 6

    Thanks for the edit and the kind attribution!

    This is an important topic you’re writing about — all successful relationships, monogamous or polyamorous, mixed orientation or same orientation, need open communication and the willingness to renegotiate boundaries if they are to thrive.

    And renegotiation of boundaries doesn’t necessarily mean those boundaries have to change: resetting them in the same place they have always been is a powerful statement and reflects closeness more than a simple ossification and assumption of inevitability.

  6. 7

    I think the simplest answer is: “Are you cheating by reading Cosmo articles? Yes/no”

    The answer is, if you’re doing it in secret, then maybe you’re doing something that’s violating trust. It doesn’t matter what it is: Sexting, sneaking extra cheesecake after bedtime, reading Cosmo articles… If it’s in secret, then you might be cheating.

    On the other hand, there’s no reason for it to be cheating. People read racy novels while still married; sexting can be more personal, and intimate, but if it’s not a secret from your spouse, and you’re open and honest about your proclivities, then it’s not cheating.

  7. 9

    […] “Here’s the thing, though. If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner. Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one.” There Is No Universal Definition of “Cheating” – Brute Reason […]

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