What Counts As Cheating In A Relationship? 8 Questions To Help You Define The Boundaries

We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. Please send your sex and relationship inquiries to tips@bustle.com. Now, onto today’s topic: what counts as cheating in a relationship.

Q: I recently found out that my boyfriend of six months was still active on Tinder. We very clearly had a conversation about being monogamous, so I was very upset by this discovery. He insists that he only used it “for fun,” and that he never cheated on me. I don’t think he ever cheated on me physically, but I still feel like our trust has been damaged. Do you think this counts as cheating?

A: Thanks for your question! You’re navigating really tricky territory here. Everyone has different ideas about what cheating means, and couples rarely talk in explicit detail about their individual definitions. This, of course, can lead to uncomfortable situations like the one you’re currently in. Cheating isn’t black-and-white, so each couple has to come to their own agreements. 

I suggest having a conversation with your boyfriend about what cheating means to each of you. Here are eight topics to consider when setting your boundaries.

1. Are We Monogamous Or Not?

We’ll start with the big one right off the bat: There are plenty of couples who decide to have varying levels of openness in their relationships. Having an open relationship doesn’t mean that anything goes; each couple still needs to set their own boundaries for non-monogamy. You stated in your question that you and your boyfriend are monogamous, so you and your boyfriend may want to consider the question, “what does monogamy mean to us?”  

2. Are There Certain Physical Activities That Are Permissible?

Even couples who decide to be monogamous may still allow each other to engage in specific activities with other people. For example, you might not care if you boyfriend cuddles other people. Or maybe you wouldn’t mind him kissing someone else, as long as it didn’t go any further than that. You may even have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

3. What Are Our Emotional Boundaries?

Emotional cheating could include things like flirting, reminiscing about past hookups, or even talking about sex in general. This topic can come up a lot when discussing relationships with exes too. For some people, emotional cheating can feel like as much of a betrayal as physical cheating. For others, having emotionally involved relationships with other people is no big deal, just as long as it doesn’t turn physical. Some relationships even get fired up the illicit thrill of flirting with other people, only to come home to each other at the end of the day. 

Emotional cheating can be really tricky to define, but you can each try to describe what it means to you. You could also try talking about fights that some of your friends have had, and ask each other what your reactions would have been. For example, "remember when Dan got mad at Taylor for telling her ex about the fights they were having? Would you have been upset with me if I did that?"

4. What Should We Do With Our Dating Profiles?

Online dating has completely transformed the way we date. The endless number of options available online can become addicting in a way, and it can be difficult to break away from the pull of online dating even when you’ve found someone awesome to date exclusively. A lot of people keep their online dating profiles up just in case a “better opportunity” arises. 

Your situation is the perfect example of why couples should talk about boundaries around online profiles. When you have the "what are we?" conversation, make sure to ask your partner to deactivate their dating profiles, if it bothers you. Or, better yet, do it together! 

5. What Are The Rules At Strip Clubs & Bachelor/Bachelorette Parties?

This is a topic that very few couples talk about beforehand, and the consequences can be disastrous! It’s important to have a discussion about the rules that apply during these special events. They might be the exact same boundaries that apply during any other time. Or you may feel more comfortable with your boyfriend getting a lapdance, knowing that it’s not going to lead anywhere else.

6. Are The Rules Different If We’re In A Long-Distance Relationship?

If you and your partner ever end up needing to spend part of your relationship physically apart, you might want to re-negotiate your definitions of cheating. Some couples take a realistic tack about being long-distance, especially if they have go to months at a time without seeing each other. You could create a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, or allow each other to do certain activities with another person.

7. What Are The Boundaries With Friendships?

Friendships with members of the opposite-sex can be tricky for some heterosexual or bisexual couples. Similarly, friendships with same-sex friends can be tough for some gay couples. For example, you may feel uncomfortable with your boyfriend spending the night in the same bed with his close girl friend. For some couples, these types of relationships aren’t a big deal, but it’s worth having a conversation to make sure you’re on the same page.

8. What Are The Boundaries With Flirtations?

Some couples are more permissible about flirting, as long as they know there isn’t a real attraction there. The cliche example is heterosexual guys who enjoy watching their heterosexual girlfriends make out with other women. If the girlfriend isn’t generally sexually attracted to women, this type of flirtation isn’t perceived as a threat to the relationship. For other couples, flirting with other people doesn’t feel good, regardless of the circumstance.  For some, it feels great. 

These questions should serve as a guide for opening up some more in-depth conversations with your boyfriend about what’s allowed in your relationship. You don’t need to have a marathon conversation going over every since one of these topics at the same time; just pick the ones that feel applicable to your situation. If you make sure you’re both on the same page, you’ll avoid hurtful situations like the one you’re currently in, and can start rebuilding trust. Good luck! 

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