Here's How 8 Relationship Experts Define Cheating

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Cheating is one of those things that we all think we know the definition of, but all it takes is asking two or more people what their definition of cheating is to figure out that it's not so cut-and-dry as we thought. While most of us can agree that "having sex" with someone outside your monogamous agreement is cheating, that's about where our mutual understanding ends.

"If you have an agreement with your partner that your relationship is monogamous, and you have an emotional and/or sexual affair with someone else, then you are violating your agreement with your partner — and you have cheated," Dr. Gary Brown, a dating and relationship therapist in Los Angeles, tells Bustle.

OK, so that seems pretty clear, right? But it's really only the beginning. For example, there are people who consider watching porn cheating. Or masturbating. Or being alone with someone of the opposite sex.

Thats on the more restrictive side of things. On the other end, there are couples who have agreements about outside sexual contact that view breaking those agreements as cheating. Maybe that means you're allowed to sleep with other people, but not anyone your partner knows. Or perhaps it means any type of sexual contact other than penis-in-vagina intercourse is OK with other people. In that case, having PIV sex would be considered cheating.

Clearly there's a wide divide between "watching porn is cheating" and "nothing except PIV is cheating." So to bring some clarity to the issue, here is how eight experts experts define cheating.


Nicole Richardson, LPC, LMFT

Andrew Zaeh/Bustle

"In a time when people are really experimenting with what is/isn't a relationship and commitment, I understand why this can feel like a gray area. My general litmus test for couples is to 'behave in my absence as you would in my presence.' That is far from perfect but I think it can help avoid a LOT of problems. If you wouldn't do it (whatever that is) in front of your partner, then it's probably not a good idea.

Another important key here is to discuss what commitment means to you. If you haven't explicitly discussed commitment, it is safe to assume you don't have one and it is unfair to hold the other person to something they have not agreed upon.

That said, you don't have to like everything the other person does. For example, if your love interest is flirting with other people, it may not be 'cheating' but you don't have to like it either." Nicole Richardson, LPC, LMFT


Melanie Shapiro, LICSW

Andrew Zaeh/Bustle

"My definition of cheating is when there is an agreement between two partners to be in a monogamous relationship and one partner violates the agreement and engages in sexual or emotional intimacy with someone outside the relationship. Often, people only think of sexual relations as cheating, yet sharing emotional intimate parts of oneself with someone outside the relationship can also be considered cheating. However, cheating doesn’t mean the end to a relationship, I believe it can be repaired if both partners are willing to do the work!" Melanie Shapiro, LICSW


Dr. Gary Brown, Ph.D., LMFT, FAPA

Andrew Zaeh/Bustle

"Is there a gray area? That depends upon how on whether or not you and your partner are OK with various levels of micro-cheating, which can include an innocent (or not so innocent flirtation) with someone other than our partner. Certainly this can occur while in the company of someone, but also in other ways such as via texting.

This can also include intended as well as unintended consequences such as developing an infatuation that becomes a full on crush for someone; revealing some of your deeper inner thoughts and feelings with someone you are attracted to; other than your partner, lying to someone else about the fact that you are already in a relationship; sleeping with the other even if you don't have sex; and having any sexual contact that might not include intercourse but could include sexual touching of a provocative nature.

Overall, cheating is dependent upon the agreements you have with your partner. A good rule of thumb that many have found helpful is this: Assume that your partner will not be happy if you have cheated and if you violate their trust, you may be setting yourself up for the potential loss of a relationship." Dr. Gary Brown, Ph.D., LMFT, FAPA


Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, LCPC, Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, And Co-Founder Of The Marriage Restoration Project

Andrew Zaeh/Bustle

"The essence of cheating is betraying your partner's trust. This could manifest itself in a full-blown physical affair, an emotional affair, or an online interaction. Fidelity means loyalty. Being loyal to your spouse means not shifting your emotional focus elsewhere. When you choose to focus elsewhere you betray your partner's trust and that betrayal can be equally devastating regardless of what it actually looks like. Focusing on investing energy in your relationship by creating a safe and loving space is the answer to prevent an emotionally fragile environment through which cheating can blossom." — Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, LCPC, Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, and co-founder of The Marriage Restoration Project


Jeffrey Rubin, Ph.D. And Psychotherapist

Andrew Zaeh/Bustle

"[Cheating is] to be emotionally or physically unfaithful. There are degrees of cheating from sexual betrayal of a partner or spouse to affairs of the heart in which a member of a relationship has a secret, emotionally meaningful relationship outside his or her primary one." Jeffrey Rubin, Ph.D. And Psychotherapist


Jennifer B. Rhodes, PsyD

Andrew Zaeh/Bustle

"Cheating really is related to breaking the rules of trust between you and your partner. Every couple gets to define what those rules are. Most people assume it means just sleeping with someone outside of your relationship, but most affairs start off as emotional affairs.

In today’s world, we have the freedom to define our relationships in any way we choose. That does, however, mean having conversations about what that looks like to each person. When this is done, the transgression is very clear." - Jennifer B. Rhodes, PsyD


Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of “The Kurre and Klapow Show”

Andrew Zaeh/Bustle

"Cheating is an act of betrayal. Betrayal is a violation of a person’s trust. What is important to understand is that once trust is broken, repairing and mending varies greatly from couple to couple and individual-to-individual. Depending on a person’s history of trust issues, betrayals, attachment style and security, it may take one episode of a betrayal to dissolve the relationship. Or it might be completely repairable after the event. It is totally dependent as much on the person, their history, and the strength of the relationship as it is on the type of cheating that has occurred.

Cheating can then be anything from talking to someone else when you have promised not to, to engaging in dialog that shares secrets or personal information that you have held confidential with your partner.

Cheating can have nothing to do with physical contact. Cheating, is simply put: doing what you have promised, vowed, and been entrusted not to do." - Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and host of “The Kurre and Klapow Show”


Gregory Kushnick, Psy.D., Manhattan Psychologist

Andrew Zaeh/Bustle

"Cheating is behaving in a way that violates an explicitly agreed upon or implied understanding of what is not permitted in a relationship. A universal definition of cheating is less important than what a couple jointly defines as constituting a deviation from the agreement. Cheating can be physical, emotional and/or digital. Cheating involves channeling sexual energy or deep, emotional support toward someone who could potentially represent a sexual partner. It usually, but not always, involves some form of deceit and neglect of your partner's needs.

While it does ultimately depend on what the couple defines as cheating, the following represent a few commonly understood manifestations: sexual activity with someone other than your partner, sexual material (aka, sexting) with someone other than your partner, discussing in person, via texting or online your most intimate acts or showing interest in another person's intimate life, the use of pornographic material or exposure to live adult entertainment. Each individual has additional idiosyncratic ideas about cheating and it becomes the partner's obligation to honor the boundaries set forth by the other." — Gregory Kushnick, Psy.D., Manhattan Psychologist

Hopefully this helped you figure out your own boundaries when it comes to cheating because, really, that's what's important. Not how your mom defines cheating. Or your best friend. Or your sister. Or even these experts. When it comes to your life and your relationships, only your definition matters.