Here's How 8 Relationship Experts Define Cheating

It's not as cut-and-dry as you think.

by Emma McGowan and Lexi Inks
Originally Published: 
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Cheating is one of those things that everyone thinks they know the definition of, but all it takes is asking two or more people what they think cheating means to figure out that it's not so cut-and-dry as you thought. While most can agree that "having sex" with someone outside a monogamous agreement is cheating, that's about where the mutual understanding ends.

As Dr. Gary Brown, a dating and relationship therapist in Los Angeles, tells Bustle, "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.”

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 going to a strip club.

That's 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 with other people is OK other than intercourse. In that case, having PIV sex would be considered cheating.

In a 2020 survey of 283 Bustle readers, it was found that more than half (53%) of readers have been cheated on, and a considerable amount (31%) have been the partner who cheated. Despite this, 85% of readers were not or had never been in an open relationship — indicating that monogamous commitments were much more common than not.

Additionally, according to Bustle readers, only 22% felt that having a crush on someone else was a form of cheating, while 69% thought meeting up with an ex and hiding it from their partner was cheating. Digitally speaking, one of the most debated “gray areas” of cheating among readers was liking someone else’s Instagram posts.

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

Cheating Is A Betrayal Of Trust

When you enter into a committed partnership with someone, the most typical expectation is that they remain loyal to you and your shared commitment. Cheating, then, can be seen as the exact opposite. "Cheating is an act of betrayal. Betrayal is a violation of a person’s trust,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow. “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 ... 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.”

While cheating can look like a number of things, according to experts, the most essential element to the commitment of a relationship is loyalty, Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a certified Imago relationship therapist. “Being loyal to your [partner] means not shifting your emotional focus elsewhere,” Slatkin says. “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.”

While the definition of cheating depends on the agreements you and your partner have set in place, according to Brown, it’s safe to proactively assume that shifting your emotional energy to someone else will not end well. “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,” Brown says.

Interestingly enough, however, less than half of Bustle readers in the 2020 survey said that cheating was “definitely” a dealbreaker in a relationship, while 42% said that it depended on how their partner cheated, and how they found out about it. This is another example of the considerable divide and an obvious example of how widely the idea of cheating varies between people.

Cheating Is Violating An Agreement

In any committed relationship, there are certain agreements on what is expected from each partner. This varies from couple to couple, but the ways in which those mutual understandings can be violated should be clearly defined. “In today’s world, we have the freedom to define our relationships in any way we choose,” Dr. Jennifer B. Rhodes, a licensed psychologist, tells Bustle. “That does, however, mean having conversations about what that looks like to each person. When this is done, the transgression is very clear.”

Licensed psychotherapist Melanie Shapiro has a similar view. "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.” Speaking of emotional intimacy, many Bustle readers seem to take umbrage with affairs of the heart; in the survey conducted, 70% of readers said that an emotional affair was a dealbreaker for them.

And, this form of infidelity can have bigger repercussions, Brown tells Bustle, “[Emotional cheating] 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 ... and having any sexual contact that might not include intercourse but could include sexual touching of a provocative nature.” Emotional affairs are often highly debated as another gray area in the realm of cheating, but according to the experts, choosing to allow emotional intimacy or trust to grow with someone outside of your relationship can be an incredibly slippery slope.

Whether the relationship is monogamous, polyamorous, or somewhere in between, it’s still critical to have honest and clear conversations about what cheating looks like to you, says licensed marriage and family therapist Nicole Richardson. 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,” she says. “My general litmus test for couples is '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.”

Even when it comes to scenarios like taking a “break” from the partnership (a lá Ross & Rachel from Friends), discussions around cheating are important. Just like with any initial agreement, no matter the choice of relationship style, boundaries and dealbreakers need to be clearly communicated before any major decisions — like a break — are made. When it comes to Ross’ “We were on a break” moment, most Bustle readers seemed to think he was not in the wrong, with 59% saying that Ross did not cheat on Rachel.

Cheating Can Be Physical Or Emotional

Because the concept of cheating is so different from relationship to relationship, it’s important to refer back to the initial agreements you made with your partner. “A universal definition of cheating is less important than what a couple jointly defines as constituting a deviation from the agreement,” says psychologist Gregory Kushnick. “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.”

As Kushnick mentioned, cheating can come in many forms, including virtual (like sexting or online dating). Some of these behaviors can be referred to as micro-cheating, Brown says. "[The gray area in cheating] depends upon how 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.” In the 2020 Bustle survey, 82% of readers said that their partner sexting someone else would be a dealbreaker, and 93% of all readers reported sexting as a form of cheating.

It’s important to remember that even an emotionally intimate relationship with a coworker or friend can quickly toe the line of infidelity. "There are degrees of cheating from the 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,” says psychologist Jeffrey Rubin. “Cheating can have nothing to do with physical contact,” Klapow says. “Cheating, is simply put: doing what you have promised, vowed, and been entrusted not to do.”


Dr. Gary Brown, dating and relationship therapist

Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, certified Imago relationship therapist

Dr. Jennifer B. Rhodes, licensed psychologist

Melanie Shapiro, licensed psychotherapist

Nicole Richardson, licensed marriage and family therapist

Gregory Kushnick, psychologist

Jeffrey Rubin, psychologist

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