Do We Need to Rewrite the Rules of Cheating?
10.12.17

In a popular TV show I won’t spoil, two characters – one of whom is committed elsewhere — fall in unlikely love and, in a romantic crescendo of delusion, kiss each other through a pane of glass. It couldn’t have been satisfying, and was probably very cold, but it enabled them to remain secure in their logic that they weren’t technically cheating.

You probably know what I mean by “technically cheating,” just as you know what I mean by “emotional cheating.” Our culture is obsessed with these semantics. When I watched the scene, I remember wondering whether the writers of the show meant for it to be a commentary on the absurdity of it all, or whether they really thought a quarter inch of glass made a difference.

In the months since, I’ve been surprised to notice how many modern love stories dance around this same line, as if sexual contact is unquestioningly more serious than everything that precedes it. On the one hand, it’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with. On the other, it feels so old school, doesn’t it, to view sex so ceremoniously? And it feels a little sterile, too, to analyze commitment through the lens of loopholes, as if love were a literal contract instead of an emotional one.

I’d been toying with these ideas for a few months when the topic of cheating came up at dinner with some friends. One guy said he’d come close to kissing women several times in clubs, and felt no obligation to tell his girlfriend, nor did he see it as a problem. I asked him if he thought his girlfriend would care if she knew, and he said she probably would.

“Would she consider that cheating?” I asked.

“I don’t think it really matters because it’s not cheating,” he said. He thinks everyone ought to live by his or her own moral compass, plain and simple. We debated for a while, just for the sake of it, but he ultimately made me firmer in my budding belief that cheating, in general, is under-examined in our culture. Shouldn’t monogamous couples be talking, out loud and to each other, about what it means to them, why it matters, and where their shades of gray exist? Isn’t that so much better than having to debate those bounds in the aftermath of a betrayal?

When my partner and I were deciding whether or not to put a label on our relationship, I remember him saying, “We get to decide what does and doesn’t define a relationship. That’s up to us.” It seemed so obvious, but I’d never thought of it that way. Why had I always accepted, without question, what it meant to be “together,” especially when the realities of that system are so often maligned in the long-run? His framing of our relationship as a mutual, emotional contract that we mapped out together stuck with me.

I used to be very staunch in my belief that “I’d never stay with someone who cheated on me,” but now that hypothetical feels so underdeveloped. Could one word and an associated set of actions possibly encapsulate disloyalty for everyone in the same way?

I don’t have the answer, but I want to open the conversation. Have you had these kinds of conversation with past or current partners? Have you ever played by the semantic rules even when you knew you were betraying someone? Do you think cheating, as a concept, is full of gray or black-and-white?

Illustration by Buyenlarge/Getty Images, collaged by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Em

    Goop (I know) just posted an article on infidelity this morning as well. After reading both pieces, it appears that being upfront is the way to go. And not taking others for granted. And being humble. Bascially, be your own Jesus. 🙏

    • emily moran

      Dingy dang I just posted the article as well w/out reading all the comments. It’s so good!!

      • emily moran

        Aaaaaaand my nickname/initials are EM!

        • emily moran

          And I also said (I know) after referencing goop. Sorry done spamming but I feel like we’re cosmically linked.

          • Em

            Holy bananas, I love it! My other nickname is Emmy 🤓

    • If you liked the Goop one, read this one. It’s WAAYYY better and written by the psychotherapist interviewed in the Goop article. In it she talks about why cheating is often not a good indication of whether a relationship is happy or not (i.e. that whole “I cheated because I must not be getting what I need from my current relationship” is kinda bullshit)

      https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/why-happy-people-cheat/537882/

      • Em

        Thank you! I did like that therapist’s way of dissecting things

      • elwolf

        Loved that piece!

  • Macon

    The second season of the not-to-be-named tv show is full of references to Italian movies– and that kiss is one of them!
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8347e63e6c5203195c0b3fea5bcd37caf11f13f99fb1ccc9078321f61631c2b6.jpg

    • Camila Restrepo

      The whole first episode was Ladri di Biciclette. Italian cinema class paid off watching that season.

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    sex/physical initimacy is so bizzare because on one hand it really is so simple and beautiful– and maybe that’s how it should always be — but in reality, it’s full of grey, murky areas and can fuck up your life (no pun intended) at the drop of a hat.

    • Aydan

      so real! I think sometimes even having a stance outside of a relationship or the beginning may actual change once such an issue actually arises. As someone who thought I felt strongly about one way but then saw myself turn 180 degrees on myself when it happened in a relationship, it deffo proves it can be murky!

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    Here is a very back and white explanation of why cheating is in fact not so black and white: There is a very big difference between being a perpetual cheater (liar/character flaw/continued patterns) vs doing something once-making a mistake, likely caused by something wrong in relationship that may or may not be fixable. Also, as with most things, we all know (or hope) what the best version of ourselves might do in a situation, making it easy for us to judge others actions, but once actually IN IT-our idealized self doesn’t always prevail.

  • For me, the bottom line is that if you are interested in physical contact with another person or find yourself emotionally cheating, you should probably reevaluate your relationship (unless you have mutually decided an open relationship is what works for you and yours).

    At the very least, you should be asking yourself why and seriously considering the implications. Is that flirty text worth it? Maybe monogamy isn’t for you, or maybe you aren’t as happy as you thought you were. Know thyself and communicate that to your partner, it’s only fair.

    • Olivia F

      Yes! We can probably all be better at communicating our life needs/expectations in general. Whether it is a need for monogamy or a need for not-monogamy, learn them and take ownership for your bounaries! It’s amazing how sometimes we don’t know we hold an expectation or boundary until they get tested or crossed. Humbling.

    • stinevincent

      A lot of people believe this: cheating or the desire to cheat means something is wrong with the relationship. But in studying human behavior, researchers have found that’s actually not the most common case. Many people cheat while PERFECTLY happy with their relationship. Esther Perel posits that cheating is about the person as an individual, and is a way for them to reassert their individuality.

      • I think we are seeing two sides of the same coin. If a person were more in touch with themselves, (know thyself) and communicated that to their partner, maybe they’d be less inclined to participate in activities that could compromise their relationship.

  • Babs

    I think I’m the worst type of person in that I’m very jealous but also a serial cheater. In the past, the infidelity (which ran the gamut of emotional and physical) was a sign that I wasn’t getting what I wanted from my primary relationship. In the future, I hope to be able to communicate my needs better. To my mind, secrecy is a big indicator of cheating. Someone can surely have a sustained, valuable relationship with someone of the opposite sex outside of their primary relationship (hi, friendship) as long as they are transparent about it. If the relationship becomes more than that, and you neglect to tell your partner, you are obviously hiding more than just a relationship with someone else. You’re refusing to communicate about something that’s not working in your primary relaish.

    Related: The recent High Low episode with Rosie Wilby has a ton of fresh insight on monogamy/polyamory. Highly recommend if you are still noodling on this topic.

    • Adrianna

      I’m not throwing shade at polyamory – let everyone do what they want and need to do. I just get frustrated when someone who is fulfilled by polyamorous relationships insists that monogamous people are denying some sort of ‘natural’ urges. How many times have we heard “monogamy isn’t natural.” Is it fair to tell anyone their sexual preference is unnatural? I don’t feel the need to have physical or emotional connections with more than one partner. The last 5.5 years indicate that I found a partner who feels the same.

      • Babs

        What I learned on the podcast (and I assume it’s described in more detail in Wilby’s book) is that polyamory is actually defined as multiple loves, none of which need to be sexual to fit the definition. So you could have a monogamous primary relationship and many intimate friendships and that would be considered polyamorous.

        Beyond that, totally hear you. Knowing what I think we all know about love (it’s complicated as fuck), judgement in any direction really isn’t helpful or kind.

        • Adrianna

          I know a polyamorous married couple and listened to a few podcasts on the topic since it’s so different from my own preference. I’m also someone who doesn’t crave multiple friendships, so it makes sense that it doesn’t extend to my romantic life

  • Abby

    I can’t stop wondering what the TV show is now!

  • dayman

    Oh my god Haley thank you for this article!! I have so many thoughts on this topic and I so agree that nobody talks about it enough–kind of understandable since it’s sort of a taboo thing and makes people feel bad/guilty/insecure, but still worthy of discussion I think. The season of the show you’re talking about is probably one of my favorite seasons of any show for exploring it.

    On one hand, it’s way easier to measure physical cheating than emotional so it makes sense that that’s more how we define it, but on the other hand, like of course a patriarchal society is going to care way more about physical than emotional cheating, which kind of sucks. I also sometimes feel like it’s harder to navigate cheating boundaries as a straight woman in a culture where men are supposed to make the first move or whatever

  • emily moran

    PS just read a wonderful article about infidelity on goop (I know) that was super insightful. I’ve been shady in the past and have had others be shady to me, and the article really helped me make sense of it. Highly recommend if you’re either working through something or just curious about it all.

    http://goop.com/work/relationships/why-people-cheat/

  • Rae

    I’m fascinated by this topic and agree that it is under-examined so thank you for this article! I have so many thoughts about this, but for brevity’s sake I’ll stick to my top two:
    1) I think often (not always! but often) cheating is actually a symptom of deeper and more important problems in a relationship, and it’s mistakenly treated as the cause of problems or as a problem in and of itself.
    2) “Cheating” – as in a one-off, impulsive, ill-thought-out decision – and having an affair are two totally different things. I would be more likely to forgive a partner who had drunkenly kissed a stranger at a bar than someone who deliberately and intentionally went behind my back and hid their interactions with another person, even if nothing physical happened.

  • Emma Connelly

    As someone who has been accidentally the other woman 3 times bc of lack of communication / stringing along by my hypothetical partners (who were committed elsewhere) I think it’s really important to remember that if it “smells” like a relationship — if it looks or feels serious, if someone’s partner would be upset upon finding out — then it’s cheating. That being said, I think intimacy, even really deep intimacy, can happen without it being cheating. But it is so subjective person to person, relationship to relationship. I will say though that it is the fault of the cheater, not the “mistress” always. If they’re sticking their nose (or their feelings) elsewhere, it wasn’t just because of one particular person. That stuff was gonna happen regardless of who with.

  • Lil

    What counts as emotional cheating is so murky and subjective. Some people don’t care about emotional cheating and some do. I guess if you do care, you should bring it up at the inception of a relationship so those boundaries are there for the future. You risky looking, “crazy,” but the right person will understand.

  • Emily

    for me, part of being in a committed relationship is repeatedly, and always, choosing your partner. of course there will be times you feel frustrated or someone else seems attractive – i think that’s natural – but to me it’s about choosing your partner and choosing not to cheat. even if cheating is a ‘symptom’ of a problem, if someone cheated on me i would view that as them 1. not handling their emotions maturely or communicating well with me (to the extreme) and 2. not choosing me. so it’s a hard and fast line for me.

    • sq

      Yep, I think it’s a question of sharing similar values with your partner. My own feelings about what constitutes cheating (physical and emotional) are quite strait forward, there are no grey areas for me and I wouldn’t shift on my views. I’ve seen the aftermath of what happens when an (emotional) affair is discovered in a long marriage, it is not pretty.

  • COMMUNICATE COMMUNICATE COMMUNICATE. You are not in a relationship by yourself. Empathize and be real with yourself and SO. That’s all I have to say. Cheating is in the eye of the betrayed, you have to know what that is/means for your partner.

  • Ahhh, MR, this is a bottle of wine not a pot of coffee conversation

    …in answer to the direct question: we’re all writing our own rules, maybe we’re just looking for someone who shares the same rulebook as us. And yet even then, we’re constantly breaking out the red pen to edit the rules because it varies with each relationship. Cheating is a situation we can’t be 100 percent prepared for, whether we are the ones doing it or it’s happening to us. But we have to respect one another and ourselves in all relationships, big or small.

  • Kelsey Alyssa

    I love this article! Cheating is such a vague term! Some of my friends make out with strangers at clubs and their partners are okay with it. Other people I know would never condone that behaviour. In general, our society really doesn’t put an emphasis on communication in relationships. Half the time I hear people discussing relationship problems, I think about how it would be solved so easily if that person just communicated these feelings with their partner.

  • Liza

    I caught my husband cheating. And to be honest, finding the love letters between them later hurt far worse and far more deeply than the sexual part of it did. It was like a betrayal of my soul. Cheating in all forms is heartbreaking.

    • Hayley

      My heart goes out to you…

  • Lizlemon

    I agree it’s underexamined! The psychologist esther perrel has a ted talk on the grey area of cheating on YouTube and it has over a million views. Cheating can be so broad now when including emotional cheating. Is having a crush cheating? Honestly I don’t know anymore.

    • Kristin

      I think if you have a crush and don’t tell anyone about it you’re definitely fine. *But be careful, no one has a secret anything anymore, thanks oversharing/shameless culture.

  • I think emotional cheating definitely counts! I would be hurt if my partner almost kissed someone and felt no need to tell me. BUT like you mentioned, the rules of relationships are growing these days and every couple is allowed to define their relationship how they want to. So why not talk to your partner about it? Maybe your partner also feels like they don’t want to be monogamous 100% of the time, so you can set boundaries and not feel betrayed. Then I wouldn’t be hurt if my partner kissed someone else because we’ve talked about it.

  • silla

    Ooh good topic. When my boyfriend and I got together, we had been friends for 5 years and I wasn’t sure about it because I wasn’t ready to be in a relationship. He was very sure, so we gave it a shot. A few weeks later, I was at a wedding without him and got really drunk and kissed someone else. It was the best thing that could have happened – it made me SO sure that I wanted to be with him and only him! But then, a few weeks later – he started emailing his ex. It was all very platonic but I felt it was shady and borderline emotional cheating so I broke up with him over it. We ended up getting back together, and neither of us have been surer of anything since. So it’s interesting because for both of us, these shades of cheating actually brought us closer together. It also made us both communicate WAY more, because we had to hash out what defined cheating for us individually and for us as a couple. But want to know the most fucked up thing? He still doesn’t know about that kiss! It was so long ago now and so inconsequential in the scheme of things, but I know it would upset him because it comes within our parameters of not okay behaviour. RELATIONSHIPS ARE CRAZY WE’RE ALL CRAZY AND DOING OUR BEST OUT HERE

    • Veronica Wilkins

      REALLY JUST DOING OUR BEST! THIS LIFE ROLLERCOASTER IS SCARY AF

    • Ciccollina

      Love this!

    • elwolf

      I have a very similar situation! My boyf and I were kind of just getting together, but met in grad school in another country, both temporarily moved back to our hometowns, and didn’t know if we would be able to end up in the same city and make it work. But we were still definitely in some type of “thing” and “seeing how it went”. Meanwhile at a NYE party in my hometown, an old friend who I used to be vaguely in love with kissed me. It was gratifying in a way because I KNEW THERE HAD BEEN SOMETHING BETWEEN US, but it also felt kind of sad like, we missed our shot and now I’m not as attracted to you. And it strengthened my thoughts that I wanted to pursue a real relationship with the new guy. We’ve now been dating 3 years and I’ve never told him about that kiss because… why?

  • Hannah

    I always assume if it’s something that would hurt me, it would probably hurt him in the same way. I look at an action from the point of view of how it would make me feel if it was done to me.

  • Julia

    I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s really important to talk honestly about these things in a relationship – no matter how early on. I stopped a relationship after finding out that my ex was ’emotionally cheating’ for months – nothing sexual happened, but reading conversations between him and other women that had heavy emotional and sexual suggestions hurt me deeply just the same. Both of us should have been open from the start: him about these relationships, and me about my boundaries. Would have saved us a lot of heartache – and time.

    • Sarah

      My boyfriend has done this to me many, many times too. It hurts me so much, but as we’ve gotten older I’ve realised that it is about him. We both aren’t the best at communicating & tend to keep our real struggles to ourselves and he just isn’t good at dealing with them (and so pretends to be someone else). I really consider it cheating too, and yet I’ve always stayed. I’m starting to think it would be the same if he physically cheated on me too.

      • Julia

        Sounds familiar. I let it go on for quite a while before I decided to end things. I guess if you still decide to stay, it may mean that the good aspects of your relationship outweigh this issue. In my case it absolutely did not – but it didn’t make it any easier to leave.

  • Veronica Wilkins

    Days before Hurricane Irma, my boyfriend of 2 years confessed he had cheated on me 4 times (all random sexual hookups). We were both incredibly unhappy in the relationship and there’s a part of me that accountable for his cheating. The interesting thing is though, before we were together, like you Haley, “I used to be very staunch in my belief that “I’d never stay with someone who cheated on me,”.That belief is underdeveloped if you have never actually experienced infidelity. By having the most honest conversation we’d ever had, HE was able to trust ME enough to let me in to his heart completely. For the first time ever I saw the man for what he was; vulnerable, scared, and putting his best god-damned foot forward to be a good guy, despite making choices that would hurt me. He’s human. It still hurts. Although, it’s much more complicated than I could even attempt to write about in a comment thread. But since the confession, our relationship took on a whole new form. It is refreshed, it’s new, we feel like we’re dating/getting to know each other for the first time all over again. I am sad that it happened, but grateful he cared enough about us to tell me in an effort to rebuild our relationship. Sometimes, infidelity can strengthen the relationship more than hurt…but only if you’re both committed to each other and willing to put in the work. Growth is painful. This was part of our growth.

    • tmm16

      I give you a lot of credit for trying to move past this because I don’t think I could. You’re so strong woman. I wish the best for you and him and your life together!

      • Veronica Wilkins

        <3 <3 <3

  • Sarah

    My boyfriend and I try to always be honest and talk about nearly everything in our relationship which also includes the cheating topic.
    We didn’t really plan to talk about it (since we’re not really jealous people and committed to each other) but we happened to have a few good and interesting talks / discussions. Ranged from what each of us defines as cheating to how we’d hypothetically deal with such a situation.
    In my eyes it really depends on wether your partner forms a really intense bond with another person (on a emotional and/or physical level) over a longer period of time and is aware of the risk that it probably means the end of the relationship or if it’s a ‘one – time’ mistake. I feel like it would be really hard for me to deal with cheating on a emotional level and supposable couldn’t trust my boyfriend anymore. While guessing that I’d forgive for example kissing another girl if my partner would be honest about it to me. But I guess there’s a lot of grey in terms of cheating and the contextual frame in which it happens.

  • Andy

    i have had this kind of conversations in my previous an my current relation, but only in my current relationship we really discussed it, maybe because the past times i had talked about it i was when i was 16 and 23, and the first one i was a virgin in the cheating department obviously. but now I can realize that there is a gray spectrum, not everything is black or white, and sometimes things that could be considered innocuous become really hurtful, a younger me thought that physical contact was cheating so I just fantasized with men i knew and talked online, but then older me was kissed by a random stranger at a club, and i realized it’s not as simple as i thought. my partner and i discussed what happened, he was really comprehensive with me, it wasn’t something i encouraged in a romantic way, nor did I flow with it, and even if that obviously angered him in a way, we could just move on from it. I think the most important part is that I (because speaking for him would be wrong, he has said it though) ain’t looking for something elsewhere, but when your start to do that maybe it is as so many other comments say, it’s time to work on what your have or simply end it

  • la.petite.celtique

    A kiss through a pane of glass??!?? Please….it makes no difference!
    The important thing is the feelings that you’re having for the other person not the physical boundaries that you’ve crossed.
    A previous conversation is, for sure, mandatory. Something insignificant for you can mean the world to your partner.
    You can be deeply in love with someone, your relationship can work perfectly for both of you and still having physical attraction for someone else. If you just have occasional sex (kiss through a pane of glass etc) without any feeling involved, the importance of that fact would be the one that your partner will give it.
    Avoiding to hurt your beloved is the biggest proof of care and respect.

  • Jay

    I think this is an incredibly important discussion to have… though at the same time, when you have it… it‘s so unromantic and so awkward.

    For me, I am trying to figure out for myself what I could forgive – or not. And where I couldn’t rebuild trust anymore.

    This is very difficult I think and everyone is different. And it might be that partners are answering those questions differently for themselves, allowing the other more or less freedoms.

    I was always thinking about the „drunk at a party thing“ being cheating, but something I might be able to forgive (though the older I get, the more it makes me question the character of the person doing that…) – if it‘s just this one time thing… (especially having lived in a long distance relationship for years…)

    Or even occasional sex with someone you’re not interested in (though again, getting older and no longer being 1000 km apart… things change and I would not agree to that easily anymore…)

    But depends.

    At the same time, even a coffee date, when emotionally involved, would be cheating to me.

    So it is the mindset I guess. And the circumstances.

    And, girls: What is your take on whether you would want to know or not? Do you tell? What? And when? I think this is an important discussion to have as well.. @Haley?! Can we have it? (Cause this is where honesty comes in really…)

  • Lauren

    I’ve thought about this a lot in the past, but as of my current relationship, I see things completely differently than I used to. In prior relationships-I felt that any physical touch or communication past an undefined boundary was cheating.

    When I started dating my husband–I learned by taking his lead that respect has more to do with this than anything. Gray area and lines don’t matter when there is a mutual respect in place. No one could argue that it is respectful to almost kiss someone else, and certainly not to build an emotional bond past a friendship.

    I’m aware this still lacks definition, and therefore would be subjective from couple to couple. But I think a lot of confusion would be cleared up for both sides of a relationship if all actions and conversations were viewed through a lense of “would this make my partner look/feel bad?”

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  • stinevincent

    I didn’t have the nuts-and-bolts “what’s cheating?” conversation with my last partner until the night before he ended things, in spite of having been “exclusive” for nearly a year. But we did have it, and, thankfully, discovered that we had already been on the same page. Platonic nudity and touching/hugging/cuddling, dancing, were okay. Making out and further were not. He had done a poly relationship before, and we’re both fairly queer and non-conforming, but even with an open mind, he questioned and seemed to doubt WHY I brought it up (it was unrelated to the break up). Just nailing down the details of monogamy can make someone suspect unfaithfulness. You’re absolutely right that the commitments we make need to be spelled out, though, because people don’t just know exactly what their partner wants through osmosis. I also think the friend you debated with was off-base. If he really can’t change his own actions to suit his partner, he needs to find a partner who views this stuff exactly the way he does from the outset. Avoiding the conflict of discussion just makes it worse if/when it does come up.

  • Megalopyge

    To me, cheating is less about defining which increments of a physical act is “cheating”, and more the context surrounding it. Context speaks to the state of my relationship and the way my partner sees me. I’d be more likely to forgive a drunken one night stand, than a long emotional affair where they never did more than hold hands.

  • meme

    I think physical contact is generally set as the boundry because it means you’re acting on it. Having feelings for someone else can happen but loyalty means you refrain from it. It’s not “natural” because it’s a choice, whereas feeling attracted to someone is much harder (impossible?) to refrain from doing.

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  • Denise Rosenstein Arnold

    If you feel guilty, you cheated.

  • Scat

    I saw a comment that mentioned Esther Perel and she is such a fascinating and educated woman when it comes to infidelity in relationships! For different takes on cheating from different point of views I would recommend the “Dead Sugars” podcast. They did an infidelity segment in May and it was SO intriguing.

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  • Sarah

    Haley, I’m so glad that you introduced these questions! I recently read something that said that “Fidelity prepares the heart for moments of affection to enter it again,” and within the context of marriage, this rings true to me. I found it comforting that there was marital advice that didn’t expect feel-good romantic love all of the time, or even the majority of the time; in fact, it only expected mere moments. But without fidelity, could we ever hope to experience those moments again after periods of disillusionment, miscommunication, or lack of intimacy? (And I promise you, those things will happen in every single marriage. Every. Single. One.) So I’m in the camp that we should guard our relationships against infidelity of all sorts (physical, emotional, through glass window panes…) if we ever hope for something lasting.