What is considered cheating in a relationship will vary from couple to couple, and from relationship to relationship. The truth is, there is no textbook definition of cheating. You and your partner may have different ideas depending on your previous relationship experience, whether you’re in a monogamous relationship, and what you expect from your current romantic partner. The possibility of these gray areas means it’s important to be aware of what could be considered cheating.
When you think of cheating, you usually think of sexual contact or physical intimacy with someone other than your partner. This might be one of the most obvious types of infidelity, but it’s not the only one.
Other types of cheating include emotional cheating, financial infidelity, and other gray areas such as using social media to flirt with other people. Make sure to discuss your personal definition of cheating when entering a committed relationship, as not everyone has the same ideas.
This is likely to be the most obvious type of cheating. If you and your partner have agreed on monogamy and they have sexual contact with someone else, that would be infidelity. This type of cheating can still be blurry: sex with someone else is clearly cheating, but what about holding hands? A brief kiss or a full make-out session? Does it make a difference if your partner has no emotional attachment to the person they slept with? It’s not just what the cheating partner does, but how and why they do it that can define a physical affair.
An emotional affair can be less obvious than physical cheating, but just as destructive. This is a non-sexual type of cheating that is based on emotional attachment rather than physical contact.
Emotional infidelity involves creating an emotional bond with another person which threatens or takes time away from the bond you have with your partner. It often develops with a friend or co-worker that you have a non-romantic reason to spend time with.
Friendships and independence are important for mental health and should be encouraged. The emotional infidelity danger zone happens when closeness or attention that would once have been reserved for your significant other is given to someone else outside the relationship. Don’t be afraid to communicate if you’re worried about the emotional support your partner is giving to or receiving from a friend.
Financial infidelity is when one partner hides spending, debt, or other important financial information from their significant other. This may be related to an emotional or physical affair, if they are hiding money spent on gifts, trips or even to support their affair partner. It could mean lying to a partner about finances for other reasons, such as gambling addiction. Financial deception can put you in an incredibly vulnerable position if you combine all your money with your romantic partner.
This can be even harder to identify than an emotional affair. Micro-cheating behavior doesn’t go as far as sexual contact or a deep emotional bond but still undermines trust and commitment.
Examples could be:
checking dating apps even without intending to meet someone
flirting with new people
keeping in contact with someone you have romantic feelings for
consistently liking someone’s social media posts, especially when you know that it would hurt your partner’s feelings.
What counts as micro-cheating will be different for everyone. Communicate your boundaries to make sure you’re on the same page.
From physical infidelity to an inappropriate emotional connection, cheating isn’t always obvious. Talking about what you consider cheating in the first place at the start of a relationship is key. Ideas about cheating may also be different in open relationships or for couples who practice polyamory.
Below are some examples of cheating in a relationship that are worth discussing with your partner.
Most people in monogamous relationships consider sexual contact with someone else cheating. It’s still important to have a conversation about what counts as sexual contact. How do you feel about your significant other dancing closely with someone else, or sharing a bed without touching? Even a sexual relationship isn’t always clear-cut.
Emotional infidelity in particular often involves inappropriate communication. This may be excessive texting, calling, or social media contact, which could be hidden from the primary partner. Some communication, such as sexting or phone sex, blurs the lines between emotional cheating and physical intimacy.
Pet names or other terms of endearment may also indicate communication that isn’t strictly platonic. Keep an eye on frequency, content, and feeling the need to hide communication. Keeping in touch with co-workers and friends is healthy, but if you can’t be honest with your partner about it, there might be an issue.
Keeping in touch with an ex without it affecting your current relationship depends on how and why you’re doing it. Sometimes, keeping in touch with an ex is unavoidable: if you share children or pets, or if you’re co-workers.
In that case, keep communication friendly and constructive, but avoid a deep emotional connection that might make your current partner uncomfortable. For some communities it can be considered normal to stay friends with an ex, especially for smaller communities.
If you don’t need to be in touch with an ex but you still are, ask yourself why. It’s possible to maintain a friendship with an ex without it suggesting cheating, especially if you have mutual friends and the breakup was amicable. If there are no romantic feelings left and you give each other space to move on, you shouldn’t feel forced to cut off someone who was a positive part of your life.
On the other hand, contact with an ex can create unhealthy behaviors, even if there’s no more sexual contact. You may find yourself prioritizing that emotional connection over the one you have or could have, with a new partner.
“Sometimes people may find it tempting to stay in touch with their ex-partner or seek emotional support from them because of their shared history and familiarity,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.
“However, it's important to make the effort to break out of this comfortable pattern and establish new ways of connecting with your current partner as a top priority. Rember you broke up with your ex for a significant reason.”
Keeping in touch with an ex can also be a way to get comfort or an ego boost if there are problems in your current relationship. Being honest with yourself, as well as your significant other will help you see if contact with your ex is healthy.
There are many factors that affect whether a person is likely to cheat. There are also different reasons why people decide not to cheat, from guilt to relationship satisfaction. Affairs can reflect deep issues in a relationship or strong unhappiness on the part of the cheater. Cheating may even be revenge for an affair the other partner had first. Infidelity can also be opportunistic, particularly in the case of one-night stands. This kind of cheating may be more of a result of alcohol intake or other circumstances than caused by significant relationship problems.
Often, people cheat because the affair partner appears to offer something missing from their current relationship. This could simply be the excitement of building new romantic feelings and emotional attachment with someone else, which the cheater hasn’t experienced in a while. It could be something more fundamental, like attention if the couple has stopped making time for each other, or sexual contact if there are physical intimacy issues in the relationship. This doesn’t mean infidelity is justified, or that the partner who was cheated on should blame themselves. However, it can be useful to understand why a partner cheated, to enable moving on.
If you discover physical infidelity or an emotional affair, you may decide you want to continue the relationship and rebuild trust. There are various things to keep in mind when trying to fix a relationship after cheating. These include investing time in your relationship, as well as allowing each other time to heal. Resisting self-blame while understanding each other’s perspectives will also be key. Saving a relationship after infidelity is not easy, but with good communication and trust, it is possible.
“Some couples experience find that the relationship they have is even stronger after the recovery,” explains Seeger DeGeare. “Because they’re forced to face the disconnection that lead to cheating in the first place, together. When they strengthen these areas of the relationship that felt impossible to address prior to this point, they can not only learn to like each other again but if they weather the storm to learn how to truly communicate.”
Depending on the situation, you may decide that the best thing for you and your partner is to end the relationship. In this case, spending time with friends and family and focusing on hobbies is great for the healing process. It might help to take a break from contacting your ex and remove them from your social media.
Whether you want to fix the relationship or move on, talking to a relationship therapist can provide valuable insight. Cheating causes significant upset and can negatively impact your mental health and self-esteem. A counselor can help identify problems in a current relationship, as well as stop those issues from affecting future connections.