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The Definition of Cheating in a Relationship: How to Classify Different Types of Potential Infidelity

Updated on April 9, 2012

Cheating in a relationship is defined differently in each individual relationship. Some relationships may allow physical contact, flirtation, or even threesomes or a romp with a prostitute – or even a “sex buddy” on the side. On the other end of the spectrum, in some relationships even thinking about another person of the preferred gender in a sexual way is considered infidelity.

In a healthy, faithful relationship, the important thing is to clearly define cheating from the start. A helpful approach may be to discuss the various types of potential cheating with your partner, and then make sure you both understand where the line is personally. Both parties in a relationship must agree to this definition – generally, it’s best to err on the conservative side if one partner has a few more hang-ups than the other. The last thing you want is to find out where the line is AFTER you’ve stepped over.

Types of Cheating

Cheating is generally categorized into two primary groups – emotional cheating, and physical cheating. On the surface, physical cheating is by far the easiest to define and recognize – it involves inappropriate physical contact. Emotional infidelity, on the other hand, can take on many insidious shapes and forms, and it’s much easier to hide. Many emotional cheaters don’t even realize what they’re doing in the beginning, and by the time they realize it they may be unwilling to stop. Both are extremely damaging to a relationship.

Physical Infidelity

While physical cheating is often seen as having covert sexual intercourse outside of a committed relationship, this is not the only definition. Simply put, physical cheating is anything that requires physical contact with another person that is something of which your partner would not approve. Generally, these are acts that are deemed as reserved only for your partner.

The boundaries in your relationship will determine which physical acts are cheating and which are not, and they could include hugging, kissing, holding, cuddling, caressing, intimate touching, and other such related activities, up to and including intercourse. Some relationships will even allow intercourse with other partners, but it’s generally with the caveat that the partner that’s not included in the encounter give his/her consent.

Emotional Infidelity

Even the person who is committing emotional cheating may not recognize it for some time; the chances of an observer – such as your partner – realizing what it is may be even more remote. Emotional cheating has become especially easy and prevalent with the increased use of the internet, making it easy for someone to carry on emotionally intimate relationships with people all over the world.

This generally occurs when the emotional needs of one partner are not met in some regard, with the result that the “neglected” partner seeks solace or fulfillment outside of the committed relationship. There may never be physical contact. In fact, emotional cheaters may have never actually been in the same physical area as the person with whom they’re cheating. In the case of online emotional infidelity, the cheater may not even know what the other person even looks like, and they can be of either gender.

In most cases, the easiest way to determine whether or not you’re committing emotional infidelity is to do a self-assessment of your behavior. When you feel the need to share something, either positive or negative, who comes to your mind first as the person you simply MUST share it with? Maybe it’s your partner, or maybe it’s your best friend, or even a person you met online and talk to virtually. A problem may be brewing if the answer is anyone other than your partner.

Infidelity Online

Virtual cheating isn’t mentioned very often, and it can also be a difficult one to pinpoint. Opinions differ as to whether or not this is really cheating – many people argue that provocative webcam sessions or intimately suggestive online chats are nothing more than indulging in pornography. Others argue that traditional pornography is only sexual images on a screen with no real human feeling behind it, whereas webcams and chats assume a personal connection at some level. An emotional attachment may form with someone whom you interact with on a regular basis, which can’t exist with mass-marketed pornography.

Is it Cheating?

The true determining factors in whether a specific action is an act of infidelity or not lie in the intent, the feelings involved, and the way it impacts a relationship. Even if one person thinks that a particular action is completely innocent, if it makes his/her partner feel betrayed then it is cheating. Chatting online may seem harmless on the surface, but if you know there’s an intimate emotional attachment forming, then it borders on cheating – it may even already be emotional infidelity.

If you’ve never been caught in one of the forms of cheating, that doesn’t automatically mean you haven’t cheated. When your emotions and time are invested outside of a relationship, you’ve robbed your partner of the most precious thing you had to give them, and that should have been theirs alone.

When you commit to a serious relationship, you’ve agreed that your life will be lived with the other person always in your heart and mind. They are to be a true partner in every sense of the word, sharing every aspect of your life. If you betray that commitment with any action, then you are cheating.

Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think -- what really constitutes cheating? Is there a single act that your significant other can do that you would consider unforgivable?


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    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 6 years ago

      Excellent hub!

      Cheating like beauty is often in the eye of the beholder.

      As you point out someone might consider flirting cheating and another may not. One woman may consider her husband receiving a private lap dance from stripper as cheating and another may pay the stripper to do it.

      One of the most important things a couple can do is have a discussion about what they would consider cheating (early on) in their relationship to see if they are on the "same page". There really is no "right" or "wrong" only "agree" and "disagree". Ultimately we're all looking for someone who "agrees" with us regarding the major things in life.

    • profile image

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