Whether it's the latest celebrity scandal, gossiping about someone at work, or talking about our own lives, there are many words we can use to describe a situation where a relationship commitment has been broken and one partner feels betrayed. Three common words used to describe this situation are infidelity, adultery, and cheating. But are these three words interchangeable?
Each word, of course, has many meanings and may be used in contexts that have nothing to do with monogamy, sexual commitments or betrayals. But they do all get used in that context as well, and if you're trying to figure out your own feelings about the subject of infidelity, adultery, or cheating, it may be be worthwhile to take a moment and think about what the different terms mean and whether or not that difference matters to you.
By dictionary definitions adultery provides the most narrowly defined of the three terms. Adultery usually refers to engaging in a physical sexual act (often intercourse) when one is married. So adultery is something that is only done by married people, and the term sort of evokes the idea of adulterating something, making something that is beautiful or holy, dirty or broken. In this way the world adultery can bring with it religious overtones that other words may not.
Infidelity usually refers not only to engaging in sexual activities with someone outside of a committed relationship, but to emotional acts of unfaithfulness or disloyalty. Infidelity is often used when the people in the primary relationship are not married. Where adultery focuses on a breaking of institutional vows or commitment, infidelity feels more like it draws attention to the relationship between two people that has been transgressed in some way.
Cheating is a more colloquial term that isn't used in clinical or legal settings, and is the most vague of the three terms. Cheating may be physical, emotional, or otherwise, and may take place in the context of a marriage or any relationship. It's worth thinking about what the word cheating evokes in a conversation about sexual betrayal. Cheating implies, of course, that there are rules which one person has broken. But also, more than the other two terms, cheating references the idea of a game. One cheats in a game or a system (as in "I cheated at poker" or "I cheated on my taxes"). We are cheating because we are doing something we aren't "supposed" to be doing.