When someone tells you that their partner or spouse cheated on them, what do you imagine? Is cheating a specific act? Is it a pattern of behavior? Does cheating always require physical sexual contact, or, as President Jimmy Carter once suggested, can someone cheat because of the way they are feeling or thinking about another person?
Cheating isn't a term used in most professional research or practice (where they use terms like extra-dyadic activities, infidelity, or less frequently adultery). In fact, there really isn't a generally agreed upon definition. Maybe the easiest way to think of cheating is that it means someone is breaking a rule in the relationship, usually of a sexual nature.
However sex with someone else when you're in a relationship may not be cheating. Many relationships allow for sex with others. So not everyone who is in a committed relationship is necessarily cheating if they are flirting or engaging in sexual activities with someone else. The only part of a cheating definition that could reasonably be applied to all situations, is the idea of breaking the rules. So if you are trying to figure out what counts as cheating in a relationship, the only way you can answer that is to look to the rules of that particular relationship.
Some people may feel as if what counts as cheating is obvious, or at least should be obvious to the people in a relationship. This belief is likely tied to an assumption about compulsory monogamy that many of us make. The assumption is that monogamy is the "natural" or best relationship model, that every committed relationship is monogamous, even if the people in the relationship never talk about it, and that everyone aspires to be in an monogamous relationship. But the truth is that many of us don't agree on the definition of monogamy even after we talk about it.
So if you are in a relationship and trying to figure out what counts as cheating, you need to start by clarifying and understanding what everyone in that relationship believes to be the agreement regarding what happens only in the relationship and what can happen outside of the relationship. You may want to start by thinking about these questions for yourself first, and then, when you are ready, you'll need to talk with your partner(s). There are many ways to think about this, but you could start by asking yourself these questions:
- What, if any, physical activities (sexual and non-sexual) do you agree should only take place between people in the relationship? What activities are OK to happen outside the relationship?
- What, if any, emotional or intellectual connections are expected to only be nurtured between people in the relationship? What kinds of connections can be developed and maintained outside the relationship?
- What are your expectations about what happens if a partner does something that goes against your above expectations? Do you want to know? How do you want to be told?
Hopefully, as you ask yourself these questions you'll begin to see that the idea of cheating is closely tied to our ideas about what committed relationships provide us. If you believe that you should be able to get all your sexual, emotional, social, intellectual needs met by your partner, then what counts as cheating becomes a very long list. The truth is that practically all therapists, relationship counselors, and mental health professionals agree that it isn't realistic to expect everything from one partner. If you have a broader idea about how you and the person (or people) you are in a committed relationship with get your needs and desires met, then your list of what counts as cheating will probably be shorter.
Ultimately what counts as cheating must be decided by the people involved in the relationship. Because cheating just means breaking the rules, it will be a possibility in most committed relationships (it's hard to imagine a relationship that doesn't have some rules). However because rules are often unspoken, and change from relationship to relationship, it's impossible to know what cheating is unless you have talked about it carefully and thoughtfully with everyone in that relationship.