The first stages of dating can be fun — figuring out whether you’d willingly give up your limited alone time to get to know a new person. But between all the sibling- and hobby-listing, chances are these early conversations don’t include how each of you define “cheating.” And why would they?
It may not be a topic that comes up organically in your first few dates, but after a while, it’s something that should be discussed to make sure that all parties involved are on the same page. So, what should that conversation look like, and when should you have it? We spoke with several relationship experts and therapists to find out.
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How to define cheating with your partner
Cheating can mean different things to different people. While some assume that it only “counts” as cheating if one person was physically intimate with someone outside of their relationship, others have a far more expansive definition. As you can imagine, when people have different ideas of what constitutes cheating behaviours, it can result in everything from anger and frustration, to breaking up altogether.
To prevent this from happening, you can have a discussion with your partner to walk through different types of potential infidelities to determine where you draw the line. Here are a few things to consider:
What is cheating?
Before we get into the specific types, let’s start with what the concept of “cheating” means. According to Dr. Britney Blair, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist and the co-founder of sexual wellness app Lover, while there are different types of cheating, categorising a person’s behaviour may not be as relevant as what those actions mean. “I’m not sure that the labels are as important as the concept of doing something that violates the agreement — spoken or unspoken — you have made with your partner,” she tells Lifehacker.
Along the same lines, Merlelynn Harris, a marriage and family therapist and the clinical director of Bridge Counseling Associates, classifies cheating or having an affair as “any outside behaviour or entity that takes priority and precedence over the relationship [and] can be considered a type of betrayal.”
Lise Leblanc, psychotherapist and author of the “Mental Health Recovery” book series explains that cheating occurs when there is a violation of the rules that a couple has set for their relationship. “What it really boils down to is the boundaries that a particular couple has agreed to for their relationship,” she tells Lifehacker. “What is considered cheating for one couple may not be for another, even in what may seem like a very obvious scenario.” For instance, Leblanc provides the example of a polyamorous couple that may agree that it’s ok to have sexual relations with other people as long as it involves consent and honesty, whereas a monogamous couple might see this as the ultimate level of cheating.
Different types of cheating
Similar to the definition of cheating, the classifications of behaviours into specific “types” of affairs — like sexual, physical, or emotional — differ from relationship to relationship.
According to Dr. Pamela J. Lannutti, professor and director of the Centre for Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University, and expert in communication involving sexuality, it may be helpful to think of “types” of infidelity in terms of a person’s motive for cheating, including:
- Opportunistic infidelity: the availability to cheat presents itself and you take the opportunity.
- Romantic infidelity: you have feelings for the person you cheat with, even though you may or may not still have feelings for your partner.
- Commemorative infidelity: your sexual needs are not met with your partner — think bed death — so you have them met with someone else you don’t really have feelings for.
What actually happens
Lannutti says that you can also categorise infidelity by what the cheating actually involves, like physical infidelity (involving sex or other physical intimacy with an outside partner) and emotional infidelity (when you have feelings for a person who is not your partner). There can also be situations where both physical and emotional cheating are taking place.
It can also be helpful to look at exactly how the cheating happens, or more nuanced reasons for the infidelity, Lannutti explains. “For example, you might think of communicative infidelity, which is cheating in some way with the motive of sending a message to your current partner,” she tells Lifehacker. “Or, you might want to think more specifically about cyber infidelity — which is a type of emotional infidelity — that is with someone you know and interact with entirely online. The bottom line is that infidelity takes many forms – it happens for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways.”
Other things that are prioritised over a relationship
Going back to Harris’s concept of cheating — “any outside behaviour or entity that takes priority and precedence over the relationship” — it’s important to point out that infidelity doesn’t necessarily include a physical, sexual, or emotional relationship with another person. “Anything that throws a relationship out of balance can be seen as the ‘other lover’ because you’re giving your best to someone or something else,” she explains.
According to Harris, this could include workaholism — when the person isn’t available for family dinners or intimacy, prioritising work above all else — as well as child-centered parenting, when a person loses their identity in the role of a parent and ignores or denies their intimate relationship. It could also be a case where a person loses themselves in a particular hobby, Harris notes. Some of the most well-known examples of these include golfing, playing video games, fishing, and watching football — resulting in the term “widow” for the person (often assumed to be a woman) neglected while their partner devotes their time to their chosen activity. (Though to be clear, this type of cheating is not limited to a particular gender and/or specific activities.)
Why is it important to define cheating with your partner?
Given that there are certain implied or assumed boundaries around cheating — like having a sexual or emotional affair — you and your partner may think that you’re on the same page already, but that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, Leblanc says that that approach can easily lead to assumptions, misinterpretations, and ultimately to feeling hurt and betrayed if your idea of cheating is very different from your partner’s.
“If you are planning to invest a considerable amount of time and energy into someone, then take the time to have courageous conversations with them,” Leblanc explains. “Talk about your values, needs, insecurities, boundaries, etc. and ask about theirs. You don’t want to find out a year into your relationship that your partner has a very different definition of cheating than you do and because of that has been cheating on you all along.”
All too frequently, couples don’t realise their expectations for each other until they’re not being met, Harris says, and at that point, they’re already in conflict. “Each person needs to really think about and list their expectations and non-negotiables so they can be accepted, challenged or negotiated with by their partner, and each person is walking in with complete awareness of what’s considered acceptable,” Harris explains. “Too often, people will say what they think their partner wants to hear — like ‘I’m OK with you watching porn’ — instead of their actual expectation, and when the partner acts on it, they become upset. Transparency is key.”
When should this conversation take place?
If you’re just beginning a relationship with someone new, you may not want to bring up things like cheating immediately, but you also don’t want to wait until it’s too late, and something happens that leaves one or both partners feeling betrayed.
As a communication scholar, Lannutti advocates talking about important issues such as infidelity early and often. “I think people are often concerned that if they try to talk about expectations around exclusivity (or not) in a relationship too early, that it might ‘scare off’ the person they are dating,” she explains. “But, my advice would be that with such an important issue, if you ‘scare them off,’ then that’s a sign the relationship was doomed anyway.”
While Leblanc says these types of conversations aren’t for the first few dates with someone, once you get to a point in the relationship where you feel like things are getting more serious, you’ll want to find out if you have shared values when it comes to cheating, and whether you can come to a clear understanding of what would be considered cheating in your relationship.
“This is really about creating a foundation of trust, mutual understanding, and opening the door to open communication,” Leblanc explains. “Secrets, guilt, deceit, and betrayal create feelings of disconnection and resentment. Once that happens, the relationship is standing on quicksand and there is no longer a solid foundation on which to build a healthy and fulfilling relationship.”
And according to Harris, people nowadays are over the games that typically come along with dating, and want it to be intentional. “Early on, put all your cards on the table and be brutally honest with what you’re looking for,” she advises. “If the person you’re with matches your level of commitment, they’ll provide their expectations and you can both avoid heartache and wasted time.”
Waiting to have a conversation about expectations until you’re married with a house and kids makes everything extremely complicated, because there’s a lot of collateral invested at that point, Harris adds. “People say, ‘if you would have told me this before, I wouldn’t have married you’ and that’s why the sooner the discussion is had, the better,” she says.
Finally, Lannutti points out that it’s important to keep in mind that relationships have a lifespan and change over time — just like the people in them. “So, what ‘worked’ for you and your partner in terms of exclusivity early in a relationship might not work later in the relationship,” she explains. “There are many models of healthy relationships that are not always built on sexual exclusivity.”
What should this conversation involve?
It can be hard to know exactly how to approach a subject like cheating, especially if the conversation is with someone you’re still getting to know. For this reason, Blair advises coming from a place of “positive” not negative. “I would not recommend starting with the topic of cheating, but rather talking about how you’d like the structure of the relationship to be and why you may feel that way,” she explains.
The question of monogamy
According to Blair, one way to initiate this conversation is to start out by telling your partner that you’d prefer to be in a monogamous relationship (if that is the case), because it makes you feel more deeply connected to your partner. This at least opens the conversation to each person’s preferences, and in turn, their idea of what constitutes cheating.
Similarly, Blair stresses that we shouldn’t assume that monogamy is the “default” relationship format. “Monogamy — either emotional or sexual — is a choice,” she explains. “It is a very valid choice for many reasons, but talking about it as a choice opens the partnership up to a deeper level of intimacy so you’re not lying to yourself or your partner that you’ll never desire another person again for the duration of your relationship. That is harmful myth from our sex negative culture.”
Tips for having the conversation
As Lannutti mentioned previously, she recommends having this conversation early on in a relationship so that you aren’t having it for the first time after you discover an infidelity. For that conversation, she has the following tips:
- Give yourself time before the conversation to think about what will make you most comfortable around exclusivity. Ask yourself why you feel this way.
- Don’t try to “sneak up” on your partner about this topic. Be very clear that you want to talk about expectations about exclusivity and set a time for that discussion. Don’t try to be coy about it.
- Make sure you are open to listening as much as sharing what you think.
- If you disagree, be ready to make a decision about the relationship based on that disagreement. Again, this is an important issue and can be a deal breaker.
If you are having this conversation after an infidelity has occurred, Lannutti’s tips are to:
- Wait to talk until you are calm enough to listen and talk in a way that is not about trying to hurt the person back, but instead is about discussing your disagreement in a productive way.
- The conversation shouldn’t include: yelling, name calling, hostile joking, sarcastic comments, intimidating your partner, being violent against your partner, and/or avoiding discussing the issue.
- Give yourself and your partner the opportunity to evaluate how much value you want to place on what happened. This may be related to the motives for cheating. Ask yourselves, whether this is something you can get past. Keep in mind that many relationships do survive infidelity.
- Consider seeking professional help as you and your partner work through the aftermath of infidelity.
It’s just the beginning
Finally, just because you’ve had one conversation with your partner about cheating, that doesn’t mean that the discussion stops there. “This conversation should be ongoing and should foster curiosity in the other,” Blair explains. “I encourage each partner to make room for compromise and be committed to growth — rather than list a set of rules your partner is expected to abide by.”