What is considered cheating in a relationship? Here’s what relationship therapists say

It’s easy to label cheating in a relationship when we are removed from the situation—whether we’re deep diving into celeb gossip or sticking up for our heartbroken friends. But when we’re the ones hurt by our partners, it may be harder to name the problem because the definition of cheating is unique to each couple—and to each person in that couple. And, unfortunately, we sometimes don’t set boundaries with our partners until the first transgression has already happened…because things were never explicitly defined in the first place.

So what is considered cheating in a relationship? Well, the obvious answer is that it is whatever you and your partner agree constitutes infidelity. But, more specifically, that definition can go far beyond sex outside of the partnership or marriage. For example, affairs can be based on emotional cheating or sexts that are never acted upon in real life. You might be devastated because you found out that your significant other has a platonic “work wife”—not because you walked in on your partner having sex with somebody else. And it must be mentioned that cheating can still happen in non-monogamous and open relationships if certain activities or sexual partners are not disclosed to your primary person.

The point is that these boundaries are complicated and different for all of us. To get a grasp on the most common understandings of cheating in relationships, we asked a few therapists what they often see in their counseling sessions.

For relationships to succeed, each couple must set their own boundaries and outline their own expectations. Problems start when partners have different standards for fidelity but don’t establish rules until lines have already been crossed. Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed family therapist who works out of Urban Recovery treatment center, tells HelloGiggles, “It’s easy for couples to agree on what constitutes cheating—until a situation arises that makes them feel insecure in the relationship or provides an opportunity for them to cheat.” As Dr. Hokemeyer explains, people will rationalize their own questionable behavior in relationships as not really cheating—essentially “[moving] the goal posts in order to settle their conscience.” This downplaying often occurs with emotional cheating.

“It’s universally agreed that behaviors such as kissing, any sort of sexual contact, and sexually explicit [communication] such as sexting cross the line,” Dr. Hokemeyer says. But what about when your partner texts his coworker good news before he tells you that information? What if your partner went to the movies with another woman who is just a friend, but never let you know about it? “The waters get murky when purely emotional entanglements arise organically in a friendship or business relationship,” he explains.

There is a name for these small, intimate, non-sexual actions: micro-cheating.

How do you know if you are engaging in micro-cheating? Well, Dr. Hokemeyer asks, would you do it in front of your partner? If the answer is no, then that’s a red flag. “[Micro-cheating] is any type of behavior that would hurt or offend your partner if they knew about it–from dirty dancing to sharing deep intimate secrets to talking about personal sexual history.”

Ashleigh Edelstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Austin, Texas, tells HelloGiggles that this behavior is typically “subtle enough that it may not register as cheating.” However, small acts of micro-cheating are what often lead to actual physical infidelity, Dr. Carla Marie Manly tells HelloGiggles. Dr. Manly, a clinical psychologist, also notes that even seemingly harmless behaviors fall into the category of micro-cheating. These deeds—including a “persistent pattern of liking the Instagram posts of someone you have secret feelings for… or frequently stopping by a cute coworker’s desk with an extra latte”—can result in eventual sexual infidelity if you are simultaneously fighting your feelings for the recipient of those actions.

It’s important to remember, though, that these behaviors would not be upsetting in every relationship, depending on the guidelines set by specific partners. Similarly, intimate friendships do not have to symbolize inevitable breakups. Issues develop when a person uses these instances of kindness and close communication to exercise their underlying romantic feelings for someone who isn’t their partner. But according to Dr. Hokemeyer, the micro-cheating stage is still an opportunity to reflect upon your actions and change course before you inflict irreparable damage onto a relationship. He says, “Micro-cheating is extremely common and quite natural… It’s more of a danger zone warning and easily correctable.”

So what kind of cheating do these therapists see most often?

Edelstein says she is usually navigating issues “when someone is sending flirty or suggestive messages behind their partner’s back.” Similarly, Dr. Hokemeyer is not as often encountering infidelity based on actual sexual activity. Instead, “it’s the insidious emotional affair where you wind up sharing your thoughts and feelings with someone other than your partner first.”

Since cheating itself has such a nuanced definition for every couple, as demonstrated by what these therapists regularly discuss in counseling, then how can each relationship set a strong foundation?

As the cliche dictates, communication is key. Edelstein instructs you “to have an open and honest discussion with your partner as soon as you can.” She continues, “It may feel uncomfortable, or even scary, but the only way to handle this well is to share your perspective and hear theirs.” Since the definition of cheating is not one-size-fits-all, you have to do that inner work and learn to describe what betrayal looks like to you. “Start by checking in with yourself on what you would define as cheating and what you are okay with,” Edelstein says. “Then start a dialogue with your partner by asking them what they consider cheating.”

Remember that you have the right to walk away from any relationship that makes you feel uncomfortable or disrespected, and you and your partner each deserve an opportunity to outline what faithfulness in relationships means for you both.

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