How to Know If You’re Cheating

Since it’s a topic of discussion these days.

Scenario: You’ve just done something physically and/or emotionally intimate with another consenting adult human being who is not your spouse/partner.

So, gonna tell your partner?

a) Yes.

b) Any other response.

If the answer is “b,” then there’s a really excellent chance you’re cheating.

“Cheating” is not about whether you’ve physically met someone, whether they’re in the same room with you, the levels of dress you or they are wearing, or whether what you’re doing with them can be quantified on a baseball diamond. Cheating is allowing another person into a level of intimacy your partner expects to be theirs alone. That level of intimacy is not uniform from person to person. There is no guarantee that your partner’s expected level of intimacy will be entirely congenial to you; in that respect what qualifies as “cheating” is not up to you.

Most people get that. Most people also don’t want to hurt their partner and/or don’t want to get caught doing something they know their partner will consider cheating. Which is why any other response than an unqualified “yes” to telling your partner about an intimate encounter with another consenting adult human being is a good first indicator you’ve just done yourself some cheating.

(If you’re having intimate encounters with someone who is not consenting and/or adult and/or a human being, you have other problems as well, which we will not delve into now.)

Note that in my formulation, what anyone else other than your partner thinks is cheating (or not) is immaterial, because those other people are not in the same relationship you are with your partner. Friends/family/workmates/strangers may choose to think you’re a cheating horndog; they may choose to think your partner is being entirely unreasonable about what constitutes “cheating”; they may think you both are idiots. They can have any opinion they want. They can also go fly a kite. In the end, the opinion you need to be concerned about is your partner’s.

If you’re not an idiot (or brand new to the relationship), then you probably should have a good idea what constitutes “cheating” in your relationship. If you don’t know (and aren’t content with being branded an idiot), you should probably ask. It will be a clarifying discussion, if nothing else. If you don’t want to ask, a) you’re an idiot, and b) here’s a tip: if you ever find yourself in a situation where you ask yourself, “this thing I’m doing, it doesn’t really count as cheating, does it?” then the answer is probably “yeah, it does.” Because if you have to ask, etc.

You’re welcome.

85 thoughts on “How to Know If You’re Cheating

  1. But:

    If there is some kind of tachyon-powered Chatroulette that allows me to “cam” with a past or future version of myself (possibly from a hard-deterministic timeline but more likely existing in a parallel timeline that closely resembles but is ever so slightly different from our own)—is that cheating? Or OK but totally gross?

    Also, the reason I can’t tell my partner is I suspect she’s working for the Russians.

  2. . Cheating is allowing another person into a level of intimacy your partner expects to be theirs alone. That level of intimacy is not uniform from person to person. There is no guarantee that your partner’s expected level of intimacy will be entirely congenial to you; in that respect what qualifies as “cheating” is not up to you.

    You’re a wise man.

  3. Suggested edit: if the answer is “b” (rather than 2)

    “Cheating is allowing another person into a level of intimacy your partner expects to be theirs alone.” That’s an awesome definition.

  4. Totally agree. Thank you. Although, I must point out that some couples have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, such as when they have to be away from each other for a long time. So, they have prior permission, but they don’t tell their partner about specifics.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with the statement “If the answer is “b,” then there’s a really excellent chance you’re cheating.”, only because of the way you worded the question.

    Do I think/hope that I would tell my partner? Yes. Am I human, and prone to make mistakes and not do ‘the right thing’ sometimes even when I know it is the right thing to do? Also yes. So I couldn’t say for sure that I would… only that I’d like to believe I would. I think it’s hard to be 99.44% sure that you will do something when it hasn’t happened yet, and it is a non-trivial action.

  6. Couldn’t choice (a) be cheating as well? Once you have done something that violates the implied rules of the relationship, I’d think that’d be cheating, even if you told your partner immediately afterward.

  7. Jesi:

    Pre-packaged consent qualifies as talking to your partner about it, I’d say. Because you had to talk about it.

    Joe:

    It doesn’t actually saying you disagree with it, just that it makes you uncomfortable.

    Steven:

    It’s possible someone would immediately tell their spouse/partner about cheating, of course.

  8. I was always told that the definition of cheating is: “Anything you don’t want your significant other to find out about.”

  9. Your argument is logical, but the tricky thing is agreeing in advance about what level of intimacy is reserved for the partner alone. I may feel that a warm smile, a brief touch on the hand or back, or a quick hug all fall within the pale, but my partner may not share the same view. Best to determine the limits beforehand rather than after; but even that can be tricky, since one’s logic in a hypothetical case may be overruled by one’s limbic system in real life.

  10. #10 Steven

    (a) is not necessarily ‘not cheating’ but (b) is pretty much a guaranteed ‘cheating’. It is certainly possible to cheat and then tell your partner however, though personally I would say that while an awful breach of trust and the rules of the relationship it is less of an abuse of trust etc than keeping it a secret. People make stupid mistakes but lying about it can only make the situation worse.

    If you talk to your partner about having made a poor choice and cheating on them there is a reasonable chance you can work things out (though it is likely to be unpleasent) but failing to do so is (IMO) a relationship ender.

  11. It’s interesting that several people have positively quoted the line:
    “Cheating is allowing another person into a level of intimacy your partner expects to be theirs alone.”
    Because it’s incorrect. While that might work for the most part as a definition for several, it is not a catch all of the definition of cheating.

    Cheating is in relationships exactly what it is in everything else. A violation of the agreed upon rules/boundaries.

    Cheating doesn’t not have to directly involve other people. For some, sharing personal information or pictures publicly can be considered cheating (even though the person doing the sharing is getting zero direct feedback from anyone else).

    Being directly involved intimately with others also is not necessarily cheating if it is what everyone involved has agreed to.

    As a good rule of thumb, if you’re at all unsure if your partner(s) consider something to be cheating, assume that it is unless you have explicitly discussed the matter and established that it is not.

  12. “I may feel that a warm smile, a brief touch on the hand or back, or a quick hug all fall within the pale, but my partner may not share the same view.”

    Well, then you’d be in the ‘need to talk about it with partner’ category. In some ways I’d say that in that case the partner needs to be clear since the examples you cite are generally accepted OK interactions… i.e. if they have particularly strict limits that most people don’t share it’s not fair of them to hold those things against you but not tell you about it. But at the end of the day, who starts the conversation isn’t as important as having it.

  13. Holden:

    “Because it’s incorrect.”

    Well, no, it’s not. At best, you appear to be saying that in your opinion it may be incomplete.

    “Cheating is in relationships exactly what it is in everything else. A violation of the agreed upon rules/boundaries.”

    It can be a violation of agreed upon rules, but often is something else, especially when there’s not been a discussion on the matter.

    Beyond that, I question your definition of “cheating.” Both parties consenting to rules is not a perquisite to cheating — indeed, cheating often occurs because one party thinks the rules are bunk and do not/should not apply to them.

  14. “I may feel that a warm smile, a brief touch on the hand or back, or a quick hug all fall within the pale, but my partner may not share the same view.”

    The other thing is that the answer they give may also depend upon the person you’re doing it with rather than what you are doing. If they think the other person wants to move in on what’s “theirs” they will be more likely to be angry or hurt then someone they know isn’t interested in you, or someone you’ve known for a long time and they are more comfortable with.

  15. I say discretion is 90% of the law. Or something like that.

    I may just finally be of an age where I realize that people can be swept up in passionate flings for any one of a bazillion different reasons. When I was younger I would have gone Lorena B on my husband if I’d found out he’d cheated on me. Now I’d only get psychotic about it if he was flaunting his peccadilloes all over the place and rubbing my nose in it. Ick. So to speak.

  16. Monogamy needs to be negotiated, too. The idea that there is a universal set of rules for monogamy that both parties understand exactly the same way, and thus they never need to be discussed, is dangerous and toxic in my opinion.

  17. Cheating isn’t about sex. It’s about lies. The lies could be about sex, or money, or drinking.

    Cheating in a relationship has one thing in common with all forms of cheating, such as cheating in school. Cheating always involves violating trust.

  18. Hhhmmmm. I would be honest and tell my husband, but I don’t know if it would be “cheating” as I would only have sex with another person if I had permission. We agreed a long time ago that if we found others whom we wanted to bring into our relationship that the other person would be told, introduced, and that safety would be used.

  19. It’s really simple. If your partner would consider it cheating were you to do X, then it is cheating for you to do X. If your reaction to that is “But that doesn’t help me at all!”, then you should probably have a chat with your partner and make sure you each know where the other’s boundaries stand.

    Scalzi’s rule is a good way to ping your own sense of what your partner considers cheating. It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot more functional than trying to weave elaborate justifications for why your wife really shouldn’t be upset with you for sexting with the cute coworker in the next cubicle over, and only slightly less functional than actually sitting down with your partner and honestly, openly discussing your relationship’s rules, expectations, and boundaries.

    It can be a difficult conversation to have, especially where existing trust or insecurity issues exist. If you think that difficult conversations don’t belong in relationships, then I invite you to read Scalzi’s comment at #15 again. Relationships are like any other undertaking – you can treat it like a hobby and consistently turn in an amateur effort and call it good, or you can put in the hard work and develop mastery at the art of not being a dick to your partner.

  20. Another thing about cheating is that your own opinion that it’s not cheating doesn’t actually count. Cheating is that which makes someone feel cheated upon. Trying to frame things in terms of how you would feel in the converse situation is the wrong answer, or at least an overly simplified one.

    As the man said, relationships are hard, and one of the hard parts is that you’re taking on a responsibility for understanding someone else’s emotional state which is never going to be the same as understanding your own.

  21. I like the simplicity of this. I also like the fact that you put it out there that the partners get to decide, not mother-in-law, best friend or whatever.

    Good one.

  22. While I generally agree that people in healthy relationships ought to discuss and respect each others’ boundaries, your statement that “what counts as cheating isn’t up to you” makes me deeply uncomfortable.

    Basically: I know you’re talking about loving and respectful relationships between individuals of equal power. But we live in a culture that has some funny ideas about the extent to which women get to make decisions about their bodies, and such an absolute statement that a person must submit to the will of their partner(s) regarding their body and what they do with it rubs me the wrong way.

    Personally, I’d say the definition of cheating is up to the parties to the relationship as a unit, not to the parties as individuals–regarding either their own behavior or their mate’s.

  23. Annalee:

    “such an absolute statement that a person must submit to the will of their partner(s) regarding their body and what they do with it rubs me the wrong way.”

    I’m not entirely sure I suggested that one must submit to the will of their partners. Nor do I think that the formulation I note is entirely fair or not potentially laden with many issues. And I certainly agree it’s better if communication between the people in the relationship leads to a concrete understanding of what constitutes cheating.

  24. Annalee, relationship here is defined as between consenting adults, and if someone is in an … need a new word now…. interaction where they feel forced to submit to the will of their partner, I would say they are no longer consenting and the logic of John’s argument is no longer applicable.
    How about this?

    If you are afraid that your partner will feel betrayed and that makes you not want to tell them, then you are probably violating the compact in some way *assuming that your relationship is currently healthy*

  25. #20 by rtootattoo:

    I may just finally be of an age where I realize that people can be swept up in passionate flings for any one of a bazillion different reasons.

    I’m not sure if you’re implying it here, but I seriously doubt that I’ll ever be of an age when I’ll think of being “swept up” into a fling (or whatever) as anything other than an abdication of adult responsibility. One can’t always control ones emotions, but one can control ones behavior.

    That said, John’s guideline up there strikes me as much smarter than a somewhat related definition of sex I once saw. (In the context of “what counts as sex?”) The definition was something like: “Sex is whatever erotic behavior between you and someone else would piss off your spouse if it was with someone other than them.”

    Which made me laugh, considering that the definition would mean that neither I nor my spouse have ever had sex.

  26. Oh, no, I get that what John was saying applies only to healthy relationships between consenting adults of equal power, and that he was not saying that abusive people get to pick their partner’s friends (or other such unreasonable things). In as much as “not up to you” means “you don’t get to unilaterally decide how your significant other is allowed to feel,” I agree with the sentiment.

    I once dated a person who thought that dancing is lascivious, which may be coloring my perspective on the discussion. Most westerners would probably agree that it’s not reasonable to tell your girlfriend not to get her contra on with platonic friends. But the only relevant difference between dancing and sending out photos of your underpants is that society generally frowns on the latter. When it comes to relationship boundaries, I’m not sure that society gets a vote.

    Shorter me: It actually is up to you; what’s up to your significant other is whether they want a relationship on those terms. I don’t think you get to make that decision for them by not telling them about it, but they don’t get to make that decision for you either just because uninvolved third parties might agree with them.

  27. Annalee, I was feeling the exact opposite, actually, in this interpretation.

    Just as a sexual harasser doesn’t get to say, “Oh, hey, lady/dude, I was only kidding, don’t get all bent out of shape,” when they harass someone, so does a cheater not get to define if their action is cheating.

    The victim gets to decide if they’ve been hurt. No one else gets to delegitimize the victim’s pain just because it would be inconvenient to the perpetrator.

    If you hurt someone, there are consequences. If you don’t want to suffer those consequences, ask yourself before you take the action if it is likely to be a problem later.

  28. Annalee:

    Continuing on with your “dancing” example: the person who doesn’t want their partner to dance gets to define his hurt, too. “I am hurt that you don’t want me to dance” and “I am hurt when you dance” are both legitimate hurts. What happens next is where grownups have to decide what compromises they want to agree to.

  29. Great topic, John. I think it’s a tiny part more complicated than what you’ve proposed, but not very much more.


    You’ve just done something physically and/or emotionally intimate with another consenting adult human being who is not your spouse/partner, and you either think/feel your spouse/partner would not approve, or wonder about that.

    So, gonna tell your partner?

    a) Yes.

    b) Any other response (means you were cheating.)

    I’ve done (a), and told. Can’t imagine not doing so. So far, she’s always forgiven me. Sometimes very loudly for several weeks. I know she has a little jealous streak, she knows I’m an incorrigible flirt. That’s all it has ever been. There are a few — a very few — who could probably trip me into a fling or affair if they wanted to; all of them (and their husbands) — with the exception of three high school classmates and a former fiance she knows about — are intimate friends of both of us and so far have not done so. I doubt they will. She knows that I love them, but not in the ways or to the depth that I love her. She has old friends, too, that I know and that I know of. Such is life.

    I think it’s important to note that what partners own is their relationship, not the other’s person, in body or soul. Cheating is taking the relationship to a place or in a direction or with someone that’s not previously agreed to. It may go there and survive — even be celebrated! — but that act was still cheating, needs to be told, explained, apologized for, and forgiveness sought.

  30. I met my husband swing dancing, and we do quite a bit of waltzing both with each other and with other partners, so I can’t say that dancing doesn’t have erotic potential, but dancing etiquette was something we had to discuss early in the relationship.

    It’s a delicate balance to strike between being individuals and being a unit of two or more. It’s also a moving target, which is why relationships require ongoing work.

  31. If my partner has a one time fling with someone – I don’t want to know. That is one time mistake – probably directed by alcohol.
    If my partner has a repetitive behavior of one time flings with various people, or if my partner starts a relationship with another person – I want to know. That behavior is cancerous to the relationship.

    My pain would be there for both the first and second ones. The first one, however, is not representative of our relationship. It was a mistake. However my knowledge of it could kill our relationship. I would be hurt and distrustful after that. No matter if I forgive, it is impossible to forget and that puts an extra burden on the relationship.

    The second one represents a problem in the relationship. I would be very hurt, but my pain and my distrust would be warranted and needed.

    In some cases, telling your partner is not good for anyone, . Truth is a not universally good choice. Truth just is. And it can be pretty damn destructive.

    I agree wholeheartedly that these things should be discussed between partners, so expectations are understood and set.

  32. Your formulation really does seem to give quite a lot of arbitrary power to participants in a relationship over each other. I would think that if an individual has a notion of “cheating” that is much broader or narrower than the prevailing social norm on the issue, then it should be incumbent on that person, at the time of entering into the relationship, to bring up the issue and have a discussion about it.

  33. Sara

    My experience with that sort of thing is that when you start excusing being honest about your failing to maintain the integrity of your relationship if it is a ‘one time fling’ is that it becomes increasingly difficult to do so later and easy to continue excusing in order to avoid hurting their feelings. Certainly you could set those groundrules for your own relationship if you want but it is the sort of thing that is toxic to a healthy relationship because it pre-builds an excuse and allows them to fall into bed with another person more easily since they know they won’t have to accept the consequences of their actions.

  34. Andy

    Being in a relationship with another person gives them a lot of power of each other. I don’t think that being able to decide a particular action is sharing an intimacy that should be restricted to within the relationship is in any way arbitrary however.

    Obviously these sorts of issues should be discussed as part of a healthy relationship regardless of whether their attitudes are out of sync with the prevailing social norms (an absurd concept at best). In many ways the habit of talking about the rules and expectations of the relationship openly and honestly in advance is something that monogamists should learn from those with less traditional romantic lifestyles. Unfortunately the prevailing attitude seems to be that we can just assume we know how the other person feels about things and have a amorphous never defined set of relationship rules passively picked up from society as a whole.

  35. Sara:

    Your wanting to know is neither here nor there toward the question of whether what your partner is doing qualifies as cheating, however. They are entirely different things.

    Andy:

    My formulation doesn’t give anyone power; it’s noting a dynamic which generally already exists.

  36. –E, I don’t actually think we disagree here, and if so, not by much. My “You don’t get to tell your partner how to feel” above is, basically, you don’t get to tell your partner that it’s not reasonable for them not to feel hurt, or not reasonable for them not to want a relationship with someone that behaves the way you do.

    But saying “I’m hurt when you do this” is different than saying “you cheated on me.” Specifically, my concern is that calling a woman unfaithful is a form of slut-shaming. Aside from being a common control mechanism in abusive relationships, it also subjects women in non-abusive relationships to a whole lot of flak from people that have absolutely no say in their business. (I don’t even want to count the number of times I’ve been asked if my husband is “ok” with the way I dress, for instance).

    For the record, my concept that it’s up to the parties to the relationship as a unit pretty much requires talking about it in advance, and I do think there’s a huge difference between someone stating up front that they dance and mean to continue dancing (what I did), and someone agreeing up front that they won’t dance only to sneak around doing it later.

    All of which I see as distinct from sexual harassment, which fundamentally involves making decisions for others without their consent, which is what I see as the problem.

  37. Weiner’s particular actions are something I’ve talked about my wife because an acquaintance got caught doing that very thing, and we talked about it and both agreed that it was very much Not OK. Even then, it wasn’t about controlling our partner as much as it was about describing our own emotional needs.

    It’s not, “You must not dance with other people,” it’s “I cannot be married to someone who dances with other people, so if dancing with other people is important to you, you need to decide if it’s more important than being married to me.”

    I’m very lucky that my wife and I have very compatible emotional needs. But what’s the moral compass for a situation where spouse A says, “I love to dance.” and spouse B says, “I don’t dance, but you cannot stay married to me if I catch you dancing with other people.”

    I’ve known a few folks in marriages like that who were otherwise compatible, and it’s really, really rough.

  38. I have certain medical issues which make physical intimacy extremely difficult for me. I told my husband both before and after we were married that if he needed to get his rocks off with someone else, that was fine by me, he shouldn’t have to do without simply because I don’t enjoy it.

    That said, would I want him coming home and telling me all about how he got his freak on with Neighbor X or Coworker Y or Aerobics Instructor Z? No. There’s a big difference between “I give you permission to go do your thing” and “I want to know all the gory details, and have my face rubbed in it every time”. I may have given him permission to do things with other people I can’t do with him, but the hurt I already experience knowing I can’t satisfy his needs fully would only be magnified by his telling me all about his encounters with other people.

  39. Oh, and one more thing–I don’t necessarily consider online relationships “cheating”. I’ve had several “lesbian encounters” online. Does that mean I want to divorce my husband and move across the country/world to be with my erstwhile “partner”? No. For my purposes, it’s a healthy (and non-physically-painful) way for me to explore my boundaries/fantasies. I still love my husband just as much as ever, and I have no intention of leaving our relationship. There have been times where my husband has remarked that he finds a certain model or actress attractive, and I’ve agreed and said “Yeah, I’d do her in a second, myself!” Again, does that mean I want to leave my husband? No–it just means that I don’t think sexuality can be defined as “either” gay or straight. And I don’t think society should get to define what constitutes “monogamy”. Only the partners in a given relationship get to decide what works for them. I’ve just never seen the point in allowing society at large to define what’s “acceptable” from a sexuality/relationships POV.

  40. Interesting.
    And somewhat disturbing.
    Not anything you said, John. I agree. Entering a relationship involves accepting certain behavioral expectations where fidelity is concerned. And you don’t get to set the bar. Your partner does.

    What’s disturbing is that apparently a staggering number of people in the world either haven’t created a working, mutually acceptable definition of fidelity or have chosen to ignore it. Almost as disturbing are the number of posts here which are debating your definition of cheating.

    If you quibble over THAT, then I think some things about your relationship may need to be revisited.

  41. I think the key is the point about delving into an intimate relationship, with another, that your partner feels should be solely devoted to them. If the person is wary of telling their partner of their actions or argues they don’t need to know, then there is a good chance some cheating has been done. I realize some people have open relationships or have a partner that doesn’t get jealous/hurt over other relationships, but the fact is, in those cases the person is clearly being honest and open to his/her partner. Cheating means you’re hiding things, because you know the results aren’t going to be unicorn’s farting Skittles. A relationship needs honesty, even in one where you do spouse swapping or Thursday date nights with the other person.

    I also openly admit I’m not expert in much of this, because I’ve been devoted to the same person for over 6 years now, and have the ambition to make this a life long type of thing. But people can have their own way of doing relationships, but they need to at least be open about it in order to avoid the label of scuzzy cheatbag.

  42. FWIW, I do a QOTD as my office IM message, and used your description above, “Cheating is allowing another person into a level of intimacy your partner expects to be theirs alone. That level of intimacy is not uniform from person to person. There is no guarantee that your partner’s expected level of intimacy will be entirely congenial to you; in that respect what qualifies as “cheating” is not up to you.” as today’s quote. Attributed, of course. I think it puts into words the concept that most people kind of understand, but struggle to find the words for.

    Thanks.

  43. Annalee @43: Oh c’mon. Slut-shaming? Is that the feminist spin on “if you weren’t so uptight you wouldn’t mind if I did X”? And I’m assuming you didn’t read as far as the post saying that what other people think is irrelevant (thus ‘is your husband OK with that’ has nothing at all to do with the test).

    Scalzi’s test is not about whether the other person’s threshold for cheating is reasonable or healthy, nor whether the other person is likewise respecting boundaries – it’s also a pretty common behavior for abusers to think that cheating is OK for me but not for thee. It’s about whether the action in question was cheating. It may also be the case that the relationship is abusive and the other person needs to have more relaxed boundaries.

    David @13: When you’re bringing the limbic system into it as an excuse, you are sliding well into (b) territory.

  44. YMMV, but my definition of cheating is “if I wouldn’t do it in front of my partner (or let anyone else do that to me), then a line has been crossed”. Whether I disclose or not is not really the point. “My animal penis brain made me do it” is an excuse that doesn’t really wash in this house.

  45. My wife’s best friend, A, since childhood, loves to dance and is a very good dancer. Strangely, A loves dancing with me. I’m not very good (she agrees) but I really enjoy dancing (with or without A as a partner.) A says my joy, willingness to learn, and that I don’t try to unnecessarily feel her body, more than make up for my lack of skill. My wife likes to dance with me, and does, but she claims she’d rather watch me dance with A. A’s husband, B, hates to dance. He can, just really does not like it. He loves watching his wife dance, with anyone. If the four of us are together, A and I are frequently dancing together.

    A while ago, we came back from a couple of turns around the floor and my wife greeted me with “That was HOT!” and B added “Smoking!”. A and I tried to reassure them that we’d gotten a bit carried away with the music; both of our spouses laughingly said there was no problem. A and I looked at each other, and the conversation moved on.

    Later that evening, as we headed for the floor again, we simultaneously said to each other, “Let’s be cooler”, and did so. Upon our return, we were greeted with questions about whether we’d had a fight! Huh? Then there was -real- conversation about our dancing. Turns out that both my wife and B were participating as voyeurs: watching us, they were imagining that they were dancing with their spouse as the other’s spouse was. We felt a bit … used, might be the right word. A and I didn’t see each other at all like that, and said so. Of course not, our spouses said. The conversation was long; they both really trust both of us, it seems, which is good to know, because we do “leave it on the dance floor”. It’s taken us a couple of encounters to get back into our grove, however.

    Cheating is in the mind of the victim, like assault or being stalked, not the cheater. You’ve got to talk about it, as soon as you can. Concealing is (at least to me) just a form of confession. I can (so far) say that I’ve never strayed. I know a few who could probably trip me up if they wanted to and tried. I’ve tried to make them intimate friends of both my wife and I, and she’s done the same. So far (going on 40 years) it hasn’t happened. If it happens, I’m telling — heck, I have already told her their names, and why I sometimes act the way I do around them, minimizing temptation. And so has she.

    If a slip happens, the consequences will determined then. I’ll pray that we survive as a couple, but I know there’s a huge risk, and I don’t want to take it. What we own is our relationship, not the other’s person (mind, body, soul.) We’re human, and have to deal with the imperfections that come along with that. In doing so, we each get to enjoy many forms of dance.

    (I miss preview.)

  46. This post is so true. My marriage broke up over an “emotional affair.” My then-husband was infatuated and essentially dating a female co-worker (going out with her several times a week). He claimed they were “just friends” and not sexually involved, but I felt horribly betrayed by his obvious obsession with her, especially since whenever I tried to hire a sitter so the two of us could go out, he would say he was too busy. When he transferred his credit card and cell phone bill to another mailing address, so that I would not be able to see their contents (I was the household bill-payer), I filed for divorce. My ex still claims he did nothing wrong. The funny thing is that I think I could have more easily forgiven him a sexual affair, if it were a one-night stand with no emotional involvement, than this incredibly devastating “emotional affair.”

  47. Beth @39, I tend to agree (and to be clear, by agree I mean that I am not saying “Sara, you are wrong and should approach your relationship differently”). The one-time fling may be more forgivable than long-term deceit, but I would find it something that I would want to know about for a lot of reasons:

    – Sex can have consequences, even more likely so when the people involved are drunk and unprepared, and I really don’t want to hear “Oh, that funny rash you have? Well, six months ago….” or “Um, did I happen to mention that I just became a father again?” Or, less seriously, finding out there’s a reason that your next-door neighbor has been suddenly avoiding you and it’s not that you put your garbage cans too far into her driveway again.

    – Lots of times things that ‘just happen’ had a lot more backstory than people are willing to admit, especially when alcohol was the catalyst for them ‘just happening’. If A and B have been flirting at work for months it’s not that surprising when they ‘just happen’ to hook up after uncharacteristically drinking a lot at the office Christmas party.

    – At best, it shows poor judgment and self-restraint, possibly connected with alcohol, and probably connected with using alcohol as an excuse to do stupid things and later justify them with “hey, I was drunk and it’ll never happen again”. That’s an even bigger red flag than a fling.

  48. I’m always amused at comments on sites/posts like this. I would say about 20% of people who brought up counterpoints actually had valid thoughtful introspective things to add. The other 80% are people who have violated a partner’s thoughts on intimacy and cheating, and are now trying to defensively reassert their lawyer-like reasons/technicalities.

    “It’s more complicated than that!” Is the rallying cry of someone who cares more about a particular rule than not hurting their lover’s feelings. Right up there with, “It’s not what it looks like!” and “It was an accident!” That kind of person doesn’t care about a simple core concept based on respect. They’re more interested in how they can get around it by citing someone’s insecurities, or preferences, or some nuance of a conversation two years ago to justify their actions.

    This was a great post, and the simpler a concept is, the better. What people aren’t getting is that the internal feeling, the guilt over if you shouldn’t tell someone something, is the issue. IE, I had sex with someone other than my partner last night. If I feel like I can’t tell him, it was cheating. If I can go home and say, “I had great sex!” It wasn’t.

  49. You write really well. And you are funny. Truly. Madly. Deeply. (this was to show you that I especially enjoyed your post about writing). Check out my website if you want and, if you ever want to write something for it, let me know!

  50. I’m going to answer Scalzi’s question directly. The answer is B. It is always B.

    If you cheat, that secret is the price you pay for cheating. Man up and pay the price. If you’re not prepared to do that, then don’t cheat.

    Confessing your affair is a self-indulgent, lame attempt to try to make yourself feel better about yourself. Sorry buddy. Won’t work. That little bout of self-indulgence will hurt your spouse, possibly hurt lots of other people, and cause all kinds of unpredictable damage.

    Keeping secrets is hard, isn’t it? Well, too bad.
    Don’t want to keep secrets? Don’t make em. But if you make em, keep it.

    I’m talking about one-off events here. An ongoing affair will get discovered no matter what you do, so the question is moot in that situation. But for one-off events, never, ever, ever tell your spouse. That silent burden is the cost that you must pay.

  51. DA: I’m really glad I’m not married to you.

    For me, “I fucked up” is easier to deal with, and move on from, than “From now on, there’s a part of my life that I’m going to keep concealed from you, for your own good. Because I’m the best judge of what you need to know about our relationship.”

  52. John S.

    Crap, you’re absolutely right that my definition is no better than yours. Cheating is not contingent upon the rules being “agreed upon” and I shouldn’t have put it as such.

    I still maintain that, as a definition, yours is incorrect. Not because it’s incomplete but because it’s surface level. You’re talking about a certain situation with certain variables involving certain people. But at it’s core, cheating is not necessarily about intimacy or exclusivity, it’s about a violation of trust.

    Cheating is about violating the rules or boundaries of those involved in “X”. In this case we’re talking about relationships, but it works for anything. Those rules/boundaries do not have to be explicitly spoken to be expected and/or violated (I was wrong about that part of my definition). Which is part of the complexity of relationships, because so many don’t talk about their expectations. It’s also why I ended my original post with: “As a good rule of thumb, if you’re at all unsure if your partner(s) consider something to be cheating, assume that it is unless you have explicitly discussed the matter and established that it is not.”

  53. DA @57: Are you really arguing that one-off events never get discovered, that they never ever have an effect on one’s spouse, and that it’s always psychically painful to keep the one-off quiet rather than having one’s spouse find out? Because I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty peeved to (say) find out from my doctor that I’ve been walking around with chlamydia for years that my spouse brought home from a “one-off”. Or that a spouse who insists on and preaches fidelity is really just anxious that I, too, might have a “one-off” at the wrong party.

    It’s like some kind of adultery version of the one-bite rule.

    Now, certainly it’s true that there are circumstances where a confession can be akin to emotionally vomiting on the other person. That’s what counseling is for – to help sort through all of that and decide whether, and how, to disclose in a way that is healthy rather than selfish.

  54. DA and Lila, I find your exchange interesting because my wife often says that she knows I’d never cheat because it’d mean there was a story that I couldn’t tell.

  55. Annalee: I’d say the definition of cheating is up to the parties to the relationship as a unit.

    Kind of.

    I think what you are pointing to is the idea that any relationship is a negotiation. And what is defined as cheating in a relationship would be part of that negotiation. So if A did something and tells B about it, and they discuss it and decide its not cheating, then it isnt cheating. What anyone else in the world thinks is irrelevant. It is defined by the relationship.

    Of course there could be a situation where A insists it was cheating and B disagrees. At which point it was cheating as far as the relationship is concerned because A is part of that relationship. It would then be up to A and B to either figure out how to move forward as a relationship or split.

    Relationships are seldom unanimous about everything, so its good to have some adult level negotiating skils before getting into a relationship. And probably wouldnt hurt to make sure the other person has some of those same skils.

  56. Cheating is allowing another person into a level of intimacy your partner expects to be theirs alone.

    Close, but I would say “…intimacy that you’ve agreed with your partner will be theirs alone.” Or at least “…intimacy your partner reasonably expects to be theirs alone” although that raises the question of what’s reasonable.

  57. I think the folks who are under the impression that fundamental expectations will always be “reasonable” or agreed-upon are likely to be unpleasantly surprised at some point in their relationship.

    I agree it would be nice, and I agree communication is important. I think it’s naive to assume two people will always have the same definition of what is reasonable, or that one party can be talked out of their baseline level of comfort in a relationship.

  58. The problem with defining cheating based wholly on mechanical application of some pre-arranged agreement is that the boundary cannot be drawn on a two dimensional map. One cannot enumerate all the possibilities in which cheating could occur.

    so people need to communicate their expectations ahead of time and apply general principles of these expectations to the real world as it hurls towards them moment by moment.

    would this be considered cheating? this moment? how about this moment?

    that seems to me to be the take away of Scalzi’s litmus test: would I want my partner to KNOW what I am doing right now? Will I tell them about it or will I try to hide it?

    Informing your partner about something you did is one place the rubber meets the road as to whether you violated the principles of your relationship or not.

    if you think you stayed within the principles, then you wouldnt have a problem teli.g them about it. The only reason for secrecy would be because you think you violated some basic principle of your relationship, but you want to avoid the consequences by operating in the dark.

  59. A couple of people have responded to my comment, so I’ll re-respond.

    Lily.

    DA: I’m really glad I’m not married to you.

    Don’t presume too much. Everyone who knows me believes I am a model husband, almost to superhero levels.
    My wife is mentally ill and has occasional bouts of psychosis, has a chronic long term physical condition that requires my constant care, and has on (rare) occasions become physically violent towards me. There are children involved and I am, in effect, a sole parent plus a carer. Now, maybe you say “doesn’t matter – cheating is WRONG” but since my circumstances are far removed from most other people’s marriages (in fac they seem to inhabit a different planet), I figure I have some license to make up my own rules.

    Are you really arguing that one-off events never get discovered

    Yes, that is correct. If a male friend comes to me all guilt ridden because he cheated on his wife and feels the need to unburden himself to her, what I wrote above is exactly the advice I would give to him.

    I learned this in my first marriage. I “confessed” to a “date” with a co-worker, which really just amounted to a drink at a bar after work. Okay, so she was stunningly beautiful. But still. It was just a catch up drink – and I had done the same thing with male colleagues.
    I wrongly thought that telling my (previous) wife about it as soon as I could would show my good faith, honestly, and so on. No, that wasn’t the case. Hell rained down on me for a week in big, hot, fiery coals from the sky. It was an awful, stressful, time, and the reaction was far out of proportion to the supposed sin. A friend explained to me what I explained above. I suppose the conflict occurred because I genuinely didn’t consider it cheating, but she did. I naively thought she’d brush it off and go “big deal.”

    But if I had known what the reaction would be, the correct move – I now believe – is to shut the hell up.

    The reality is there are thousands of people walking around, keeping a secret like that, and God is not throwing thunderbolts at them or plotting their horrific demise in the afterlife. If it’s really a one-off and if you really never tell, guess what? Nothing bad will happen.

  60. The practical problems with only the two of you knowing the secret is that a) you know, b) your partner knows, and c) any number of other people know — and they don’t know that it’s a secret. A friend of your wife’s at the bar sees you, or a friend’s child sees you (they do grow up!), or ….

    For me, the problem is that I know. I know there are people who can walk away from such, but I’m not one of them. I’ve seen many more divorces from secrets untold and then discovered than from sins confessed; I’m sure there’s a huge sample size error there.

    D.A. Munroe, you’ve got a hard row to hoe, and kudos for doing so. In your circumstances, I might well act as you do. I don’t know how that would change my advice, I’m sure it would.

  61. DA, I think yiu missed the point. The point is not

    What should I do to keep hell from raining down on me?

    The point is

    What is a good indicator that I might be cheating right now?

    If you arent willing to tell your partner, then hiding the truth is likely a flag that you might be cheating. And if you tell your partner and thay say you cheated, well, then, you cheated. You may think you didnt cheat, but you did as far as the relationship is concerned.

  62. And if you tell your partner and thay say you cheated, well, then, you cheated.

    actually, I think this shows that there is a fundamental misunderstanding between you and your partner about the implicit rules of your relationship. You may have different values, or different beliefs about how a marriage should operate.

    In my world, you should be able to have drinks with a hot co-worker after work – as long as nothing else happens and as long as you tell your spouse all about it. But in my ex-wife’s worldview, that was cheating.

    We broke up later when a similar thing happened by the way, when she again percieved “cheating” where there was no cheating and where I had done nothing wrong (in my opinion, not hers obviously), and I kinda said “you know what? I’ve had enough of this s**t.”

  63. DA @67: I’m not sure if you were hurt so much by your own single experience that you missed the actual question, but if you are truly saying that “one-off” events never get discovered and more-than-one-off events always do, that is not a reality-based opinion. Nor is it a particularly reality-based opinion to assume that there are never any consequences to a one-off event other than “my wife will be mad”.

    (I mean, if your guy friend had come to you in a panic saying “I had this one-night stand and now I’ve got this weird running sore on my penis and I haven’t told my wife” or “I had a fling with a mutual friend at a party and somebody took a picture of us and it’s up on Facebook” your counsel would be for him to shut up and never say a thing? Really? Do you hate all your guy friends’ wives that much?)

    In any case, like many people you seem to have misread Scalzi’s test. As he said, (b) does not mean you were definitely cheating; it is “there’s a really excellent chance you were cheating”. Excellent chance != definitely so, and that’s obviously the case because (as has been shown in this thread) there are some possible non-cheaty answers. For example, “No, because we have agreed that I can do those things and not have to report back,” or “No, because my spouse has explicitly said it’s OK for me to do those things but s/he doesn’t want to hear about it,” or – as in your case – “No, because my spouse is abusive/an asshole and freaks out if I so much as say hi to the barista.”

    In the latter case, the question you should be answering is is not ‘was I cheating?’ but ‘where is the number of a good abuse hotline and/or divorce lawyer’?

    I’ll note, by the way, that while I am sure your own account is entirely accurate, I have certainly known of people whose spouses freak out at “innocent” behavior not because the spouse is a freak, but because the person is in fact not behaving as innocently as they would like to pretend.

  64. Mythago,
    I completely misread the question. But I realized that after I had already jumped in the deep end. Oh well.

    In the latter case, the question you should be answering is is not ‘was I cheating?’ but ‘where is the number of a good abuse hotline and/or divorce lawyer’?

    Yeah, I’ve got those things covered, sort of.

    while I am sure your own account is entirely accurate, I have certainly known of people whose spouses freak out at “innocent” behavior not because the spouse is a freak, but because the person is in fact not behaving as innocently as they would like to pretend.

    True. and to be honest, I did have a bit of attraction towards hot-girl-from-work. On the other hand, I genuinely believed my behavior to be within acceptable non-cheating boundaries, and hadn’t yet fathomed the depth of paranoid jealousy simmering in my wife. Which is why I told her. I was young and foolish.

  65. True. and to be honest, I did have a bit of attraction towards hot-girl-from-work

    Without in any way excusing your wife’s overreaction, if part of the reason you were having the beer with Hot Girl was that you enjoyed having a beer with a woman to whom you were attracted, then it wasn’t exactly the same as “Hey, Bob, I think this project would go a lot quicker if we talked it over at the bar.” That’s where it is sliding into (b) territory; I conceal my beer with Hot Co-Worker not simply because I married a paranoid bag of jealousy, but because I don’t want to admit that my behavior towards Hot Co-Worker is different than it is towards Not Hot Co-Workers.

    And of course deception is precisely how people jump on the slide to “Oh my god, how did I end up doing this?” Because if I admit to myself that my motives in spending time with Hot Co-Worker are not all that pure, I might have to behave differently and get off that slippery slope.

  66. DA, I will refer to Scalzi’s original post that said that cheating is defined by your partners expectations not yours and that it isnt up to you to decide whether you cheated or not.

    Whether your first wife was a raving paranoid jealous lunatic or completely sane forgiving and even generous woman, she gets to decide whether you cheated as far as your marriage to her is concerned.

    if she says you cheated her then you cheated her.

    getting divorced and marrying someone who has more similar exlectations of what is and is not cheating will smooth out a lot of the bumps. But even then, as with any other relationship, its your partner who gets to decide whether you cheated on them or not.

    not you.

    You can decide that your actions were acceptable to your own standards but a relationship is about holdi.g yourself to yours AND someone elses standard at the same time. Negotiating through the disagreements, but ultimately you have to give part of yourself over to another. Or it isnt a marriage, its roomates with drama.

  67. People keep acting here as if the ending of a relationship because a partner’s definition of cheating is incredibly broad and covers all contact with other people is a terrible tragedy. No. Either you work it out and negotiate or you end it and form a relationship with someone more compatible. You’ll be much happier.

  68. Indeed, John, but given that DA put himself forward as a specific example I think it’s fair to use that as a jumping-off point. (Not a jumping-on point, as in “jumping down DA’s throat”, mind.)

  69. A friend’s needlessly jealous spouse is a pain to deal with, both for the friend, and the friend’s friends. Some of those jealous spouses or significant others, I suspect, are projecting their own concealed cheating, long past, past, or current. Some of them have historical reasons to fear their partner is going to cheat.

    Bring it up, talk it out, wrap it up, put it away. The world works so much better if you each can do that. Aha, there it is. A one-page article from a Transactional Analysis guru on couples and trust: The 5 Trusts Contract

  70. Don’t sweat it, John. I started with a controversial position, then backed it up with reference to highly personal details. I dug this hole.

  71. I’m going to answer Scalzi’s question directly. The answer is B. It is always B.

    Personally, all of the physically and/or emotionally intimtae stuff I do with something other than one of my spouses is perfectly ordinary according to our relationship agreements, so there is no damn reason for B in my life.

  72. As someone who’s had to endure a morbidly jealous relationship when younger, and who’s been living for 12 years in a very happy and functional open relationship (as in, sex with other people when done with everybody’s consent, safely and excluding some people the other party can’t stand is okay) I’ll have to agree with most of the blog post, apart from one minor point: ‘they may choose to think your partner is being entirely unreasonable about what constitutes “cheating”’.

    The thing is, there are objectively quite unreasonable concepts about cheating, as in talking to anybody of the preferred sex, happening to glance at a person of the preferred sex, watching a movie or a TV program that’s not porn but has good looking members of the previous, or having to cut all of your ties to your old friends of the preferred sex. Stuff like that makes it really hard to function outside of a cloister. There are people who are willing to live by rules like this for a while, until the relationship inevitably disintegrates with loads of grief for everybody involved. So, if you are having a hard time dealing with your SO’s concept of what constitutes as cheating and everybody around you seems to think that he or she is unreasonable, maybe it would pay to listen to them. There are things like morbid jealousy and co-dependence, that have nothing to do with love or caring in the end. That shit is emotional abuse.

    A whole lot of people are killing themselves by trying to live according to this myth that everybody’s strictly monogamous and its the only normal and moral thing to do, and everything else is aberration, sick, abnormal and not true love. That’s just bullshit, as is the thinking that one person in the relationship can retroactively unilaterally decide what in a relationship is cheating and what isn’t. That’s a conversation that should be had long before people start even thinking about storing their toothbrushes in the same rack.

  73. JH – stealing a line from Dan Savage, that’s not a relationship, that’s a hostage situation. Emotional abuse, like you said.

    It doesn’t invalidate the definition of cheating. It does invalidate the sort of person you describe as having the right to call themselves a “partner”, rather than a jailer.

  74. I like this rule-of-thumb definition. I’m trying to think pf a way to express the same sentiment more positively.
    For example: “is this action an expression of love for my significant other.”

    …I dunno, it just doesn’t have the same pizzaz to it.

  75. [Deleted for being a late-arriving bit of contentless snark. Folks, if you're going to jump into a discussion thread for a post that's the better part of a year old and to which no one else is still posting, try to have something relevant or at least interesting to say -- JS]

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