What Counts as Cheating in Your Relationship?

And what do you do if that line gets crossed?


Maybe you glance at your partner’s phone and see an intimate text from a strange number. Maybe you see a tagged photo at an event… that happened while they were supposed to be at work. Maybe you just feel it in your bones. Maybe they come clean and tell you they slipped up.

For many of us, the moment you realize you’ve been cheated on is the worst. Nobody ever expects it, even though it’s a relatively common occurrence. You start to wonder if everything else is a lie, if your sexual health has been compromised, if your relationship (and effectively, your whole life) is about to change. I should know, since I’ve been cheated on by multiple partners (surprise: open relationships don’t make cheating okay). So it’s no wonder that (almost) everyone I’ve met, no matter their values, isn’t really a fan of infidelity.

But what I have found over a series of conversations—and through reading many, many APW comments—is that there isn’t a fixed definition of what people consider “cheating.” I would have never imagined that a close emotional relationship with someone other than your partner (specifically, of the sex you are attracted to) would be a cause for dismay. As someone enjoys intimate friendship—sleepovers, deep emotional talks, the whole nine—I find they are a huge portion of my support system and integral to my healthy existence. I also tend to remain (platonically) close to my more casual exes, and oddly, they remain some of my closest friends. And even in my monogamous moments, I’d still like the freedom to grind with a stranger on a dance floor. But to some people, things like intimate friendships, keeping past sexual partners in your life, and grinding with strangers are utterly out of bounds and cause for a reevaluation of the relationship.

On the other end of the spectrum, I chatted with a friend who considers herself strictly monogamous, and they had a surprisingly flexible approach. They figure life is long and people make mistakes, and if it’s a one-time mistake…. their policy is, “Don’t make it my problem, and clean up your own mess.” It’s not that cheating is encouraged, but they admit it might happen, fundamentally trust each other, and don’t want it wreaking havoc on the lives (read: children, house, etc.) they’ve built.

In a strange way, believing in non-monogamy means I have an even lower tolerance for cheating. Since I have candid, regular, and vulnerable conversations with my partner about desire, sex, and attraction, I am extra-crushed when they cheat. In my mind, they could just have talked to me about it first. In that case, cheating translates as a lie of omission, and the lies hurt far more than the sex. Why? Because now I’m not sure I trust them to be honest with me, and where does that leave us?

It turns out for some, infidelity is a friendship that’s grown too close, and for other people “accidental sex” (while frowned upon) isn’t a deal-breaker. Perhaps the rules of relationships are set up to protect of the aspects of your connection with your partner that feels the most sacred. And maybe a couple’s guidelines on how they plan to deal with violations of trust have to do with what their deepest values are. Do you prioritize stability (which makes sense if you’ve got a deeply interwoven life, maybe with kids or finances), or total honesty (you know, if you’re paranoid from being hurt before), or something else entirely?

What are your relationship agreements around fidelity? Did you both agree about where the lines were immediately, or were there some trials by fire? What kind of saint-like restraint and bigger picture focus does it take to NOT want to know when your partner’s meandered? And finally, do you have it in you to forgive, or is the first chance also the last chance?

APW, For today’s #monogamymonday let’s go anon (or not) and get real about where your lines are, what happens when your partner’s acting shady, and how late is really too late to say sorry.

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