Are There Different Types of Cheating?

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Dr. Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT

Infidelity is as varied as the people who engage in it. It can occur in-person, online, with magazines and videos, and in all sorts of other ways. Generally, however, cheating falls into one of three categories. 

  1. Purely Sexual
  2. Emotionally Connected but Casual
  3. Deeply Emotionally Connected, Longer-Term Affairs

Purely Sexual

When asked what cheating looks like, many people envision what I call sexploration – purely sexual activities lacking any sort of emotional component or connection. Individuals who engage in this type of cheating often think that because it doesn’t mean anything on an emotional level (to them), that it doesn’t qualify as infidelity and their spouse really shouldn’t care about it.

Of course, their partners tend to view the situation differently. With these individuals, we tend to say things like, “If your significant other could see your behavior, how would they feel about it? Would they be upset by what you’re doing?” If the answer to those questions is yes, then the individual is cheating – with or without an emotional component.

Emotionally Connected but Casual

Many people have casual sexual partners that they see regularly, but only when convenient. They enjoy these encounters, and they may even go to dinner or a movie before jumping into bed. But there is not a deep emotional connection. Basically, they have a series of recurring one-night-stands. There may be some friendship and there is likely lots of sex, but there is very little in the way of meaningful emotional intimacy. These relationships are ongoing but extremely casual in nature, based more on sex than anything else.

Often, people who engage in these behaviors try to defend themselves to their significant other with lines like, “It wasn’t a real affair. It was never anything more than sex.” Betrayed partners tend to disagree. The cheating is a deep emotional betrayal, with or without an emotional component.

Deeply Emotionally Connected, Longer-Term Affairs

Some therapists specializing in infidelity and couple’s work suggest using the concept of ‘walls vs. windows’ as an analogy when helping unfaithful partners understand what their betrayed spouses are thinking and feeling. Dr. Shirley Glass explains this as well as anyone in her book, Not Just Friends, writing, “You can have intimacy in your relationship only when you are honest and open about the significant things in your life. When you withhold information and keep secrets, you create walls that act as barriers to the free flow of thoughts and feelings that invigorate your relationship. But when you open up to each other, the window between you allows you to know each other in unfiltered, intimate ways.”

The walls and windows analogy is particularly useful when an affair is emotional as well as sexual. With an emotional affair, cheating can start unintentionally, with a platonic relationship in the workplace, online, in the neighborhood, or wherever, that unexpectedly blossoms into something more.

Whatever type of cheating it is that takes place, non-cheating partners feel deeply betrayed and wounded. After all, the one person in the world that they thought would always have their back is being romantic and sexual outside the relationship and then lying and covering it up. There is almost nothing in the world that hurts more than that type of betrayal. Sometimes the wounding is deeper with emotionally connected affairs than with sexploration or recurrent booty calls, but this in no way minimizes the agony of learning about any category of cheating.

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