What Is Infidelity, and What Is Not?

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One of the issues we hear about relatively often at Seeking Integrity, and in webinars and drop-in discussion groups on our affiliated Sex and Relationship Healing website, is that one partner thinks that his or her behavior is fine, while the other partner views it as cheating. Consider the following examples:

  • Is interacting with an ex on Facebook a form of cheating?
  • Is viewing porn a form of cheating?
  • If you have a hookup app on your phone, are you cheating, even if you never use the app?
  • Is webcamming with a total stranger who lives half a world away a form of cheating?
  • Does flirting with a waitress or waiter count as cheating?
  • Is playing a sexualized Virtual Reality video game a form of cheating?

To help clarify, Dr. Rob Weiss provides the following definition of cheating in his book, Out of the Doghouse:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition of cheating does not talk specifically about affairs, porn, strip clubs, hookup apps, or any other specific sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner – the loss of relationship trust. For betrayed partners, it’s not any specific sexual or romantic act that causes the most pain. Instead, it’s the lying, the secret-keeping, the lies of omission, the manipulation, and the fact that they can no longer trust a single thing their partner says or does.

And this is true regardless of whether the betrayal took place online or in the real world. In other words, no physical contact is necessary. Research by Dr. Weiss shows that when it comes to the negative effects of one partner being romantic or sexual outside a supposedly monogamous relationship, tech-based and in-person behaviors are no different. The lying, the emotional distancing, and the pain of learning about the betrayal all feel exactly the same to the betrayed partner.

This is one of the reasons we like Dr. Rob’s definition of infidelity: It encompasses both online and real-world romantic and sexual behavior, as well as sexual and romantic activities that stop short of sexual penetration – everything from looking at porn to kissing to something as simple as flirting. Better yet, the definition is flexible depending on the couple. It lets each couple define their own version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision making. This means that it may be just fine for one partner to look at porn or to engage in some other form of sextracurricular activity, as long as the other partner knows about this behavior and is OK with it. That said, if one partner is looking at porn (or whatever) and keeping that behavior secret, or the other partner knows about it but doesn’t find the behavior acceptable, the behavior qualifies as infidelity.

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If you or someone you love is struggling with sex, porn, or paired substance/sex addiction, we offer both inpatient treatment and low-cost online workgroups. For extensive free information, including webinars, podcasts, blogs, resources, and daily inspiration for healing, we urge you to explore our sister website, SexandRelationshipHealing.com.