What Is Infidelity, and What Is Not?

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Erin Snow

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 their 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?

To help clarify, my colleague 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 word their partner says or does.

This is true regardless of whether the betrayal took place online or in the real world. 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 at Seeking Integrity: 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 no sexual act or activity is inherently “bad” on its own. The mutually agreed upon relationship contract defines the meaning behind an action and these actions are all in the light. Open relationships, fetishes, use of pornography, etc., are part of some relationship dynamics, and there is no shame in this unless it violates what the couple has discussed and approved. These conversations are imperative for each couple to have a concrete understanding of their boundaries, intimacy, and consent. Infidelity is heartbreaking, painful, and destructive to any trusting bond. Healthy conversations build the intimate bond and remove the gray areas to promote long-term trust and connection.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with sex or porn addiction, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex and porn addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups for addicts and betrayed partners.