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The definition of cheating is…

What does it mean to be unfaithful? What “counts” as cheating?

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Sex advice shouldn’t be syndicated. We wanted a local feel to ours so we’ve enlisted the sound advice of resident sex professor Timaree Schmit. Have a question about your love life that needs answers? Email her at asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com. | Image: Redlite photos

It’s difficult to gather hard data on infidelity, since there’s a lot of motivation to keep that private.

But the prevailing understanding is that it’s around a 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 of married partners…and the most common side piece is a person they already know. An interesting random fact is that in the last two decades, older Americans are cheating more while younger folks are less likely.  

Often our cultural narratives imply that “true love,” the kind that is authentic and worth working on, requires monogamy…or at least continuous fidelity. Over a decade ago, advice columnist Dan Savage said we need to rethink monogamy – and consider infidelity like relapse. You fall off the wagon, but then get back on. Look at an extradyadic dalliance as a momentary lapse, not the indisputable end of an otherwise solid relationship. 

More recently Savage has gone further to clarify that monogamy and faithfulness are not synonymous. 

“Someone who is physically or emotionally abusive, but doesn’t sleep around, is not being faithful. Someone who neglects you or holds you in contempt or gaslights you is not being faithful – even if they’re not sleeping around.”

“I think infidelity is just a sub-genre of cheating, there are a lot of ways to ‘cheat’ on your partner that don’t involve sex or romance and can be just as painful.” 

Fair point. Ultimately, support and trust matters most in a relationship. But again – what counts as cheating? I tossed the question out on social media and heard a slew of variations on a theme: Whatever is outside the bounds of what the partners had agreed. 

“If you can’t be willing to be vulnerable with your partner, and you rely on someone else fully for emotional needs, ya, cheating. Especially when you talk fantasies about the two of you being together despite being with someone else.” – Cayla

“My ex had an affair and said, ‘I’m in love with him, but we haven’t had sex,’ which seemed a hell of a lot worse than, ‘We fucked, but I still love you.’ I think there’s room to work it out in the second scenario.” – Jim

“It’s kind of just evolved in our relationship over time to mean not lying to each other over anything of significance – romantic or not. I think infidelity is just a sub-genre of cheating, there are a lot of ways to ‘cheat’ on your partner that don’t involve sex or romance and can be just as painful.” – Jackie

“I’m non-monogamous and I have very few hard rules about what goes on in my sexual/romantic relationships. I am very direct about what they are and how they work. For example: Use protection with everyone. If you fuck up, tell everyone and go get tested. If you have an infection, tell everyone and go get treated. I trust my partners to respect and protect me, and their other partners. If they break that trust, I call it cheating. They are lying, or omitting the truth, to selfishly get what they want at the expense of people they should care about.” – Patchie

“Anything that you have to hide from your partner. So even if you don’t physically act upon something, if you have to delete messages, turn your phone on DND, etc – THAT’S CHEATING.” – Xavier

“I really wish it wasn’t called ‘cheating’ because it’s only ever implied this sense of ownership and that’s effed up, especially for teens.” – Kitty

“Signing up on a dating site just to look, but not interact. Live webcam on any sites involving one on one interactions, sending messages to random people you don’t know and having private conversations on social media to the point where phone numbers are exchanged. Saying they’re just a friend, but never mentioned this person to a significant other or introducing them.” – Laura

“I often say to my patients that if they could bring into their marriage even one-tenth of the boldness, the playfulness, and the verve that they bring to their affair, their home life would feel quite different.”

“I’ve been on all sides of infidelity. My mother had two affairs that nearly broke my parents’ relationship, I have been cheated on by past partners – including my wife – and have been the cheater. I believe cheating is never as simple as we like to make it out to be…Infidelity with the intent to hurt or harm the cheated partner is never excusable and I believe the only form of cheating that is unreconcilable. However, I find this a rare situation. In most cases, I find infidelity is a response to personal issues that the cheating partner is struggling with and reacting to in an unhealthy way.” – Jamie

And then there’s this point: 

“If you’re hiding it because your partner has unreasonable expectations that aren’t compatible with how you’ve both defined the relationship, it may not be cheating – you may just be with someone controlling. And if you and your partner don’t have a clear consensus on the bounds of the relationship, there’s an even more basic issue that has to be worked out.” – Louis

The premier resource on relationship infidelity -– and potentially healing and recovering from it – is therapist and author Esther Perel. She quite literally wrote the book on why our unrealistic modern expectations of partners – that they be our lovers, best friends, co-parents, and sources of excitement – are completely unrealistic and unsustainable. 

She doesn’t condone the overwhelming, painful act of intimate betrayal, but she says a lot can be learned by looking into the motivation. In a piece she wrote for the Atlantic she says, “One of the most uncomfortable truths about an affair is that what for Partner A may be an agonizing betrayal may be transformative for Partner B.” Adding, “I often say to my patients that if they could bring into their marriage even one-tenth of the boldness, the playfulness, and the verve that they bring to their affair, their home life would feel quite different.”

If we can reach one point of agreement, it’s that it’s necessary to explore our own beliefs about what feels like betrayal and be sure we understand what it would mean to our partners as well. That can only be established by bravely searching inward and then talking openly. And while even the most open of communication can’t prevent perfidy, it sure helps to have clearly laid the boundaries out in advance. 

Have a question for Timaree? Send an email to asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com.

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  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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