Defining Infidelity

One of the most difficult aspects of working with a cheater is getting that person to accept that his or her behavior qualifies as infidelity. Either the cheater doesn’t view what he or she has done as cheating, or the cheater can’t understand why the betrayed partner won’t just accept what has happened, including her or his part in it, and immediately offer forgiveness.

Cheaters rationalize, minimize, and justify their sex play, pretending that the behavior never happened, or that it wasn’t sexual, or that it doesn’t count as cheating because…. In the therapy business we call this denial. Denial is a series of internal lies and deceits that people tell themselves to make their questionable behaviors seem OK. Each self-deception is supported by one or more rationalizations, with each rationalization bolstered by still more falsehoods.

When viewed from a distance, a cheater’s denial is about as structurally sound as a house of cards in a stiff breeze, yet most cheaters behave as if they’re living in an impenetrable bomb shelter. Sure, an impartial observer could easily see through their smokescreen, but most unfaithful partners either cannot or will not, choosing instead to ignore the seriousness and potential consequences of their actions—all so they can carry on with their cheating. And this willful ignorance can go on for years, continuing until the infidelity is discovered and sometimes beyond that.

The most common type of denial, used by almost every cheater, is built on the following lie: “What my partner doesn’t know can’t hurt.” I am amazed by the fact that cheaters are uniformly able to convince themselves this statement is true.

It isn’t, of course. Even though betrayed partners may not know exactly what is happening, they will nonetheless feel and experience a degree of emotional and even physical distancing in the relationship. And they will often blame themselves for this, wondering what they’ve done to create this rift and to provoke the cheater’s defensiveness and anger if/when he or she is questioned about the emotional separation.

Once upon a time, it was relatively easy to identify infidelity. If one partner was sexual with someone other than his or her spouse, infidelity had occurred. Yes, sometimes one partner (usually the wife) had to explain to the other (usually the husband) that things like oral sex and hand jobs count as cheating, but otherwise infidelity was a straightforward endeavor.

Then came the Internet, and the once-clear line between sexual fidelity and infidelity got very, very blurry. Consider the following:

  • Does looking at online porn count as cheating?
  • Is chatting with a former flame (or a stranger) via social media or webcam a form of cheating?
  • Does it matter if the person you’re video chatting with lives thousands of miles away?
  • Does having a profile on Ashley Madison (even if you’re not actually hooking up with anyone) count as cheating?
  • Does sexting count as cheating?

Honestly, the gray areas are almost limitless, with the primary question centering on whether digital sex counts the same as in-the-flesh sex. To address this, I have created the following digital-age definition of infidelity:

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 mention affairs, hookups, porn, sexting, video chat, or any other specific sexual act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner—the loss of relationship trust. Nor does this definition differentiate between online and real world sexual activity. It simply says: If you’re engaging in any romantic or sexual activity that you’re covering up with lies and secrets, you’re cheating.

In therapy sessions, if cheating clients are in denial about the nature of what they’ve done, I first give them the definition above, and then I ask: “If your behavior wasn’t cheating, then why were you keeping it a secret from your partner?” Occasionally, when a cheater seems especially self-focused and determined to believe his or her own lies, no matter how ridiculous, I suggest that his or her sexual behaviors might be perfectly fine within the boundaries of his or her relationship if only his or her partner knew about those actions up front and agreed that they were OK. I then suggest that if the cheater and his or her mate can mutually agree, without coercion of any sort, that certain extramarital sexual behaviors are acceptable, so be it. In such cases, the cheater can continue in good conscience with what he or she is doing.

Unsurprisingly, I have never, not even once, had a cheating client take me up on this suggestion.