Defining Infidelity

Once upon a time, it was easy to know if you were cheating on your partner. If you were sexual with someone other than your spouse, you were guilty of infidelity. 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 relatively easy to identify.

Then came the internet, and the once-clear line between sexual fidelity and infidelity got very, very blurry. Does online porn count as cheating? Is social media flirting a form of cheating? Does having a profile on a hookup app, even if you’re not using it to have sex with anyone, count as cheating? What if you sext with people but don’t hook up? Etc.

What I have learned after nearly three decades spent treating intimacy and relationship issues is that when it comes to the negative effects of sex outside a supposedly monogamous relationship, digital and real-world sex are no different. The pain of betrayal feels the same to the cheated-on partner, regardless of where and how the cheating took place. It’s not the specifics of the sexual act that cause the most emotional pain and damage to a supposedly monogamous relationship; its’ the constant lying, the emotional distancing, and the loss of relationship trust.

Recognizing this, I have formulated the following digital age definition of infidelity:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when important secrets are kept from a primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition of infidelity does not mention affairs, hookups, porn, sexting, video chat, or any other sexual act, either real-world or online. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner – the loss of relationship trust. Put very simply, if you’re engaging in any romantic or sexual activity that you’re covering up with lies and secrets, you’re cheating.

Importantly, this definition is flexible depending on the couple. It lets couples define their personalized version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision making. Thus, for some couples it might be acceptable to engage in certain forms of extracurricular sexual activity, as long as both partners have agreed, up front, that this fits within the bounds of their relationship. However, if one person is looking at porn or cruising hookup apps (or whatever) and keeping this behavior secret, or if the partner knows about this behavior but doesn’t find it acceptable within the mutually agreed upon boundaries of the relationship, then infidelity has occurred.