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What is infidelity anyway?

“He cheated on me!”

We all know what that means!  Or do we?

So, what IS infidelity really? To some people, infidelity has a clear boundary: Either my partner had sex with someone else or he (or she) didn’t. End of story.

But at some level, we all know that infidelity is not quite so easily characterized. 

There actually are several types of infidelity:

  • sexual infidelity,
  • emotional infidelity, and
  • cognitive infidelity. 

When you are in the early stages of a relationship, it is a good idea, in a serious moment, for you and your partner to talk about what you each mean by infidelity. 

Do you mean the same thing? Do you both consider emotional cheating as infidelity? What about cognitive infidelity? If you disagree, you may encounter trouble later on if one of you believes he or she is being loyal while the other looks at what is going on as cheating.

But ultimately, what constitutes infidelity is very much an individual and, more importantly, joint decision. 

So, let's have a look at the different types of infidelity.


Sexual Infidelity

This one might seem the most straightforward.  But even sexual infidelity is not always clear-cut. For most people, sexual intercourse is clearly a boundary line. But what about kissing?  Petting?  Oral intercourse? 

Even with these things, there is variation.  There is a difference between a peck on the cheek and a French kiss. 

Context also matters.  That peck on the cheek may be a quick peck in passing, or it may be a pass!  You need to discuss with your partner what counts as out of bounds.

Boundary-stretching (or breaking) sexual behavior itself falls into six categories.  For some people the category matters; for others, it doesn't.

1. The Serial Philanderer

The philanderer is always on the make.  Philanderers are always looking out for sexual opportunities—at work, at leisure, and anything in-between. 

They are hard to deal with because they are collectors—they collect sexual partners just like others collect, say, stamps. 

People with a collector story in relationships are very difficult to change.  They tend to be opportunistic, and even if they make a New Year’s resolution to change, they are likely to go back to philandering when opportunities present themselves. 

You want to find out as soon as possible if you are with a philanderer.  Part of the fun for many of them is keeping things under wraps, so don’t expect them to tell you outright, even if you ask. 

You may have to look for the usual signs—unexplained absences, absences with sketchy explanations, obvious sexual excitement in the presence of potential sexual partners other than yourself, lame excuses for being late home for work, and so forth.  Often, philanderers have a reputation, and asking around can be a good way to find out if that is what you are dealing with.

2. The Incidental Active One-night Stander

Not everyone who ends up having sex with someone other than you, their partner, is a serial philanderer.  Incidental active one-night standers, will take advantage of an opportunity for a one-night stand when it arrives but will not necessarily actively seek out such opportunities whenever they can find or create them.

People are at a party; they are drunk or high; they are looking for action; and, well, they look at this as an opportunity not to be wasted.  But without the supportive context, they are not on the prowl. 

3. The Incidental Passive One-night Stander

The incidental passive one-night stander is not looking for action, so to speak, but accepts it when someone else makes the first move, or maybe, the first, second, and third moves.  They just do not have the willpower to resist. 

people toasting to each other at partyMaybe they allow themselves to get drunk and thereby to lower their inhibitions.  Or maybe they just find the potential partner too attractive to pass up.  But if they are pushed, they go with the flow and the glow.

Sometimes, passive one-night standers put up some minimal resistance. They may use that resistance to tell themselves, or others, that they really tried to resist.  If things go downhill later, they may even claim they were coerced into sex.  

4. The Avenger

Avengers are angry.  They may or may not be actively looking for an affair.  But they are frustrated and fed up with their partners and they are looking, perhaps not even consciously, for some way of evening a score. 

Equity theory says that individuals generally want equity in their relationships—they want to get back roughly in proportion to what they give.  Of course, there are people who are consistent givers and also others who are inveterate takers, but for the most part, people want and expect things to even out.  And if they perceive things as not even, they may try to even things out through an affair or other lapse of fidelity.

Maybe they had a fight with their partner recently and view an infidelity as settling the score; or maybe they have been on a slow burn, feeling for weeks, months, or even years that they are getting a raw deal. An affair may be their way of restoring equity, maladaptive though it may be for the purpose!

5. The Long-termer

Many forms of sexual infidelity, such as those described above, take the form of one-night or perhaps two-night stands.  But not all forms display this way.

Sometimes, outside relationships are long-term and they even may be relationships that started before your relationship with your partner. 

In this case, you may not have known about the relationship, or you may have known about it and thought it was over.  No doubt, Princess Diana thought the relationship of her husband (Prince Charles) with Camilla Parker Bowles was over, except for the minor detail that it wasn’t! 

Long-term side relationships are those that most threaten your relationship with your partner, especially if they started before you even committed to your partner.  

People can have many different excuses for such relationships.

They may be polyamorous (believing in love of more than one partner at a time) or they may believe that in their particular case, they get different things from each partner. 

They may not even view the partner as a threat at all.  A person may have a lover over a period of time but not view the lover as, in any way, marriage material or material for a primary committed relationship. 

The problem is that, when those relationships are secret, it may be difficult to convince one’s partner that the other relationship is not a threat.

6. The Victim

And finally, there is the victim.  The victim was forced into sex and had no choice.  They may have resisted, or they may have been too cowed to resist.  But they did not voluntarily consent to sexual activity.  And they do not deserve blame but rather sympathy and compassion. 

In some cultures, people who have been thus exploited are blamed for their having been victimized.  This tells us not about the victim but rather about the sick culture of victim-blaming and shaming.


Emotional Infidelity

Emotional cheating can take many forms.  It need not, and often does not, involve sex at all. 

Moreover, sexual infidelity does not necessarily imply any level of emotional attachment.  Sexual and emotional infidelity may go together, but they don't have to.  

People sometimes are only vaguely aware of their committing emotional infidelity.  They may view themselves as totally loyal to their partner, at the same time that they feel emotionally attached, perhaps deeply, to someone else. 

That someone else does not have to be someone they meet with on the side.  It may be someone at work, but it also may be someone with whom they correspond over the Internet or, for that matter, via snail mail.  It even may be someone with whom they have not been in touch for a long time but for whom they feel deep emotions, despite the passage of time.

Not every close friendship with someone of the opposite (or same) sex outside one’s principal partnership constitutes infidelity, obviously. 

couple having coffee togetherThe problem is that the line is often blurry and wavy and the slope is slippery.  Sometimes, one finds that an emotional connection creeps up on one, and by the time one notices, one is already drawn in deeply.

We need to watch out for emotional infidelity not only in our partners but also in ourselves.  And we need, early in the relationship, to discuss as best we can what constitutes emotional infidelity.

Emotional infidelity, like sexual infidelity, may be short-term or long-term.  It may occur intensely but briefly over a weekend business trip, or it may occur intensely but continuously over months or years. 

In some societies, such relationships may be expected but in most contemporary societies, they tend to be viewed, at least by many people, as expressive of infidelity.  Once again, you need to decide for yourself.


Cognitive Infidelity

Cognitive infidelity occurs when you keep thinking about someone other than your partner, whether or not you believe you feel anything for them. 

In a series of novels by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling), Robin Ellacott works with a master private detective, Cormoran Strike.  Cormoran Strike is definitely not marriage material.  Robin marries someone else. 

But she finds herself constantly thinking of Strike and it affects her marriage.  She has a cognitive and emotional connection to Strike but probably would not see him as a potential life partner. 

woman daydreamingHowever, if you find yourself greatly admiring someone and thinking a lot about them, you may well find a strong emotional connection as well, whether or not you recognize it. 

Moreover, if you very greatly admire someone, it is at least worth thinking about whether the admiration is taking anything away from your relationship, as was the case for Robin Ellacott. 

At the same time, people may admire Jesus or their pastor or some great scientist, artist, or musician,  without ever coming anywhere close to cognitive infidelity.  Whether it constitutes infidelity is something you and your partner have to work out.


What about fantasies during sex?

Some people have wide-ranging and sometimes vivid thoughts of infidelity during sex.  It’s up to you, but for most people, at least today, such thoughts do not constitute infidelity.  They are a very common part of sex for many people.


The Punchline

Opportunities for infidelity almost always will present themselves, sooner or later.  Discuss with your partner early on what you each mean by infidelity.  Can you come to an agreement?  Can you promise to communicate with each other when someone else enters the picture, in whatever form?  Preparing for future challenges is the best way to head them off before they ever happen.

If you're interested in a theoretical review of infidelity, check out this paper:

Blow, A. J., & Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships II: A substantive review. Journal of marital and family therapy, 31(2), 217-233. 

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