Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are you sure you didn't do anything wrong? Would your partner agree?

You might think that what cheating is would be obvious. You might think that what an orgasm is would be obvious too, but that isn’t always so either . (See an earlier essay…).

Dancing with someone other than one’s partner is perceived by some as cheating while actual sex with someone else may not be to others. Then there are those activities that are flirtatious and/or sexual in nature that take place online, not in real life at all. No flesh was touched. Yet online chat rooms and dating sites and their use is a minefield of accusations of infidelity.

If two people in an intimate relationship clearly agree upon their boundaries then either person doing anything outside those defined limits without permission from the other cheats. That could include telling what are supposed to be kept as secrets, spending money from the joint bank account or peeking at the other’s hand at bridge. Thinking about sex with another person, talking about sex with another person, and actually having sex with another person all could be defined as sexual infidelity but are not necessarily so in and of themselves.

Over the years I have heard so many outraged cries from a client, male or female, who feels that they have been wronged by a partner’s actions. I have heard from those very same partners an absolutely sincere version of “Who me? All I did was….”

Many years ago I had a long-term partner who flirted outrageously – with women, men, children, animals. I liked that about him. He saw the appeal in everyone and let them know he appreciated it. After we broke up several well-meaning people confided to me that I was well rid of him, that he cheated on me, made passes at them personally. They were not telling me anything new and nothing that upset me beyond the fact that the ones doing the confiding had so misconstrued him and our relationship. Our relationship was an open one and we had very clear boundaries. I know he didn’t cheat and I did not feel cheated upon.

What happens in other people’s relationships probably is very different. If a partner of mine went to a party and did not talk or dance with others I would feel disappointed because I tend to choose as my intimates those who like to flirt and enjoy that characteristic in me. Were I in the early stages of dating and someone seemed to feel my flirtatious behavior troubled him I would see that as a great big bright red flag to be ignored at my peril.

So are online conversations cheating? Is “paying too much attention” to someone else cheating? What about a “harmless “ kiss? Is there such a thing? Most people don’t define what they feel is improper behavior in a mate until what they feel is a transgression occurs. Then amidst tears and hurt feelings the couple might define their terms.

I strongly suggest that such a discussion take place before the fact. Are you possessive, insecure, jealous? Say so! Do you not mind if your sweetie dates others? Flirts but not dates? Looks but doesn’t touch? Touches , but above the waist only? Do you see what the conversation needs to contain?

Obviously a couple who has only gone out a few times can’t really know every occasion that might feel threatening in the future, but you know yourself. Letting a partner or prospective partner know what is not okay in your book and hearing the other person’s boundaries is an important part of the getting-to-know-you process. If you don’t enjoy looking into a mirror and seeing “A Cheat”, don’t put yourself in the position of looking into a sweetheart’s eyes and seeing “A Cheat” reflected. Know yourself and know the other person’s definitions. Iron out your definition and agreements together before the eventual upset rather than later. If you fail to do so the person you might cheat is yourself.