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3 Common Excuses for Cheating (and Why They're Bogus)

... And why every couple needs to draw the line on what counts as infidelity.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Through more than two decades as a psychotherapist specializing in human sexuality and intimacy, I’ve heard just about every excuse imaginable related to infidelity, especially from men.

Regardless of what they have done to violate the boundaries of their marriage, those who cheat will convince themselves that they’re not doing anything wrong, they're not hurting anyone, and that anybody who thinks their behavior is problematic should just back off. When caught, these individuals (again, mostly men) will defend their actions with statements like:

  • What’s the harm in flirting? If I’m not taking these women to bed, I’m not cheating.
  • If my wife isn’t giving me what I want sexually, it’s OK for me to seek it from other women.
  • I’m only looking at porn. That’s not sex. So I’m not cheating.
  • Yes, I’m on Ashley Madison, but I only send texts and swap photos. That’s no different than looking at porn, so I’m not cheating.
  • It’s just a webcam! I’ll never actually meet these women, let alone touch them or have sex with them, so there’s no way this is cheating.
  • When I’m out of town on business, all bets are off. Sex in another state doesn’t count as cheating.
  • Oral sex isn’t really sex, so what I did doesn’t count as cheating.
  • If I’m not in love with the other woman, it’s no different than masturbating, and every guy masturbates, regardless of whether he’s married.

The most difficult part of working with a philandering husband can be getting him to understand and accept that he did cheat—and that even if he doesn’t see it that way, his wife does. And so if he wants to stay married, that's what matters. Rather than accepting blame for undermining trust in their marriage, these men minimize, justify, rationalize, and place blame. In the therapy world, we call this denial.

In this context, denial is a series of internal lies, with each one supported by other lies. To an outside observer, a cheater’s many excuses hold water as well as a leaky sieve. Nevertheless, cheating husbands typically think their logic is flawless. Their willful ignorance can go on for years—at least until the infidelity is discovered, and sometimes beyond that.

Consider, for instance, the infamous statement: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Those words were uttered, in utmost sincerity, by Bill Clinton, a sitting president who convinced himself that oral intercourse didn’t count as actual sex. But he's hardly the only man who’s tried to justify his philandering in this way.

Denial: The Favorites

1. Digital is not real.

Basically, guys go online and look at porn, or play virtual sex games, or flirt and sext, or maybe even mutually masturbate via webcam. Because they haven’t hooked up with anyone "in the flesh," they convince themselves that they’ve remained faithful to their wives. They think that because their behavior took place in the virtual and not the real world, it’s not really cheating.

2. Men must spread their seed.

Another popular excuse centers on the belief that, for a man, it is a biological imperative (or right) to spread one’s seed as widely as possible. The men who use this justification seem to think that if their particular gene pool is cut off, the human race itself will die out. These are the same guys who tend to argue that if they weren’t “emotionally attached” or “in love” with the other woman, then it wasn’t cheating. Essentially, they place their cheating behaviors on the same level as masturbating.

3. It does not hurt anyone if she does not know.

Another major form of denial—one used by almost every guy who cheats—is based on the following lie: “What my wife doesn’t know about can’t possibly hurt her.” This, of course, is totally false. In reality, even when a betrayed wife doesn’t know (at least, not 100 percent) that she’s been cheated on, she is almost certainly aware of emotional (and maybe physical) distancing in her marriage.

In other words, a husband pulls away as part of his attempt to keep his behavior secret, and his wife recognizes this. Sometimes the betrayed wife, not fully understanding what is going on, will internalize blame for this, wondering what it is that she did to cause this rift. If there are kids, they too will notice this distance and wonder why their father is not as available as he used to be. (Sadly, kids are even more likely than wives to think that this is somehow their fault.)

Still Think You’re Not Cheating?

Whatever forms of denial that cheating husbands use, if they cling to the idea that they’ve done nothing wrong, I typically ask them to answer the following question: If your activity does not count as cheating, then why have you been hiding it from your wife?

Of course, most have a pat answer for this: “I don’t want to cause her any pain.” This, of course, is an admission that they realize that if their wife were to find out, trouble would ensue. I gently point this fact out to them, and then mention that their secret-keeping might actually be designed to protect themselves and their illicit behavior.

If and when cheating men are particularly determined to believe their own denial on this particular point, no matter how ridiculous their lies sound to an impartial observer (me), I suggest that maybe they’re right: Maybe what they’ve been doing isn’t cheating and isn’t a problem. Then I suggest that to find out for sure, they should simply tell their wife about what they’ve been doing, holding nothing back. If she doesn’t have a problem with it, then they can continue their behavior with a clean conscience.

Unsurprisingly, nobody takes me up on this.

Why would they? If these men were in a relationship in which they thought their secretive behaviors would be OK with their partner, then they wouldn’t be cheating in the first place. They would act in the open from the start.

Infidelity: What Is It, Really?

Before the Internet, defining sexual infidelity was pretty easy: If a guy was having sex outside of his monogamous relationship, he was cheating. Sometimes therapists had to explain that yes, oral sex still counts as sex (See: Clinton, Bill), as do handjobs, heavy petting, and even just kissing. But in general, men who were stepping out on their wives knew exactly what they were doing, and when their wives found out, they nearly always knew for certain that they’d been cheated on.

However, digital technologies have blurred the once-clear line between monogamy and cheating: Is chatting with an ex-girlfriend on social media cheating? Does the content of those chats matter? Are you cheating if you set up a profile on an infidelity site, like Ashley Madison, even if you never do more than look around? Is masturbating to online pornography a form of cheating? What about if there's a live person at the other end of a webcam?

A few years ago, in an attempt to provide clarity in regard to digital-age sexuality and its place in the cheating spectrum, Jennifer Schneider, Charles Samenow, and I conducted a survey of women whose husbands were engaging in significant amounts of extramarital sexual activity, either online or in the real world. The most interesting and important finding of our study was that when it comes to the negative effects of sex outside a supposedly monogamous relationship, tech-based and real-world sexual activities were no different: To a betrayed partner, lying, emotional distancing, and the pain of learning about the betrayal feel the same, regardless of venue.

The results of this study confirmed what I’ve believed about infidelity for many years: It’s not any specific sexual act that does the most damage to a betrayed partner and a relationship. It's the constant lying, emotional distancing, and loss of trust that hurts. For most betrayed partners, the emotional betrayal associated with sexual infidelity is more painful and longer-lasting than the physical betrayal.

Based on these conclusions, I have formulated the following digital-age definition of cheating:

Infidelity is the breaking of trust that occurs when sexual and/or romantic secrets are deliberately kept from one’s spouse.

One of the reasons I like this definition is that it encompasses both online and in-the-flesh activity, as well as sexual and romantic activities that stop short of intercourse. Further, the definition is flexible, depending on the couple. In other words, it allows you and your partner to define your own version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision making.

This means that it may be acceptable for each of you to look at porn (or engage in some other form of extramarital sexual activity), so long as your partner knows about the behavior and is OK with it. Conversely, if you are looking at porn (or whatever the activity is) and keeping it a secret, or your wife knows about the behavior but doesn’t find it acceptable within the mutually-agreed-upon boundaries of your relationship, then you’re cheating.

So, are you deliberately keeping sexual or romantic secrets from your partner? If so, you are cheating. Period.