The 3 Most Common Ways People Cheat

... and why some partners debate whether they all "count."

Posted Jul 25, 2016

Minerva Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Cheating is cheating in the minds of most people: One person breaks the trust of his or her significant other by secretly engaging in sex outside the relationship. That’s all there is to it.

However, there are many ways to cheat, and some can be more damaging to a primary relationship than others. 

Infidelity typically falls into one of three categories:

  1. Sexploration
  2. Booty calls
  3. Full-blown romantic connections

If you’ve ever cheated, or been cheated on, you will likely recognize your or your partner’s behavior and thought patterns in one (or more) of these categories.

Sexploration

When asked what infidelity looks like, many people envision sexploration, meaning sexual activity with no emotional component or connection. Sexploration involves casual hook-ups, hitting strip clubs, looking at porn, playing the field, anonymous sex, etc. Sometimes people who engage in sexploration think that because the activity doesn’t mean anything to them on an emotional level, they’re not really cheating. In their mind, they're indulging in nothing more than a fun and relaxing diversion from the stress and strain of everyday life, roughly equivalent to mountain climbing, a night at the casino, or a shopping spree. 

Of course, their significant others tend to feel differently. Faithful partners, especially women, usually don’t compartmentalize sex and emotional connection the way sexplorational cheaters do. This is why betrayed partners struggle to understand how the person they love can mentally separate the two elements, viewing extracurricular sex as meaningless from a relationship standpoint. A cheater may insist that his or her behavior wasn't cheating because there was no emotional connection, so there is no reason for the betrayed partner to be upset. But this doesn't register as valid to a person who feels deceived.

Booty Calls

On the emotional connection scale, booty calls are a step up from sexploration, but they are still casual. In this situation, cheaters typically have one, but sometimes several, casual sex partners who they see when it's convenient. These ongoing relationships are almost entirely sexual. There may be the occasional dinner and show before going to bed, but the emotional intimacy is purely superficial, with the relationship based primarily on sex. In some cases, there might be an element of friendship, where the two parties know the basics about one another, but that’s about it. And usually both parties are aware that the sex is not exclusive, and that one (or both) are in a long-term, supposedly monogamous relationship. 

Booty call cheaters often try to defend their behavior using the same type of denial as sexplorers: “It wasn’t really cheating, because I never for a moment thought of leaving you.” As with sexploration, in the eyes of the betrayed partner this argument fails, because a non-cheating partner is generally unable to separate sex from emotional bonding. He thinks, “You were having sex with him, and you did it several times—that I know about. So you must have felt some sort of attraction or connection that you don’t feel with me. Otherwise, why would you bother doing it?”

Full-Blown Romantic Connections

Full-blown romantic connections are exactly what they sound like—two people who feel love and have an emotional bond, who engage in an emotional and sexual affair. This type of relationship often begins unintentionally. Often, happily partnered people go about their daily lives, being nice to others and making friends without worrying too much about what those friends look like, when suddenly and unexpectedly, a platonic friendship blossoms into something more. 

Emotionally connected affairs tend to feel more potent to both the cheater and the cheated-on partner. The betrayal feels more severe and more damage is done to the primary relationship. After all, this type of cheating involves more than just sex and secrets: There is an emotional shift away from the primary partner toward the affair partner. The more deeply the cheater connects with the other person, the further away the cheater moves from his or her mate, both emotionally and physically. This is true no matter how strongly the cheater denies this, and the longer an emotional affair lasts, the more ingrained this shift becomes.

When discussing emotionally connected affairs, some therapists use “walls and windows” as a descriptive analogy. Dr. Shirley Glass explains this concept in her book, Not Just Friends:

“You can have intimacy in your relationship only when you are honest and open about the significant things in your life. When you withhold information and keep secrets, you create walls that act as barriers to the free flow of thoughts and feelings that invigorate your relationship. But when you open up to each other, the window between you allows you to know each other in unfiltered, intimate ways.”

With emotionally connected affairs, the cheating partner builds walls where there should be windows, cutting off his or her significant other. And with his or her affair partner, the cheater creates windows where there should be walls. Over time, cheaters find themselves turning to the other man or woman to work through fears, meet emotional needs, and resolve confusing moments. They become as emotionally connected with their affair partner as with their mate. As one relationship grows stronger, the other fades. 

Can You Really Hide Infidelity? 

Men and women who cheat are usually not fooling their significant others as completely as they think. Although their long-term partner may not know exactly what the cheater is up to, he or she will almost certainly sense that something is amiss, even in cases where the cheating is purely sexual in nature. Spouses (and kids) sense the distancing that infidelity creates, perceiving that the cheater is not as present—either physically or emotionally—as in the past. When this occurs, they ask questions like:

  • Didn’t you say you’d be home right after work tonight? Why are you so late? How am I supposed to plan an evening when I never know when you’ll be home?
  • You seem really distant lately. Is something bothering you? Do you want to talk about it?
  • Lately you’re more interested in your work than in us. Have I done something to upset you that makes you want to avoid me?
  • We used to talk about everything and now we don’t. Are you angry with me? Is there something you need from me that you’re not getting?
  • You tell me that you’re working late on a project, but that makes me feel uneasy. Is that really what you’re doing? 

Curious spouses sometimes engage in detective work, typically after they’ve asked questions like the ones above and been stonewalled. In such cases, cheated-on partners will look at bank accounts and credit cards, drive past the cheater’s workplace (or wherever else he or she is supposed to be at any given time), look through wallets and purses, go through browser histories, and check phones for apps, texts, photos, and anything else that might reveal information. Significant others who “complain” and “invade privacy” in these ways are typically more in touch with reality than their cheating partners think. 

When infidelity is finally officially uncovered, as it nearly always is, the pain experienced by the betrayed partner is immense, regardless of the type of cheating. Admittedly, a one-time lap dance while the cheater was away on business can be a lot easier to forgive than an ongoing emotional affair, but there is still plenty of pain and suffering. Either way, relationship trust is decimated, and without a great deal of effort and ongoing honesty, it won’t be restored.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including the forthcoming volume, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-By-Step Relationship Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating. For more information please visit his website or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW