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Mars, Venus, and Infidelity 

Do men and women agree on the definition of infidelity?

Way back in the pre-Internet days, men and women were pretty much in agreement about what constituted infidelity and what did not. If you were sexual or romantic with a person other than your spouse, breaking your vow of monogamy, you were cheating. No confusion there. One partner (most often a wife) occasionally had to explain to the other partner (most often a husband) that things like tucking a buck at a strip club and getting a sensual massage counted as being sexual and were cheating. Other than that, defining and identifying infidelity was a relatively straightforward endeavor. 

Then our world went digital and the line between cheating and being faithful became hazy. Moreover, husbands and wives sometimes seem to have very different opinions on the matter. For instance, men and women often have dissimilar thoughts on the following infidelity-related questions: 

  • If I look at porn for 15 or 20 minutes a few times per week, am I cheating?
  • What if I’m looking at porn for two or three hours, and that’s happening every night?
  • If I look at porn but don’t masturbate to it, does that count as cheating?
  • What if I masturbate while I fantasize about someone I met online instead of you?
  • Is flirting with my childhood sweetheart on Facebook a form of cheating?
  • What if I’m just chatting with people online and not flirting?
  • Is it OK to flirt with strangers on Facebook or other social media?
  • Does it matter if my chat partners live thousands of miles away and I’ll never meet them in real life? 
  • If I have a profile on Ashley Madison or a similar app, does that automatically mean I’ve cheated?
  • If I chat with people on hookup apps and exchange the occasional sext, but we never actually hook up, is that cheating?

The list of gray-area questions could go on and on, and different people will have different answers to each of the queries. In the digital age, individuals think about infidelity in varying ways: What you perceive as infidelity, your partner might view as a harmless.

In recognition of this, a recent study looked at differences in gender and interpersonal character traits and how these factor into a person’s perception of infidelity. The research team surveyed 354 undergraduate psychology students, a mix of men and women ranging in age from 18 to 50. Participants answered questions about whether they would perceive specific sexual and romantic behaviors as cheating, as well as questions focusing on three specific character traits—communion, fear of intimacy, and rejection sensitivity. These terms were defined as follows: 

  • Communion refers to a person’s desire to form and maintain supportive interpersonal relationships. 
  • Fear of intimacy refers to a person’s tendency to refrain from sharing personal thoughts and feelings, and to not fully commit to a partner. 
  • Rejection sensitivity refers to an anxious expectation of rejection by a partner regarding dating, love, and long-term commitment. 

Women typically scored higher in communion than men, indicating that they are generally more desirous of mutually supportive interpersonal connections. Scores on fear of intimacy and rejection sensitivity were not affected by gender.

People who scored higher on communion (more likely to be women than men) were more likely to perceive various acts as infidelity. People who scored higher on fear of intimacy (a trait shared equally across genders) were less likely to perceive infidelity in a variety of scenarios. Rejection sensitivity (another trait shared equally across genders) did not register as significant in perceiving infidelity.

Overall, the study found that women are more likely to perceive infidelity than men, which appears linked to the higher value they place on communion. A man might think that looking at porn for 15 or 20 minutes a few times per week is not a big deal, but his female partner could very easily feel differently. This is why men often characterize female spouses as “reactive” or “unreasonable” about things like porn: Males typically don’t view this behavior as cheating but women often do. 

How can a person adequately and fully define infidelity in our modern, increasingly digital, and increasingly confusing age? 

It’s not that hard. The definition of infidelity I have used for several years is relatively simple: Infidelity is the breaking of trust that occurs when sexual and/or romantic secrets are deliberately kept from your primary romantic partner. I like this definition because the focus is less on specific acts and more on the loss of trust created by the secrets and lies that surround those acts. I also favor this definition because it acknowledges that it’s typically not just any sexual or romantic behavior that does the relationship damage; rather, it’s the constant deception and the emotional distancing. 

This means that if you engage in any romantic or sexual activity that you cover up with secrets and lies, you’re engaging in infidelity. Period. 

Please note: This definition is flexible depending on the couple. Moreover, it encourages communication between partners about what is and is not acceptable behavior within their relationship. Couples that use this definition of infidelity, if they are willing to talk freely and openly about sexual and romantic issues, can define their own version of fidelity. So in some relationships certain behaviors would qualify as cheating, while other couples would view the exact same actions as just fine.

Depending on the couple, it might be OK to engage in certain forms of extracurricular sexual activity, as long as both partners have previously agreed that this behavior is acceptable within the bounds of their relationship. However, if one person is looking at porn and keeping this behavior secret, or if their partner knows about this behavior and doesn’t find it acceptable within the mutually agreed upon boundaries of the relationship, then infidelity has occurred. Relationship trust will be damaged, and the spouse will feel betrayed. 

Cheating is less about sexual behavior and more about secrets, lies, and the resulting loss of relationship trust. As the research discussed above suggests, anyone who values communion in their relationship will generally want tighter boundaries than many men and those who place less emphasis on communion. But this does not mean that there are any right or wrong ways to approach infidelity in your relationship. Each person is different and each relationship is different, so each couple’s mutually-agreed-upon definition of infidelity will also be different. 

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Nation  al 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 Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction and a forthcoming volume about surviving relationship infidelity, 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.