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So You Think You Weren’t Cheating?

Why do so many cheaters insist they’re not cheating?

Shutterstock, tommaso79
Source: Shutterstock, tommaso79

Eduardo is a 38-year-old married father of two. Ten years ago, he discovered online porn. His sex life with his wife had diminished after their daughters were born, so porn seemed like a great alternative. When feeling horny, he didn’t have to bug his wife for sex. Instead, he could go online, find some videos, and take care of things on his own. He also started chatting with women on social media and dating/hookup apps, occasionally engaging in mutual masturbation via webcam. But he never met with or had sex with another woman in-person.

A few months ago, Eduardo’s wife uncovered his secret world of online activities when she borrowed his phone and found the apps and videos on it. She was incredibly angry and accused him of infidelity. Eduardo, however, insisted that he’d never cheated because all he’d ever done was look at porn and chat online.

Often, one of the most difficult aspects of helping someone who’s in trouble for cheating is getting that person to view infidelity for what it is. This is especially likely when the dalliance has occurred either mostly or entirely online. As our lives have become increasingly digital, the once relatively clear line between monogamy and cheating has blurred. Consider Eduardo:

  • Is online porn a form of cheating?
  • Does chatting on social media count as infidelity? What if that chat takes on a romantic or sexual tone?
  • What about chatting on dating/hookup apps? Does it matter if you don’t (and never plan to) meet in person?

Of course, Eduardo’s questions are just the tip of the sexology iceberg. Others include:

  • Does sexting with someone other than your partner count as cheating?
  • Is chatting with an ex on social media or apps a form of cheating?
  • What about erotic stories and sexualized fan fiction?
  • Does it matter if you don’t masturbate while you use porn or while you watch another person strip and/or masturbate via webcam?
  • Does the amount of porn you use matter?
  • What if you have hookup apps on your phone but never interact with anyone?

Honestly, the list of digital scenarios in which one partner views the behavior as cheating when the other partner does not is relatively endless. Because of this, countless couples, as we see with Eduardo and his wife, find themselves struggling to define the line between fidelity and infidelity.

Faced with this question in the early stages of the tech boom, Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Dr. Charles Samenow, and I conducted a survey of women whose husbands were engaging in extramarital romantic and/or sexual activity, either online or in the real world. The most important finding of our research was that when it comes to the negative effects of one partner being romantic or sexual outside a supposedly monogamous relationship, tech-based and in-the-flesh behaviors are no different. The lying, the secrets, the emotional distancing, and the pain of learning about the betrayal feel exactly the same to the betrayed partner.

The results of this study confirmed my long-standing belief that it’s not any specific sexual act that does the most damage to betrayed partners and relationships; instead, it’s the loss of relationship trust. Recognizing this, I now use the following definition of infidelity:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.

One of the reasons I like this definition is it encompasses both online and real-world romantic and sexual activity, as well as sexual and romantic activities that stop short of full-blown intercourse. Basically, if you’re engaging in any type of sexual or romantic behavior and you’re keeping this behavior secret from your primary partner, you’re cheating.

In the example that opens this article, Eduardo, because he was keeping his porn use, app use, and webcam behaviors secret, was cheating. In therapy, when he still insisted that there was nothing wrong with his behavior, I asked, “If you weren’t worried that your wife would get angry and accuse you of infidelity, then why were you lying and keeping secrets to cover up?”

That was a question Eduardo was unable to answer. Eventually, after several more sessions, Eduardo admitted that yes, he’d cheated, and he began to work on developing empathy for the pain he’d caused his wife and the damage he’d done to his relationship. As he did this work, he started using “what my wife would think” as his barometer for acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior, recognizing that his own barometer was broken. Whenever he felt tempted to return to his previous behaviors, he would ask himself, “If my wife could see me right now, how would she feel about my behavior?”

Today, Eduardo is working to slowly rebuild trust with his wife by engaging in a program of rigorous honesty in all aspects of life. His mantra: “Tell the truth and tell it faster.” At the same time, he and his wife are working to overcome the damage caused by his betrayal and to rebuild both emotional and sexual intimacy. Both are hopeful that their relationship can survive.