Reframing Infidelity: What Counts as Cheating?

Earlier this month I reached out to my readers and my friends and I asked them to tell me about a time that they were unfaithful. I encouraged them to use my definition of infidelity: anything you did that you wouldn’t have wanted to tell your partner about.

When I ask people about a time they were unfaithful, using this description, most people have something that comes to mind immediately. I am very appreciative of everyone who took the time to message me their stories to be quoted in this post ❤️

I wrote a paper on infidelity and it was thrilling, guys.

I wrote my senior thesis on infidelity. Specifically, I wrote about a theme of guilt that appears in stories women tell about being unfaithful, and how that guilt is gendered. I found that women experienced guilt before, during, and after infidelity in ways that felt unique because they were women.


Guilt before infidelity: Women felt guilty that they couldn’t hold their marriage together. There is a lot of implied responsibility for women to provide the emotional structure of a relationship. If needs aren’t being met they may be called needy or greedy or over-attached. Women expressed guilt over their inability to “just be happy with what they had” even if what they had was a loveless, emotionless relationship.

Guilt during infidelity: Women felt guilty in ways that fell deeply inline with the virgin/whore dichotomy. They believed that the physical act of being unfaithful made them less than they had been before. Many women expressed guilt at wanting to feel good during sex. This is echoed in a lot of poor sexual education that does not encourage women to put their pleasure first (or even explain to women what pleasure is.)

Guilt after infidelity: Women felt guilty for disrupting the narrative of the happy home. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to hold their relationship together even if their male partner was not putting in similar effort. At times that weight was magnified if they had children, a large conservative family, or if they were active in a church.

Why infidelity, and what now?

I wanted to write about infidelity because it’s a subject that not many people talk about openly and honestly. Most of the time it’s a conversation that gets shut down by someone saying “if you do it, you’re a bad person, and you just shouldn’t do it.” It didn’t make sense to me that everyone who cheated was this archetype villain who set out to hurt the person that they loved. Everyone in my immediate friend group had a story about being unfaithful. So where was the in-between?

In my thesis I focused on physical infidelity. Not all infidelity is physical. Referring back to my definition at the top, infidelity is anything you wouldn’t want to tell your partner about. We’re all adults here and we can navigate that definition in ways that make sense to us. I’m not talking about surprise parties or that time you went into the other room to fart.

The goal of my research, and my continued interest in infidelity, is to open up some discourse on infidelity.

If we learn more about how infidelity occurs, we can better prevent it from happening.

The Starting Emotion

There is typically a starting emotion that occurs prior to infidelity. Someone who is in a long-term committed monogamous relationship doesn’t just walk into someone else’s penis by accident. There is almost always a fault. The crack in the ceiling.

Some starting emotions from the submissions I received:

  • I was with an abusive guy in a controlling relationship. I had been with him since I was 18 and he made me desperately unhappy.
  • His needs always came first and he gave no interest to what made me feel good.
  • [My fiancé] never partied and didn’t like that I did, so by matter of association,  I felt like I couldn’t be myself with him.
  • I felt as though I had been pulled into the relationship either by pressure, security or comfort.
  • I didn’t feel super happy with the relationship but I didn’t want to break up either.
  • I realized that I was compromising all of the time for him but he would never compromise for me. Being unhappy was so normal that I started to forget I was unhappy.
  • This guy at work was showing me attention that I felt I hadn’t gotten in a long time.
  • He moved away and started relying on new friends to help him through the tough times instead of his partner. I didn’t feel appreciated anymore.
  • I shared with him only the happy me, the one that he met that night at the party.
  • I didn’t realize I wasn’t myself around my boyfriend until I found someone I could be myself around. After that all I saw was how little my boyfriend tried to relate to me.

In previous posts I’ve written about the starting emotion as being unhappiness. In most of these examples, it’s easy to pull out that sense of unhappiness. Usually it’s reflected in some kind of need not being met. Often it has something to do with not knowing exactly what is wrong but feeling a sense of wrongness.

We aren’t taught how to deal with these feelings and often they can feel like a normal part of a relationship. While they are common, they should not be normal.

The Opportune Moment

Following this moment of unhappiness, or realization that some need is not met, an opportunity presents itself.

Some examples of opportunities from the submissions I received:

  •  I was at a friend of a friend’s house (with the friend) and sex came up.
  •  It was one summer in high school- I attended two summer programs, back to back.
  • I met a guy at a party, and we hit it off really well.
  • There was one particular coworker that caught my eye.
  • I found myself befriending and becoming infatuated with someone I worked with.
  • I met a new friend and we immediately clicked.
  • On my 21st birthday a friend threw a huge house party “for me” and invited about 50 people that I didn’t know.
  • We would go to this karaoke bar and dance and sing the night away and he would drive me home, kissing my cheek when he dropped me off.

Dim the lights and shine the flashlight up your face because this is the scariest part of all. The opportune moment is basically happening all the time. It’s sitting in a car with someone. It’s being at the same party. It’s working in the same office. It’s anything that puts you into close proximity with someone else.

A lot of people understand that this is how infidelity begins and they cope with this by becoming absolutely over-the-top controlling. You can’t see her! You can’t talk to her! I’m going to go into your account and block all the women!

Bless their hearts. They’re doing it all wrong.

Controlling what someone does isn’t going to make them faithful. It’s only going to make them resentful.

Every couple should define their own boundaries together, and as your relationship goes along you may create new ones when you find a situation makes you uncomfortable. You can’t never go to work, never meet other people, or never go to a party. And you shouldn’t avoid these situations. Meeting new people and engaging with new people is fun. And it’s what I think is an important part of a functional relationship. A good support system is critical.

And, anyways, the opportune moment can’t operate on it’s own. If you put someone in a happier, more adjusted relationship into any of these situations, they’re going to come out the other end much differently.

Turning Opportunity into Apocalypse

This is the singular moment when the door of opportunity opens up and you put your dumb dumb foot in:

  • You’re at a party and your significant other is getting tired. They’re ready to leave but they want you to stay and have a good time. Instead of calling it quits early, you take them up on the suggestion, and get yourself another drink. There’s a guy that you think is really cute and he’s sitting alone so you take the opportunity to get to know him a little better. Ten minutes into the conversation you find yourself with your legs draped over him, wildly gesticulating about how funny he is. You go home and tell your s/o that it was a pretty boring night after they left.
  • You’re sitting with your co-worker talking after work and you decide to get drinks. You feel a strong sense of chemistry. You want to keep talking to her because she’s making you smile and it’s lighting up this energy you haven’t felt in a long time. You text your s/o to tell them that you’ll be home later because you’re getting drinks with work friends, a lie through omission.

This is the landing zone for infidelity. You’re clearly doing something that you don’t want to tell your s/o about. You’re also opening the tiny little slit of opportunity and making it worse on purpose.

For a lot of people, this New Relationship Energy is what drives the opportune moment past the breaking point. New Relationship Energy (NRE) is that giddy excited feeling you get when you start connecting with someone new. It’s that sense of chemistry.

If you’re in a long term relationship, you may not have a lot of NRE. It fades over time and it might require a little more to get the same buzz. A sustainable long term relationship, I think, depends a lot on committing yourself to reviving that NRE over and over again.

But when you catch yourself in this moment, with this new person, and you feel that feeling, you may not even realize that it was gone. All you’ll know is that you want a quick fix. And if you go back again for a second fix, you might start to question yourself. Do I feel this way because I love this person? Do I feel this way because I don’t love my person? 

Constantly chasing NRE is a really easy way to avoid the real work and responsibility of a monogamous relationship.

After this point things can go a couple different ways. No relationship is the same and no infidelity is the same. Maybe the girl who threw her legs over the guys legs ends up kissing him that night. Maybe the boy who goes to get drinks with his co-worker sleeps over and lies about a late night video game marathon with the boys. Maybe they realize what a terrible decision it was and maybe they keep chasing that feeling.

This should be a book

There are so many things I’m leaving out. Boundaries vary. Relationships vary. Some people are poly. Some people are open. Some people never talk about boundaries. Some people are in healthy relationships and infidelity happens. Some people are unhealthy relationships and infidelity happens. Sometimes infidelity is the way out. Sometimes they never tell. Sometimes they do. Most people seem to feel really, really bad when it happens. Even when they shouldn’t. (A whole section of my thesis was about how even physically or sexually abused women feel guilt for cheating on their abusers. I won’t tell anyone how to feel, but I think there should be some serious absolution here.)

What I’m pretty sure any infidelity does have in common are these two factors: a sense of unhappiness or some kind of need not being met, and an opportune moment.

For some people, flirting is no big deal. Am I going to smile extra hard at the barista when I’m in a good mood and hope they throw some extra shots of espresso in? Uh, maybe. But my intent isn’t to get in their pants. It’s to get a good buzz. Equally I feel no discontent in my partner throwing his charms for a mood boost.

But there are other circumstances, and you’ll know them when you find them.

They make you feel dark and grey inside. You know they are wrong and you’ll wonder how you managed to find yourself there to begin with.

Better understanding yourself and how to handle these situations could, in the long run, prevent something unfortunate from happening. 

Learning to take your unhappiness seriously can also help prevent infidelity.

It’s easy when you’re in a long term relationship to push aside feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction as just a normal part of a relationship. If you’ve been in a consistently unhappy relationship where you constantly feel like you are putting in more work than your partner is, that’s cause for concern.

Take your unhappiness seriously. If your relationship has a blister, don’t go walking around on it all day. Talk to your partner about the things that are concerning you. Talk to your partner about what you want your relationship to look like.

Finally, don’t tell your partner you’ll never cheat on them. Because that’s what everyone says, and it still fucking happens. What I find much more realistic, and much more romantic, is committing to your partner that you will always be truthful to them, you will always be honest with them, and you will always confront difficulties in your relationship together, as a team. To me, that’s essentially the same thing as saying “I’ll never cheat on you.” But, it also encourages you to break down what cheat means and discuss the pre-infidelity-vibes when they start to happen.

Do you have a question about sex or love? Submit now and I’ll answer it on my blog! Want to read more of what I’ve written on infidelity? Click the #infidelity tag on this post!

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