What Constitutes Cheating In Your Romantic Relationship?

I was delighted recently to see that Freethought Blogs has made the excellent decision to bring on board Miriam Mogilevsky of Brute Reason. Here is a very good post she made a couple weeks back about why there can be no universal definition of cheating:

If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner.

Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one. In monogamous relationships, most people take the “default” definition of cheating, which includes any sort of sexual contact with someone else. But even then, what about flirty Facebook messages? What about “emotional cheating,” when you have feelings for someone else (even if you don’t act on them)? Some people count these things as cheating; others don’t.

Monogamous relationships can have a lot of wiggle room, too. I’ve known many couples in which one partner is straight and the other is bisexual, and the straight partner doesn’t mind if the bisexual partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s just hooking up). Long-distance relationships can also have certain “rules” for what the partners can do while they’re apart.

In non-monogamous relationships, there’s an even greater variety of configurations and definitions of cheating. Some couples restrict which types of sexual acts they can do outside of the primary relationship, or they specify that sex without barriers outside of that relationship would be cheating. Some people form triads or group marriages and forbid all sexual contact outside of that established group. Some decide that you can only hook up outside of the relationship at certain events or in particular spaces, or if your primary partner is present and either watching or participating.

Meanwhile, in other non-monogamous relationships–for instance, mine–the boundaries aren’t about specific acts or people, but rather about communication. If my partner or I act secretively about other people we’re seeing, we’re cheating. If we’re not considerate to each other in terms of making plans with those other people, we’re cheating.

Read More. I speculated about reasons to question monogamy in this post.

Miriam’s whole blog is filled with great stuff on important topics, so I recommend scroll through her back pages. I particularly liked that she wrote a piece against calling faith a mental illness. That’s how she first caught my attention and appreciation. Bookmark her blog.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • mikmik

    There is no relationship that is not problematic.

    • http://themerelyreal.wordpress.com Chana Messinger

      What do you mean by that?

  • smrnda

    I totally agree that the person you need to be consulting is your partner and not a magazine. That point is similar to my critique of how religions and Christianity in particular handles marriage – people are told to read books, consult clergy, and get advice or mentoring in same-sex discipleship groups, but communication is never really stressed; instead, it’s about finding a formula, and then interpreting the relationship for signs that tell you it’s working. (Note – my experience here is mostly reading books and a stint where I attended an evangelical church for a few months. It was a shock to me since though Christians clearly value marriage, they don’t seem to emphasize couples working things out on their own, but advocate less-effective means.)

    On cheating, people have different standards, and no two relationships or two people are the same. I’ve known of people who made open relationships work and though I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, I can’t say it’s not workable.

    People should really figure out what the other person expects early in a relationship and then keep making sure to be updated since feelings change over time.

  • Carys Birch

    I’ve been hoping more people will answer this, I’m quite interested.

    It’s a stretch to even call what I’m involved in a romantic relationship. It’s really at this stage more of an extended long-distance not-entirely-platonic friendship. But even this early we’ve discussed some of this, and currently as it stands, we would *only* consider any dating or sexual activity the other one took outside our involvement with each other a violation of that relationship *if* we didn’t tell the other ahead of time. I’ve been relatively content with just him. He’s done some casual dating. He recognizes that our involvement with each other is intimate enough to require that degree of communication. I recognize that it is not intimate enough to require exclusivity.

    So far so good.


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