What is cheating?
In a study I conducted with John DeLamater (U-WI, Madison), we surveyed monogamous couples, couples where one or both spouses had secret or nonconsensual outside sexual relationships (‘secret cheaters’), and couples with consensually nonmonogamous relationships (polyamorists, swingers, and those with ‘open’ relationships). Because we were interested in what people defined as cheating, we created a list of behaviors to ask people about: sexual intercourse, oral sex, making out, kissing, phone sex or cybersex, fantasizing about other partners, pornography, strip clubs, dinner when there could be erotic interest, falling in love, long-term sexual relationship, close opposite sex friendship, paying for sexual services, and loaning money.
Although individuals in every relationship type delineated between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, we found that monogamous participants defined more potential interactions and activities as “cheating.” They were also more likely to define behaviors without actual physical contact as cheating—fantasies about sex with others, visiting strip clubs, and pornography use, for example. Many “secret cheaters” also considered intercourse, oral sex, and paid sex as cheating but were somewhat less likely to define non-penetrative sexual activities as cheating than monogamous participants. Individuals in alternative relationships, as one would expect, found more situations and activities potentially acceptable than the other two groups.
Couples were also asked if there were any qualifying conditions that would lead them to change their mind about whether a given behavior was cheating. Would it make a difference if the outside partner is the same sex? What if the spouse was included in the behavior? What if the behavior was kept secret? Monogamous people were less likely to see ‘gray areas’ with regard to cheating. Individuals in alternative relationships may be more sensitive to such nuances for a variety of reasons, especially because of the lack of social norms for handling consensual nonmonogamy. These individuals were also more likely to discuss these issues with their spouses ahead of time.
All three groups, however, disliked the idea of secrecy, reflecting the contemporary emphasis on self-disclosure as a reflection of intimacy in relationships. Repeatedly in the literature on infidelity, researchers argue that it is not necessarily the sex but the lying that causes the feelings of betrayal in the spouse or partner.
Does this mean you should run out and tell your partner everything about your past transgressions? The advice is mixed. Some therapists and researchers suggest confessions may benefit the confessor, relieving feelings of guilt and anxiety, rather than benefiting the betrayed spouse in any manner. For others, honesty is the best policy, regardless of the outcome.
A better answer for contemporary couples, perhaps, is to discuss the boundaries of your relationship regularly and thoroughly before troubles arise. Talk about what different types of behavior mean to each of you. Open discussion about what each person feels is acceptable or not, what types of activities might be experimented with, and how transgressions should be handled if they occur is not a cure for infidelity, but may help you manage both your own boundaries and the expectations of your spouse.
*Some of this research appears in “Deconstructing Monogamy: Boundaries, Identities, and Fluidities Across Relationships” with John DeLamater (2009) in Understanding Non-Monogamies (Barker & Landridge 2009)