Imagine... you’ve just started college and you and your boyfriend have been spending less time together. In part, it’s because you’re both busier. But... he’s also been hanging out with this girl in his class. He insists they’re just friends and that they study well together. You believe him and don’t actually think they’re having sex.
Even so... the fact that they’re so close makes you uncomfortable. You can’t help but feel that on some level, he’s cheating on you. When you talk to him about it, he doesn’t understand. Nothing physical has happened between them, he says, so it’s not cheating.
What counts as cheating?
What counts as cheating – and what doesn’t – is something a team of Canadian researchers were curious about. Past research had looked at obvious things like having sex with someone other than a partner. But there were major gaps when it came to other behaviours that could be considered unfaithful, like developing a strong emotional connection with someone else or spending tons of time with them online. Or what about checking someone out across the room? Or watching porn?
To get a better understanding of what counts as cheating for most people, the researchers rounded up over 1300 men and women and had them fill in a cheating survey. The survey had a long list of behaviours on it that people might see as unfaithful. These included everything from having full-on intercourse with someone else, to watching movies in the dark with them, or just ‘liking’ a person on Facebook.
For each behaviour, the participants were asked to think of a current or past partner (or a potential partner if they hadn’t yet been in a relationship) and rank the behaviour on a scale from one (not at all unfaithful) to seven (very unfaithful). The researchers then tallied up the rankings and grouped the results.
Four ways to cheat (or not?)
1. The sex cheat
Anything involving sex, including intercourse and oral, was considered cheating by most participants. Showering with someone else or smooching also ranked pretty highly on the list. The researchers grouped these kinds of behaviours together under the ‘sexual/explicit’ category. Not surprisingly, most people agreed that if a partner got up to something like this, they were cheating.
2. The buddy cheat
When it came to ‘emotional/affectionate’ behaviour, like sharing secrets with someone or going out for a casual dinner or a formal event, there was less agreement among the participants. Unlike sex, these behaviours can be pretty ambiguous, say the researchers.
It’s hard to know if two people are just close friends or if there’s something more going on.
3. The cyber cheat
A third kind of cheating included things that happen via gadgets like cell phones or online. For example, creating an online dating profile or masturbating with someone over a webcam, are not the kinds of things people tend to want their partners to be doing. These behaviours are regarded as cheating to the same extent as similar offline behaviours, the researchers point out. So to do sending sexually explicit or affectionate texts.
4. The solo cheat
Finally, some people feel that a partner can cheat all on their own. Masturbating solo counts, and watching porn or checking out a waiter/waitress might too. For them, a partner could be unfaithful if they are aroused by or attracted to someone else, even if they never act on their feelings. But the person could also say it’s a question of their partner doing things in secret, explain the researchers.
Set your cheating boundaries
Interestingly, there wasn’t a single behaviour that got a top score of ‘very unfaithful’ from everybody. So even things most people see as cheating – like intercourse – aren’t considered ‘very unfaithful’ for everyone. The opposite was also true: no behaviour was given the lowest unfaithfulness ranking by all participants, which means that some people even think it’s cheating if a partner finds a celebrity attractive.
Since people have such different ideas about what counts as cheating, the take-home message of this research might very well be to get your feelings out on the table, say the researchers. So if study sessions with a friend feel like cheating to you, don’t assume they do to your partner too. It’s important to talk to your partner about what you both feel it means to be faithful.
Reference: Thompson, A.E. & O'Sullivan, L.F. (2016). Drawing the Line: The Development of a Comprehensive Assessment of Infidelity Judgments. J Sex Res. 53(8):910-26.