What Is Cheating?

by Dr. Karen Ruskin on July 26, 2015

For my regular readers, as you know I have written much on the topic of cheating, as well have appeared often on television, radio, and quoted in a variety of print media sharing my tips and perspectives on a wide variety of hot topics as it relates to cheating. Today’s article offers my readers the opportunity to consider what you view as cheating when in a committed relationship, married or unmarried. With the hype of the Ashley Madison hack (the well known on line extramarital hook up site – their motto: “Life is short, have an affair”), certainly as a Marriage Therapist, I wanted to post an article that allows for personal and relational exploration and dialogue for the public with the specific focus on: what is cheating, in YOUR opinion. I hope you find the range of questions below interesting, as you self-confront and consider, what is cheating? 

What is cheating? Is the answer different depending on who you ask?

What if you post your interest in being with someone in a sexual way on a hook up site and then never take the next step? Is that cheating in your opinion? What if you go out for a cup of coffee with a stranger you met online, and then never go out with that person again? What about if you go out with a stranger you met online via a hook up site, for an alcoholic beverage, or for dinner, and then never go out with that person again? Which of those scenarios is cheating? If any? What if in the last two scenarios you enjoyed the conversation with that stranger, but there was no physical touching during the get together? Is cheating defined by you whether there is physical touching or not? Or if there was a hug hello and goodbye is that not considered cheating to you but if there was a kiss on the lips then that is what is cheating to you? Again, I ask; what is cheating?

What if you go for a massage, no, not with a “happy ending”, simply a hired massage where you get a body rub down and find it stimulating physically and a little erotic sexually, is that cheating? Is the difference as to whether you find it sexually arousing or not the difference as to whether a massage is cheating? Or is it just the fact that you were being rubbed by another? Or, is the difference whether you had the same gender or the other gender give you that massage? What if you have an old friend or a newer friend give you a massage over the clothes vs. under the clothes, does that change your perspective as to what is cheating vs. not? Is the difference what parts of the body are touched during the massage as to whether you feel it is cheating vs. not? Is the difference the physicality, or is the difference as to what you define as cheating vs. not based upon what is being experienced emotionally during the massage? How do you define a behavior as cheating vs. not cheating?

Is It Considered Cheating Based On Intent? How And/Or When You Met The Other Gender? Or Is It The Secrecy That Defines The Cheating?

What if you got together with a stranger you met on line and were considering kissing that person, but took no physical action on that thought, is that cheating? What if your intent was simply to cuddle? What if your intent was intercourse? Does your intent in and of itself regardless of whether you took action on your thoughts affect what you view as cheating vs. not? In essence, is cheating determined based on intent? Is cheating based on what the context is in which you know this person? Thus, is meeting a stranger via an on line hook up site cheating because of the implications of the site, vs. if it is someone you know in a different context? For an example, what if you have a friend that is of the other gender and you get together from time to time, is that cheating? Is it considered cheating depending on the activity you do with your other gender friend? Is it the frequency of the get together that leads one to consider it as cheating vs. not? Is it the frequency of how often you speak with your other gender friend? Or rather is the cheating defined by what topics you discuss? Or, is it defined as cheating based on whether the friend is a friendship you developed in adulthood post being been married or in a committed relationship, whereas in contrast if the friend is from childhood or is a friendship that pre-dated your committed relationship? In essence, is when you met this friend of significance in determining whether spending time with him/her considered cheating? Or is cheating defined by whether you keep the get together with a stranger, a work colleague (e.g., getting lunch while at work with your colleague), an old friend or a new friend – a secret? So in essence, is it the secrecy of the act that is what defines the difference as to whether a person is cheating or not? Is whatever the act is even if the act itself presents as/appears as benign -cheating, if the mate does not know about it?

Is Cheating Determined Based On Whom, What’s In One’s Mind, The Spoken Word, Or What One Does Physically?

Is a hug cheating? Or is the hug cheating if it is a friend met in adulthood vs. childhood? Is the hug cheating if it is with a person you met through an on line dating site vs. an adult friend you know because your children play sports together? In essence, is cheating about whom you are physical with, because it is the whom that matters? Is a kiss on the cheek not cheating but on the mouth is? So, rather is cheating defined based upon the location of the physicality on the body? What about if you walk arm in arm with another gender friend? Is that cheating if there is no sexual arousal and/or desire? Is that arm in arm walk cheating if there’s an intellectual attraction, or a personality attraction but not sexual? Is cheating defined by what type of attraction you have vs. no attraction at all? In essence, is what is going through one’s mind the determination as to whether the person is considered cheating or not? Are we not all attracted to some degree to some quality about certain friends whether the same gender or other gender? For an example, in your same gender friendship, perhaps you find a particular friend very physically attractive, or are impressed by their accomplishments so you find that person intellectually attractive. But . . . since you are a heterosexual your mate has no concern that you would take any physical action or sexual action on that attraction. Or perhaps you do hug your same gender friend and maybe even snuggle in close with them, though your mate does not consider that cheating. Yet, would your mate consider it cheating if you have those same feelings and actions with your other gender friend? Would you consider it cheating? What is cheating?

Is cheating when there is desire, attraction and fantasy to be with that person, even when you do not physically act on it? So, once again, I ask you, is it what’s in one’s mind that is determined whether the person is cheating? Is it not cheating if you keep your sexual desire for that person to yourself, tell no one, but it is cheating if you tell that person you have those feelings even if they are not acted upon? Or is it not cheating whether you have a crush on a friend, or have an attraction to a friend of the other gender whether you have or have not verbally informed that friend directly or indirectly and the only way it is cheating is if you physically act on it with that person? Is a crush on another person in and of itself while married cheating? Is it cheating if you socialize with that person you have a crush on? What is cheating? Do you believe that there is such a thing as emotional cheating vs. in the flesh physical cheating vs. in the flesh sexual cheating? Are there emotional crushes, intellectual crushes, physical crushes vs. sexual crushes? Is one considered cheating vs. the other?

With the use of technology, one cannot ignore the question of; is it cheating if you send an emoticon to another that has a kiss being blown out of the emoticon’s smiley face? You are not physically literally touching the other person, so does that make a difference in what you consider cheating? If you do that with both of your gender friends then is it not cheating and only cheating if you only do that with one specific other gender friend? So is it the ‘whom’? Or is it the ‘what you do’ that defines the cheating? What about Face-time interactions vs. telephone – does that make a difference if you are visually seeing the person on the other line vs. not seeing the person on the other line and only hearing them? Is what’s communicated considered cheating vs. not depending on the form of technology that is used? Is “sext-ing” having an affair? What if it is not “sext-ing”, but . . . you email or text things that you would not say in person, or you would say those things in person but not in front of your mate? Or what if you would write or say those things in front of your mate but the other person would not in front of their mate? What about terms like: “baby”, “babe”, “honey”, are those acceptable if that’s your general style of communicating with male and female friends, or are those words in and of themselves indicating an emotional affair with another gender and as such are off limits in communication? What about these apps where you can “feel” while the other person touches their phone, so it is a mutual touch experience? If you did that with another gender is that cheating because it is including touch in the interaction exchange but if there was no touch and just simply a text would it not be cheating? What is cheating?

Is Feeling Cheated On And Feeling Betrayed One In The Same?

Can a mate feel betrayed and yet the action you did is not cheating, even though it is a betrayal? The questions are endless as one considers what is defined as cheating. When it comes down to it, through the lens of a marriage and relationship therapist, it has been my experience that betrayal and cheating is not always one in the same, and can be one in the same. Truly depends on the person and the couple. For example, one’s mate can feel betrayed if they find out their mate was browsing an on line hook up site, though not feel that they were cheated on. Another person may feel betrayed if their mate posted on a hook up site but never acted on that posting, and not feel cheated on. Whereas another may feel that the posting in and of itself was a form of cheating, as it was emotional cheating since there was intent there. A mate can feel betrayed though not cheated on if they find out that their mate has sexual fantasies about another whether or not this information was shared with the person in which they have fantasies about or not. Whereas for another, the difference is whether or not the information is shared with the person in which the fantasies are about. For others, fantasies and even sharing those fantasies with the person of whom they have desire for, whether a stranger on line of whom they have never met, or someone of whom they have met, whether a stripper at a bar, an old friend or a more recent friend, a colleague at work, or a celebrity (e.g., a fan tweets to the celebrity’s twitter name that he/she has the hots for that particular celebrity) – is not considered cheating unless acted upon. Some would feel betrayed by this, though not cheated on. Others would neither feel betrayed nor cheated on as they hold the philosophy that desire and attraction come in many forms. Whereas others would feel both betrayed and cheated on. What’s your opinion? What is cheating?

Whether you are attracted to someone for their intellect, their looks, their personality, by the fact that it is a stranger, or by some intangible indescribable reason other then that it is not your mate, the bottom line is: for some, betrayal and cheating are one in the same, for others it is a different animal.

So, we circle back to the question, what is cheating? Although we can label that there are different types of cheating, there are different types of affairs, (i.e., emotional affair, physical affair, sexual affair), how and when to classify a behavior/action as cheating, as an affair, is defined by each person within the couple and the couple unit whole. As I explained during my recent interview in The Patriot Ledger for an article entitled: ‘Ashley Madison Aftermath’, if your mate experiences your action as a betrayal and experiences your action as cheating, then it is cheating. For what’s a problem? A problem is when someone thinks it’s a problem, whether it is the person implementing a behavior or the person close to them experiencing the behavior.

Talk With Your Mate About What You Both Define As Cheating

Make the time and take the time to have a conversation with your mate about what you view is a betrayal vs. cheating, and what you view as betrayal and cheating. Explore your mate’s perspective. Get to know and understand both your and your mate’s opinions and philosophy and do your best to both be mindful of that throughout the course of your relationship journey and be respectful of both perspectives. Over time, in some long term committed relationships one’s philosophical beliefs may not match up with the reality of one’s emotional, physical and or sexual needs. It is easier then some may realize to get lured into an affair, as when there’s something you are missing in your relational needs, as humans it is not uncommon to look outside of one’s life/one’s current marriage to fill the void that is missing. It doesn’t mean you are evil, it means you have lost your way if your philosophy is one of monogamy. Sites like Ashley Madison plays on those couples, and if you don’t look out, you can be lured in to bite the apple you have so warned your own self not to taste when you first entered the beautiful garden of your marriage. Look out, and water the plant of your marriage.

Marriage And Relationship Tips

Rather than spending your time and energy cultivating and feeding the cheating side of self, you can make the choice to cultivate, nurture and grow the marital side of self. If you had to pick between: betrayal, cheating, Ashley Madison or some form of on line hook up site vs. a healthy marriage – which would you prefer?

If you want to learn more about concrete tips to water the plant of your marriage, practical tips to help your long term relationship flourish and stand the test of time, I invite you to check out my solution focused manual that gives all relationships what it needs to know and do at any phase and stage of the relationship. Marriage is not easy, no it is not. Marriage continues to need to be attended to and nurtured throughout all of it’s various stages and phases. Cheating, well, that’s easy, that doesn’t take much does it? Though the collateral damage post one’s cheating action is messy, to put it mildly. You think you have hit rock bottom in your marriage?  You too have the potential to rise from the ashes. Have you been married for 20+, 30+ years and cannot imagine how to help your marriage make healthy shifts? There are ways indeed, this is not simply speculation, this is actuality based on what I have seen in my work with couples, as I have been counseling couples since 1993. It is amazing what shifts can be made for the couple who is willing to try to try. Are you newlyweds and want to know what to do to keep your marriage fab to stand the test of time? Do you have kids and you feel like your marriage is just not what it should be or can be since then, but you are not sure what actions to implement to take back your marriage? Here’s a link to my book: Dr. Karen’s Marriage Manual – I hope you find it not only meeting your expectations, rather exceeding them. I invite you to take a sneak peek into my book and take back your marriage!

Take Back Your Marriage

The Cheater Meter‘ is a section in my marriage book I discussed on air on FOX News Channels; FOX & Friends, where I shared key ways to tell that your spouse may be cheating. You too can have a happy marriage, a successful marriage. Take back your marriage today by taking the first step which is learning what YOU can do to take ownership of taking action on your marriage. Then, take the second step and actively take those steps you have learned. You can do it!

Today’s blog article, is different from my usual, as it is less about answers and more about questions to propose to my readers to stimulate thought. I invite you to consider these questions, to think about your perspective, and to explore these questions with your mate. The answers may not be clear, there may not be a black and white answer to many of the questions, whereas for other questions you may have a strong black and white perspective on. The exploration process of one’s thoughts and feelings and understanding one’s perspectives and that of one’s mate, can play a helpful role in the ongoing journey of being mindful of protecting your marriage from the lure of infidelity.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Susan Lay January 8, 2019 at 8:00 pm

My husband left our marriage for 2 and 1/2 months…during that separation I suspect that he was intimate with another woman but he of course avoids my questions or shuts me down completely. We have reconciled but since our reconciliation (4 months now) but circumstances (rehab) only allow us spending only Fridays of each week together (24 hr pass) but we have only had sex 4 times in 4 months. He blames problems with his libido… he is only 48 years old and our intimate relationship has never been affected no matter how bad things have gotten… until now. Because of messages I’ve discovered between my husband and other women online I allowed my insecurities and jealous issues direct me to be “a private investigator!” I created a fake account and initiated contact with him which resulted in a 3 weeks of communication. During the conversation I suggested we get together and “play”… his reaction was telling “me” to come pick him up and he had money for a room…
When I asked where I needed to come….
His response was… “I don’t know you so I’d better not”
I think at first he might have suspected it was either me or someone that I put up to propositioning him UNTIL I ASKED FOR DIRECTIONS TO WHERE HE WAS… If it were me then I wouldn’t (in his mind) agreed to actually meet up… I THINK IN THE END IT WAS NOT ME…
WHY DID THE CONVERSATION GET AS FAR AS IT DID AND HE NEVER MENTIONED THAT HE IS MARRIED? It’s doubtful the problem with us isn’t due to “low libido” … it’s more probable that his thoughts are consumed of other women..


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