Sometimes the French really do live up to their adulterous reputations. Even the French president, Jacques Chirac, has publicly admitted to having extramarital affairs—news that barely caused a stir in France. In American culture, though, a full-blown affair—involving love, intercourse, or both—can end relationships faster than you can say, "cheater!"
We have been taught that the definition of cheating starts with a kiss, and that a physical tryst is the ultimate betrayal. But a lot of other flirtatious behavior can cross into the grey zone. Anything from sexy text messages and phone sex to a lap dance from a stripper and intense lunches with a coworker may not be immediate cause for a break-up, but these acts may be enough to make people re-evaluate what constitutes being unfaithful.
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Take Eva, 25, a curator who lives in Chicago. Knee-deep into her relationship with her boyfriend, Rob, she started to feel restless. The sex with Rob was passionless and infrequent. Eva still loved him, but felt a need to jumpstart her love life. One day, she found a three-word email from an ex-boyfriend in her inbox: "How are you?" What started as innocent catch-up emails escalated into graphic reveries about their racy sexual past. Eva felt a thrill she hadn't felt for months in her relationship with Rob. The ex-boyfriend lived in Italy, so the exchanges never resulted in a face-to-face meeting. Late at night, though, she wondered, "Am I a cheater?"
"There are two rules of thumb: if one of you is doing something that would make the other uncomfortable, it's wrong," says Dr. Bethany Marshall, a marriage and family therapist and author of the forthcoming Deal Breakers: When to Work on a Relationship and When to Walk Away. "And if you or he is getting emotional and sexual satisfaction outside the relationship, that's a bad sign, too."