A therapist explains the slippery slope from borderline to actual cheating.
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.
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."
What is dangerous about "cheating light," as Marshall calls it, is that it can easily intensify into something more. "Don't minimize these interactions," Marshall advises. "The person who is doing it is going to get emboldened over time… borderline cheating activity should be taken as a warning signal of what’s to come." She's right: Eva's sexy emails to her ex-boyfriend in Italy didn't end there. "The first time I ever ventured into the territory of non-physical cheating on Rob was through these emails. But once I started down the path, I never looked back." Eva's computer cheating with one ex, she believes, led her to have sex with another ex a month later. "It was the deception, not the physical activity, that was the breaking point," says Eva. "Once I betrayed his trust virtually, it was easy to do it physically." Eventually, Eva's relationship with Rob imploded and, after three years, he moved out. Meanwhile, Chirac's devil-may-care admission of infidelity—which he claims never threatened his relationship with his wife--begs the question whether cheating is culturally or individually relative. Is there a universal danger zone? That is, if one partner feels guilty about his or her own questionable behavior, can it still be cheating even if the other partner doesn't feel jealous? "I deal with people who try open relationships all the time. Some people are not born with the jealousy gene," Marshall points out. "But regardless, if one person is expending emotional or sexual energy outside the relationship to compensate for something missing, it's going to destroy their union."
What hurts about cheating is not simply that your partner has had sex with someone else—it’s that he or she has engaged in intimate activity that does not include you. For this reason, cheating could be categorized as more of an intuitive sense rather than a definable act. It may help to talk to your partner and set explicit boundaries, since cheating doesn’t always boil down to a tangible act. “Feelings are evidence enough,” Marshall says. “As long as you’re being rational and not abusive with your jealousy and insecurities, your partner has to seek solutions to any discomfort you have.”