E-mail Flirtation: Are You Cheating?


E-mail Flirtation: Are You Cheating?
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."

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