E-mail Flirtation: Are You Cheating?

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E-mail Flirtation: Are You Cheating?
A therapist explains the slippery slope from borderline to actual cheating.

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.”

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