Why Do We Call Relationship Infidelity 'Cheating'?

Does it imply being with one partner is a test?

Difference between cheating and adultery bagi1998, Anton Estrada, RDNE Stock project, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, belterz | Canva

When I think of the word "cheating," I think of a student copying another’s answers during an exam.

I think of someone using a prohibited type of vehicle modification to win a race, or doping their blood to win a marathon. I don’t automatically think of someone covertly stepping outside their relationship.

So where did the term "cheating" come from as a way to describe relationship unfaithfulness?


According to Vocabulary, the term "cheat" is derived from a French word that refers to "the state taking someone’s property when he or she dies without heirs."

While the word "cheat" (or "cheate") has been used for centuries — including by Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale — it apparently didn’t get used often in place of adultery until the 1900s.

In fact, it isn’t cited as a way to describe being unfaithful to a partner until 1934 — although it’s difficult to find exactly how it was first applied.

Either way, it opened the floodgates for writers and musicians to use the word "cheating" in this way. (There’s even a 1934 film called Cheating Cheaters, although it seems to refer to theft, not infidelity.)


In this context, relationship "cheaters" have existed for less than a century.

However, adulteresses, in particular, were severely punished for their unfaithful acts in Medieval France — including being paraded through town as a means of shaming. (Men seem to have had a free ride with extramarital affairs during the Middle Ages, as long as their mistresses were not tied to another man.)

RELATED: The Truth About How Cheaters Think


Did the use of the word rise from feminism?

Interestingly, nowadays, we see the word "cheat" used commonly for men who step out of line with their partners.

Maybe this is because men are historically more likely to cheat in a relationship — 20 percent of married men vs. 13 percent of married women, according to data (although these stats change depending on age and also who is willing to admit it.)

It’s also interesting that men born in the 1930s and 1940s — around the time "cheating" was first used as a replacement for adultery — report the highest rates of sexual infidelity. (The same is true for women born in the 1940s and 1950s.)

Perhaps, despite feminism slowing down in the 1930s after a strong surge during the previous decade, women started calling out men more often for their unfaithful behavior. By this time, the word "cheating" had been tied to dishonesty and deceit, not just a reference to state land grabs.


Meanwhile, more women were introduced to contraceptives in the 1920s, meaning there were likely more mistresses not worrying about getting pregnant. (It could also have led to more women cheating on their husbands — the initial birth control movement was born out of a desire for more sexual freedom among women, after all.)

RELATED: There Are Only 3 Types Of Cheaters, According To Experts

Reconsidering the word "cheating" for relationship infidelity

We can establish that cheating has slowly evolved to mean lying or misleading, which also applies to a partner who has sex with others without being in an agreed non-monogamous relationship.

We hear it all the time now, especially when referring to reality television affairs. However, why do we still use this word for this purpose? Does it not make relationships sound like a test? Like, "Be in a relationship, but don’t cheat!"


If we look at cheating in a more traditional sense — using dishonest tactics to score high on a test — then it suggests a relationship is similar to an exam in school. It’s like people in relationships are being dared to step out of line, only to get a ruler or some other object across the hands as punishment.

Cheating usually gains a person an advantage — like making more money or getting ahead in some other way. However, unfaithfulness rarely gains anyone an advantage and can lead to loss and dire consequences.

RELATED: 4 Honest Men Confess The Real Reason They Cheated On Their Wives


The days of cheating might be numbered

In my opinion, polyamory will likely become the norm in the future and women will lead the next sexual revolution. Perhaps the word "cheating" in relation to affairs might go by the wayside as women take more control of their destinies.

The bottom line is, don’t treat your relationship like a game you can "cheat" to win. Honesty is the best way to go and will lead to the best outcomes–even if it’s more difficult.

RELATED: 7 Unsexy Things Couples Should Do Regularly To Prevent Cheating

Jeff Hayward is a writer and photographer/visual artist based in Hamilton, Ontario. He’s had his work featured by The Good Men Project, Medium, The Hamilton Spectator, CBC Hamilton, and others.