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Why How We Define Infidelity Matters

If we don’t all have the same definition, then even therapists can’t help struggling couples

Perhaps you remember the memorable words spoken by then-President Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

“That woman” was White House intern Monica Lewinsky, with whom Clinton later acknowledged having an “improper physical relationship.” At the time, there was discussion over what an “improper physical relationship” actually meant (as well as the meaning of “is”), and whether oral sex fit under what a U.S. District Judge’s defined as when a “person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”

OK, fine. But, is that all? Can you have “improper” sexual relations virtually, say on massively multiuser online role-playing games (MMORPGs) or by cybersex chatting, sexting or even watching pornography excessively?

What about improper emotional relationships? How are those defined? Are those as bad — or worse?

I bring this up because the language and definitions around what is considered dangerous behavior in a romantic relationship are slippery. Which makes getting a handle on how many people are engaging in infidelity really hard to do (in addition to the fact that a lot of people aren’t always truthful about what they’re doing sexually). If we don’t all have the same definition of infidelity, how can we ever know how many people are actually fooling around (if that matters)? More important, how can know for ourselves what’s cheating and what isn’t within our own relationship, and how can we expect a therapist to help us?

Which is why a recent study, “Defining infidelity in research and couple counseling: A qualitative study” interested me.

Infidelity has been a topic of interest in scholarly literature for at least the past two decades, but humans have been talking about it, and engaging in it, since biblical times. Depending on the research, anywhere between under 2 percent to more than 85 percent of couples are cheating.

But, again, what does that mean if we aren’t defining infidelity the same way?

Three ways to look at it

The study breaks down infidelity, unhappily, into three distinct activities: sexual intercourse, extra-dyadic sexual activities and emotional betrayal.

I say unhappily because each of the three definitions presents dilemmas. Even something like defining sexual intercourse, which seems pretty straight forward — penis, vagina, penetration — can be problematic for couples in consensually non-monogamous relationships and who don’t equate romantic commitment with sexual fidelity. Infidelity for them is probably not going to have to do anything with penetration but something else.

Same with extra-dyadic sexual activities, a broad category for sure, including:

masturbation in the presence of another, oral sex, sexual play, kissing, flirting, visiting strip clubs, pornography use and having sexual fantasies about a person other than the partner; cybersex can include exchanging sexual self images, online dating, online flirting, and using online pornography.”

Hey, even former President Jimmy Carter admitted to lust in his heart; was that cheating? For marital counselors, the study notes, this is nothing but a “wide field for potential conflict.” I’ll say!

Defining emotional infidelity — surprise! — isn’t any easier. Some might say it’s when one person is being secretive about a behavior or a relationship with someone else that upsets the other partner. But if you just focus on secrecy and the sense of betrayal, the study notes, well, “in theory, any behavior that is kept secret or evokes a sense of betrayal can be defined as infidelity.” This is a problem, too, because we don’t always share everything with our romantic partners and that needs to be OK. (I sometimes hid new shoes or a blouse in my closet for weeks before eventually wearing it so if my hubby asked, “Is that new?” I could say, “Nah, I’ve had it for a while.” Secretive? Yes. Ridiculous? Of course. A betrayal? I sure hope not. And yet being secretive about money can be damaging.)

Whose definition?

Making things worse, the researchers note, is that the way researchers gauge what constitutes infidelity “is overly reliant on hypothetical infidelity scenarios,” which tell us little about what we’d actually do if, say, we discovered that our partner had a one-night stand, or choosing definitions from preset behaviors (“Infidelity is x” or “Infidelity is y”), instead of letting people define it for themselves.

Since marital therapists themselves struggle with defining infidelity, it’s inevitable that when their views and their struggling clients’ views differ, their personal definitions “will necessarily influence how infidelity is worked with in the therapeutic space.” This does not make me feel good about how a marital counselor can help couples, especially if he or she is dismissive about something one spouse considers to be cheating. While I hope to never be in that situation again, I can now look back and feel somewhat better about my gut reaction at the time when my then husband and I were in therapy for his infidelity — “Our therapist is clueless!”

Since infidelity is socially constructed, the study suggests that marital therapists, rather than rely on an “ultimate definition” or a “true” meaning of infidelity, should consider the “impact of different possible perspectives and their usefulness for the couple.” In other words, let the couple themselves define the transgressions as infidelity or not.

Yes! At the same time, I believe it’s essential that therapists also understand that there are many other ways to betray a loved one beside infidelity — denying sex, indifference, emotional neglect, contempt and lack of respect among them. All I have to do is read the many comments by spouses in sexless marriages on my blog and on The New I Do blog to see how damaging a sexless partnership can be and how some infidelity occurs because a sex-deprived spouse sees no other way to have his or her sexual needs met other than divorce, which many people with young children don’t want to do. But if a couple like that ends up in therapy, the transgressor will, of course, be cast as the bad guy or gal, and not the spouse who has been denying sex and intimacy for years. Sorry, but that isn’t right.

What do you want?

So as we’re entering the wedding season, I would encourage all spouses-to-be to talk about infidelity and be clear with each about what’s OK and what isn’t. And — and this is a big and — talk about what you will do as a couple if your sexual needs start to differ, whether because of illness or menopause or whatever.

If you’re already married or living together, it’s not too late to have this discussion. In fact, it’s an ongoing conversation. You have every right to set boundaries that honor your needs and desires in an intimate relationship and so does your partner. That means allowing him or her to express those needs to you with honesty and transparency — even if they’re not something you really want to hear. Better to talk about that now, when your heart is open, than later, when you may discover a side of your partner you wish you never knew.

Want to explore consensual non-monogamy in your marriage? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook. Originally published at

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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