In order to determine whether your partner is cheating, you first have to define what “cheating” means to you. On the surface, this doesn’t seem difficult—cheating is cheating, right? It’s one of those things that you just know it when you see it (or hear about it from a friend that saw your partner doing it). Well, let’s see just how absolute cheating is. Is having sexual intercourse with someone other than your partner cheating? YES! Maybe this game is easy. (Though it wouldn't be cheating if your partner said it was okay) What if your partner has conversations with someone at work, but doesn’t tell you? Hmm. What if you have a crush where you fantasize about someone else when you’re with your partner? Is flirting cheating? What about going to a strip club? What about Hooters? What about accepting a friend invitation from an ex-partner on Facebook? What about sexting?
The line may be a bit fuzzy after all. If you think about it, within your own relationship, your partner is the one who ultimately decides what is cheating. You might think flirting is okay, but if your boyfriend or girlfriend does not, then it is cheating. Kissing someone else probably appears on your relationship’s “banned activity list”—unless, of course, your partner is the one encouraging you to do it. So, in essence, the reality of the situation is that cheating is any type of activity with a non-partner that your own partner would find upsetting or would consider a breach of trust in your relationship.
When relationship scientists set out to study infidelity, what do they consider cheating? Generally, researchers break it down into two main types: sexual versus emotional.1 Sexual infidelity is the type of cheating most people think of when someone engages in physical sexual activity with someone who isn’t one’s romantic partner, without the partner’s knowledge or consent. Cheating behaviors in this case can range from kissing—to heavy petting (yes, this is an official science term that basically equates to rounding second base and sliding in to third)—to, of course, sexual intercourse. Emotional infidelity is a bit more ambiguous, but generally involves forming an emotional connection with a non-partner and includes things like a secret texting relationship, engaging in intimate self-disclosure, all the way up to falling in love.
Determining if your partner is cheating may not always be as cut and dried as simply waiting for naked people to jump out of your bedroom closet. However, if you suspect that your partner may be cheating, researchers have identified several things that you can look for to confirm (or refute) your suspicions.2 As we discussed above, there are two types of infidelity: emotional and sexual. If your partner is talking a lot about spending time with someone else (with whom you think they would consider having a relationship) or acting apathetic toward you, these behaviors may indicate either type of infidelity. Clues that your partner may be engaging in emotional infidelity include indications that your partner is unsatisfied with your relationship; reluctance to discuss a specific person; emotional disengagement; increased anger, guilt, anxiety, or hostility; and not wanting to spend time with you (of course, many of these may just mean he or she is just not that into you as well).
Indicators that your partner may be engaging in sexual infidelity include changes in the partner’s normal routine, changes in sexual interest (either lack of interest or exaggerated interest), and physical clues like lack of arousal. Women tend to be more sensitive to these cues, suggesting that they are more adept at monitoring for and identifying infidelity. Again, however, a very large and important caveat here is that these behaviors only suggest—and do not guarantee—that cheating is occurring.
Of course, in an ideal situation suspicions about a partner’s activities would not involve a private investigator-like monitoring. Instead, the best course of action is to build a strong relationship founded on trust and open communication where any doubts about fidelity lead to open conversations rather than a hunt for evidence.
This article was adapted from the book Science of Relationships: Experts Answer Your Questions about Dating, Marriage, & Family.
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1Miller, S. L., & Maner, J. K. (2009). Sex differences in response to sexual versus emotional infidelity: The moderating role of individual differences.” Personality and Individual Differences, 46 (3), 287–291.
2Shackelford, T. K., & Buss, D. M. (1997). Cues to infidelity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23 (10), 1034–1045.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.