Not that you need reminding, but nearly 15 years ago then-President Bill Clinton was immersed in a saucy sex scandal. The affair was the topic of many water cooler talks. People wondered how the American President, the leader of the free world, did not know whether he cheated or not? Well, it turns out that identifying what “counts” as cheating is more complicated than it seems.
I don’t like to shamelessly self-promote, but the Science of Relationships team has been bugging me to write about research several colleagues and I conducted to explore what individuals consider to be “cheating.” What we found was quite interesting. Individuals don’t view infidelity solely in terms of black and white, but rather cheating is viewed in 50 shades of grey (sorry, I couldn’t resist!). In other words, there are various degrees of cheating. Cheating may take the form of relatively innocuous behaviors with someone who is not your partner, such as talking on the phone, having lunch/dinner, or hugging. My colleagues and I coined these behaviors as “ambiguous” because it is unclear whether individuals have any true intent to cheat. You could be doing these acts because you plan on being unfaithful, or you could engage in these behaviors because you’re a good friend. Further down the cheating spectrum are “deceptive” behaviors, such as lying to or withholding information from your partner. These behaviors are considerably more questionable. If you’re deceiving your partner about your interactions with another person, then it seems that you know what you’re doing is wrong. At the far end of the spectrum are “explicit” behaviors. These behaviors – such as “feeling up” someone, oral sex, or sexual intercourse – are essentially “slam-dunk cheating.” You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that bumping uglies isn’t cheating.1,2
We also examined what factors influenced individuals’ views of these cheating behaviors. People who are very religious tend to believe that everything is cheating,2 whereas individuals with unrestricted sociosexual orientations (those who view love and sex as separate from one another and do not need to be in a committed relationship to have sex)3 were willing to cut people slack if they “accidentally” engaged in explicit behaviors with someone else.1 Even more, unrestricted individuals were more willing to engage in any type of these cheating behaviors, primarily because they were less committed to their romantic relationship.4
Clearly, we don’t all see eye-to-eye on what counts as cheating. That being said, if you have someone sexting you before your first date or a President who is quite permissive in his/her beliefs about what is acceptable behavior outside of marriage, it’s probably a good bet that they have an unrestricted sociosexual orientation and thus are more likely to have a wandering eye.
Click here for our previous article on what constitutes infidelity.
1Wilson, K., Mattingly, B. A., Clark, E. M., Weidler, D. J., & Bequette, A. W. (2011). The gray area: Exploring attitudes toward infidelity and the development of the Perceptions of Dating Infidelity Scale. Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 63-86.
2Mattingly, B. A., Wilson, K., Clark, E. M., Bequette, A. W., & Weidler, D. J. (2010). Foggy faithfulness: Relationship quality, religiosity, and the Perceptions of Dating Infidelity Scale in an adult sample. Journal of Family Issues, 31, 1465-1480.
3Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminate validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 870-883.
4Mattingly, B. A., Clark, E. M., Weidler, D. J., Bullock, M., Hackathorn, J., & Blankmeyer, K. (2011). Sociosexual orientation, commitment, and infidelity: A mediation analysis. Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 222-226.
Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.