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An area of conflict in many relationships arises when one partner thinks the other partner’s sexual and romantic behaviors qualify as cheating, but the other partner disagrees. This is especially likely when the activity in question occurs in the virtual/digital arena. Consider, by way of example, the following online gray areas:

  • Is chatting with an ex on social media a form of cheating?
  • What if you’re chatting with people on hookup apps but not actually meeting them in person?
  • Does sexting with a person other than your partner qualify as infidelity?
  • Does viewing digital pornography qualify as cheating, and does it matter if there is masturbation in conjunction with that porn use?
  • Does it matter how much porn you’re looking at, or how often you’re viewing it, or if your spouse knows about it?
  • What about engaging in mutual masturbation via webcam with a person who lives thousands of miles away?
  • Is playing the video game Grand Theft Auto, which now offers “realistic sex with prostitutes” as part of the action, a form of cheating?

In our increasingly digital world, the question that begs to be answered is this: Is live, in-person contact required for sexual infidelity, or does digital sexual activity count equally?

A few years ago, to answer this question, Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Dr. Charles Samenow, and intimacy disorders specialist Robert Weiss conducted a survey of women whose husbands were engaging in significant amounts of extramarital sexual activity, either online or in the real world. Probably the most important finding of their study was this: When it comes to the negative effects of one partner having sex outside of a supposedly monogamous relationship, tech-based and in-the-flesh sexuality are no different. The lying, the emotional distancing, and the pain of learning about the betrayal feel the same to a betrayed partner.

The results of this study confirm what Weiss and a few others have stated for decades: It’s not any specific sexual act that does the most damage to a betrayed partner and a relationship; instead, it’s the constant lying, the emotional distancing, and the loss of relationship trust. For most betrayed partners, the emotional betrayal associated with sexual infidelity is nearly always more painful and longer-lasting than the physical betrayal.

Recognizing this fact, Weiss created the following digital-age definition of cheating, first published in his book Out of the Doghouse.

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition of cheating does not talk specifically about affairs, porn, strip clubs, hookup apps, or any other specific sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner—the loss of relationship trust. For the betrayed partner, it’s not any specific sexual or romantic act that has caused the most pain. Instead, it’s the lying, the secret keeping, the lies of omission, the manipulation, and the fact that he or she can no longer trust a single thing the cheating partner says or does.

Notably, this definition is flexible depending on the couple. It lets couples create a highly personalized definition of sexual fidelity based on their values and desires. This means that it might be just fine for one partner to look at porn or to engage in some other form of extramarital sexual activity, as long as his or her mate knows about this behavior and is OK with it. However, if a partner is looking at porn (or whatever) and keeping this behavior secret, or his or her spouse knows about the behavior but doesn’t find it acceptable, then the porn-using partner is cheating—because he or she is violating relationship trust.

At the end of the day, infidelity is less about the specific behavior and more about the lies that are told and the secrets that are kept.