Is Sexting Cheating?

infidelity in marriageHow Do We Define Cheating?

Merriam Webster defines cheating as breaking the rules, being sexually unfaithful in the context of marriage.  In a committed relationship or marriage (and we’ll use marriage for simplicity’s sake) two people make a vow to each other. “Thou shalt not cheat” is the unwritten rule.

Lots of people are talking about monogamy and fidelity nowadays—trying to define it and explain why people are ending relationships. Is the old “til death do we part” adage becoming obsolete?

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy offers some revealing statistics about the state of marriage today. The researchers questioned a group of people (I’m uncertain about the sample size, age or other data) about marriage and fidelity:   57% of men surveyed admitted to committing infidelity and 54% of the women. In 41% of all the marriages, one, or both, of the spouses reported being unfaithful.

In plain English, half of the people surveyed cheated on their spouses. So while we hold our noses when Anthony Weiner’s name comes up, he’s not alone—by far. Cheating has become commonplace in marriage today.

For individuals in traditional marriages there is an expectation of fidelity, right?  When both people are invested in a marriage, there shouldn’t be room for sexting or heavy flirting with others. A committed partner typically isn’t interested in connecting sexually or romantically outside of that relationship. Unless he/she is part of a polyamorous relationship, or has an open marriage, accepted and understood by his/her partner. Then it’s a whole different story.

So. What constitutes infidelity in a marriage? Is sexting, the practice of sending sexy content via phone texts, cheating? If one partner/spouse is sending sexy texts, emails, or photos to another person is it an indication of a lack of commitment to the relationship?

We used to define cheating as having sex with a person other than your spouse. Now we have to expand that given the various ways we connect with others.

Is having a friendly lunch twice a week with a colleague of the opposite sex considered cheating? Is it cheating if you feel an emotional connection to another person, but refrain from sex?

Some people might say no. Others would give an emphatic, “Hell yes!” The label “cheating” has to be individually defined within the context of a couple’s relationship. One husband might not care if his wife has a close relationship with a man that involves lunch, or coffee meetings as long as they’re not having sex. His wife might have a different opinion if the situation was reversed.

So, the question changes from whether sexting is cheating, to what are the expectations of both parties in a marriage?  Because if one partner expects complete faithfulness, he or she assumes that feeling is mutual.  And, the one who fails to hold up his/her end of the bargain—stated or implied, will be seen as cheating. Even if the relationship is deteriorating, even if there is little communication.

Catching a partner in the act of straying is an indicator that the relationship has problems. Major ones. Maybe the warning signs were there in the first place? Did one or both parties fail to acknowledge the problem? Could they identify the first step that led to the decline and then to the betrayal?

It is uncomfortable to see a relationship in crisis. We scorn and deride cheaters. We want to assign blame in order to assure ourselves that it would never happen in our relationship.

We need to understand that we aren’t seeing the whole story. Cheating doesn’t happen in a strong, happy marriage. Relationships, marriage, desire and fidelity—they’re complicated. There are no absolutes. And, what passes for normal in one household may not be the standard in another. The one constant we can trust is the imperative to engage in clear and open communication about what the marriage looks like and expectations for both partners.

What do you think?  What is “normal” for you? Do you think sexy texts outside the marriage is cheating?

Next week- A Mother’s Question: Should I Let My Adult Children Have Sex in My House? 

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  30 comments for “Is Sexting Cheating?

  1. August 1, 2013 at 10:24 am

    If you are of the belief that the sexiest organ in the body is the mind — sexting is cheating in my book. In fact, it maybe worse than the act. You’ve intentionally given your mind and emotions to another.

    • August 1, 2013 at 11:06 am

      Yes, I agree. In a traditional marriage giving time and energy to another person in this way clearly represents a disconnect from the marriage. Is it worse than actually having sex? That answer varies I’m sure.
      Thanks so much for weighing in on this.

  2. Carol A. Cassara
    August 1, 2013 at 10:43 am

    It’s cheating.

    • August 1, 2013 at 11:07 am

      Clear and to the point! Thanks, Carol.

      • Carol A. Cassara
        August 1, 2013 at 11:11 am

        😉 yep, some things are black and white. At least to me. Then again, other things are…shades of grey. But sexting? black. or maybe white. But not grey. LOL

  3. August 1, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    For me normal is ME AND ONLY ME!!!! Hopefully my husband thinks the same thing. Please stress “hopefully” because even if we do trust our significant other, you never know, and even in a relationship of more than 30 years, anything can happen. By the way, great article!

    • August 1, 2013 at 3:43 pm

      Maritza, you are right. One can’t be 100% certain, but with conversation and mutual attention to the marriage I think the chances of a solid relationship are good!
      Thank you for the kind compliment.

  4. August 1, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    If it’s not “cheating” then it’s the step before “real” cheating. Definitely trending in a very bad direction. You couldn’t have said it better: “When both people are invested in a marriage, there shouldn’t be room for sexting or heavy flirting with others. “

    • August 1, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      Yep! It’s a slippery slope once you begin that first bit of flirting or ‘looking around’. Most people manage to look a little, have a brief fantasy and then come back safely to their relationship…or at least they should be!

  5. August 1, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    I agree with jamie@southmainmuse – the mind is the sexiest organ in the body, and acting upon sexual or emotional thoughts about someone with whom you are not in a relationship when you are “involved” with someone else – that’s cheating. Like Jimmy Carter once said, I’ve committed adultery in my mind – the 70’s version of sexing, perhaps…

    • August 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      Excellent comparison–I remember Carter’s comment well. Lots of people look and fantasize–that’s normal but to act on it or to engage with strangers for sexual ‘play’ is definitely not ok unless your partner knows and supports it.

      I fell in love with a man years ago and though we never even kissed, much less had sex, I knew I was being unfaithful to my marriage. It was the impetus to look at my situation and try to make things work…or leave. Long story short: the spouse didn’t want to put forth the effort; I eventually left.

  6. Cheryl Nicholl
    August 1, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    It’s a violation of the oath two people make to each other, so = CHEATING. It’s simple Arithmetic.

    • August 1, 2013 at 9:51 pm

      Agreed…the violation of the oath is that key point! Thanks for chiming in.

  7. August 1, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    I believe the sexting, in anyone older than a teenager, shows a lack of character. At some point I have to question the judgement of anyone who would put this stuff out there.

    I believe it is the cowards way of having an affair. It’s safe. They don’t really get rejected. They play a fantasy game.


    • August 1, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      I appreciate your comments. I think that sexting between consenting adults who have a relationship and like the fun sexy conversation (which need not be terribly crude) can benefit from this kind of communication. Different from someone using it to contact people for a secretive affair.

      • August 1, 2013 at 10:49 pm

        But then it wouldn’t be coming under the cheating category, right? This isn’t really any different than a phone call, only it may never disappear with the way records are kept. I think most of us have the NYC Mayoral race in mind when we think of these things.

        • August 2, 2013 at 6:40 am

          Yes, because I wanted to say that there is a place for sexting for adults of any age. Again it’s about how we define cheating and the conditions of a relationship. And, yes we wouldn’t be having a ‘sexting’ specific conversation if it weren’t for the public story.

  8. Penny
    August 2, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Anything you feel must be kept secret from your partner is cheating.

    • August 4, 2013 at 9:08 am

      Absolutely–that’s a good way to define it and a reality check for someone if they’re thinking about a possible interaction.

  9. August 2, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I think these two sentences pretty well summarize the dilemma of what is cheating:

    “When both people are invested in a marriage, there shouldn’t be room for sexting or heavy flirting with others. A committed partner typically isn’t interested in connecting sexually or romantically outside of that relationship.”

    Very well put.

    • August 4, 2013 at 9:09 am

      Thank you Ms Quote… it really is that simple, isn’t it?

  10. August 2, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Hi Walker,

    Can I say first that I don’t hold my nose when Anthony Weiner’s name comes up. That is for Puritans Americans, who, by the way, don’t realize that they would have to pinch their nose with half of the world population as well!
    And yes sexting is cheating, as any other sexual or even sentimental relations are when a couple as committed to faithfulness. But here is precisely the moment when the question about what cheating is has to be clarified. Too many people assume that cheating starts as soon as any sex happens outside of the marriage or whatever other couple’s arrangement. But it doesn’t. Cheating is not in what you do per se. It’s in what you do while you promised someone no to do it. That’s different!
    About that I would propose this reflection: Why do you believe that half of the people are cheating? (while many of the other half just don’t have the guts). My own answer is: Because total faithfulness relies on a false assumption, which is that a single person can bring to you all what you need and this for life, which is just stupid! When I’m “In Love,” sincerely, I don’t feel any need to play outside the relation, with or without my lover’s consent. But none of us can stay “In Love” all the time. We can “love” someone over time, but that is another feeling, more a tender companionship. And if we are lively people with imagination and fantasies, it will never happen that one person can fulfil all of that “til death do we part.”

    So if people would just understand that, they’d work it out together and would grant some breathing freedom, from time to time, to their partner. But since this wisdom is usually not there, everybody cheats! “That’s how it goes and everybody knows!” 🙂

  11. August 3, 2013 at 8:18 am

    People come to marriage with many assumptions…and rarely take the time to talk about them. We have such a messed up attitude about sex and commitment and relationships in this country, as you’ve observed, that we take stories of infidelity and blow them out of proportion.

    I find Weiner worthy of ‘nose holding’ not because he’s showing desire–it’s the way he’s doing it. Lying publicly, being a bit smarmy in his approach and expecting the public to trust him to make wise judgements as a politician! If we could embrace our sexuality and our desires honestly we wouldn’t have this kind of behavior. You and I are in total agreement on this one.

  12. August 3, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Walker, I agree that open and complete communication between a committed couple is crucial, as soon as the pair elect to have a committed relationship. It is their own business how their parameters are drawn.
    My opinion of what constitutes cheating might be different for someone else’s.
    However, for myself, sexting is cheating and I think that opinion and expectation should be discussed early on. You are not fully committed to your relationship if you have the need to talk/text sexy stuff to another person. Sharing an emotional intimacy on any level with someone other than your committed partner is cheating. (Well, there may be a grey area when it comes to your lifelong best friend) … The relationship I seek and desire is one of complete emotional sharing and support, among other things!

    • August 4, 2013 at 9:11 am

      Well put. I think most of us seek that kind of relationship and realize that it’s a continuous ‘work in progress’ to maintain that kind of relationship. And, as Francois points out, we will find ourselves sexually attracted to others at times-the key is to redirect the energy, bring the sexual energy back to our partner or talk about what we need.

  13. Mark
    November 25, 2013 at 3:37 am

    Is sexting cheating?
    Not nececeraly.
    I’m Polly and my wife is mono. We have been married for 10 years and together for 20.
    I have discussed my feelings of polyamoury with my wife and she accepts me for me. I haven’t yet had a physical relationship outside our marriage yet and may never. If I fell in love with another and wanted to persue a relationship then I’d ask first. If she said no then no it is, unless I’m prepared to leave our marriage which as of now I’m not, and given that we have two lovely children I’m not likely to either. I love my wife, make no mistake but that doesn’t stop me from making friends with other women, nor does it mean I can’t have lunch with someone else. If I start to have feelings other than friendship for another that does not mean I’m cheating, I should be free to feel how I like, as should she.
    My wife is very important to me and I love her deeply, but she does not fulfill my sexual needs completely, this has been discussed. I have the desire for sex more than she does, there are other things she doesn’t enjoy that I like and I would not like it if she did these things just to please me. For me to truly enjoy sex or lovemaking my wife has to also, I would never force her to do anything she doesn’t want.
    So for me I don’t see it as cheating. She doesn’t own me nor do I own her, if I want to go for a coffee with another woman then that should be fine, if I want to discuss sex with another then that’s also fine. If I want to go on a date with another then I’m starting a physical relationship and so would ask if it’s ok.
    I can’t assume my wife would not be upset by sexting so I will ask her. If she feels uncomfortable with it then further discussion is required but for me to continue my relationship with my wife in an honest way then these boundaries need to be jointly formed and adhered to.
    If in doubt, ask. Even if you don’t doubt it’s probably wise to ask anyway, one should never assume how another person feels, that’s up to the indevidual.
    I will never cheat on my wife, I love her too much to put our relationship at risk but it would be silly of me to egnore my feelings and needs also.

    Goes both ways too, if she went for lunch with a male friend then fine by me, if she wanted to sext another then that would be fine by me also. If she wanted to have sex with another or intamate contact (kissing, holding hands etc) then she should ask first.

    So no, in the right circumstance sexting is not cheating, just as watching porn isn’t if your partner doesn’t mind.


    • November 25, 2013 at 12:39 pm

      Mark, I agree with your assessment. I love how open you and your wife are and how clear you are about the importance of communicating with her. It’s the lies and secrecy that create ‘cheating’ as far as I’m concerned. Your wife is fortunate that you love her and want to be open with her as the future unfolds. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this–always nice to hear a male point of view.

  14. Pete
    July 27, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    A couple of months back I found my wife had been sexting with another man, must say that I was and still am devastated over it.

    For me, after being together for 14 years and married for 11 of those, I feel it is a major betrayal of my trust and feel that quite frankly I am worth more than that.

    We are still together, but finding out about this continues to be hard and has hit my confidence. As someone else stated, it is the giving of your mind/time… that really disturbed me and made me wonder about what may have happened previously that I was not aware of as well as what could happen in the future.

    If you are single/not married and you wish to carry on like this then fine, all the more power to you, but when you have children and a long term relationship involved then this can be very tough situation to find yourself in or get out of.

    I really love my wife, but feel I am not all that she needs in life and if it wasn’t for us having two children together then I would fear what either of us would do at this stage regarding out long term relationship.

    Very sad situation to find yourself in.

  15. roy daugherty
    May 1, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    well cheating is cheating but if two can agree its not then no its not to them but to me and my wife its cheating cause your doing the unselfish act in your mind and heart and wrong for doing it in the first place thats my honest opinion 😉

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