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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