Your partner goes out without you, meets someone, and sleeps with them. Seems like a pretty clear cut case of cheating, right? But, what if it was a momentary snog before your brain kicked into action? Or an almost kiss? What about situations that are, well, a bit more blurry? Does snogging your mates on nights out count? What about flirting IRL versus sliding into the DMs? Is it cheating to subscribe to a friend of a friend’s OnlyFans?
In a world where open and polyamorous relationships are increasingly common and interest in ethical non-monogamy is on the rise among young people, it can feel like relationship boundaries are blurrier than ever.
Perhaps you find it easier to brush a drunken kiss under the carpet than a maybe-too-cosy friendship with an ex. Perhaps, like a few guys I’ve heard of, you operate a “girls don’t count” rule with your bisexual/bicurious/heteroflexible girlfriend (because it's not cheating if you're fetishising it).
“I think maybe there's a cheating curve,” Carrie Bradshaw proclaims in Sex and The City. “That someone's definition of what constitutes cheating is in direct proportion to how much they themselves want to cheat.” Loathe am I to validate the opinions of a millennial fictional character whose actions and beliefs have, by most accounts, aged badly, but does she have a point? Is cheating in the eye of the beholder? Is all fair in love and war?
“Personally I don't really have fixed boundaries for what particular acts count as cheating,” says Stuart, who’s chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, like others in this piece. He’s experienced both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships and feels “it's more about whether they’ve crossed a line that you have previously agreed together”. No matter the arrangement, he thinks trust is essential. “I might agree with a certain partner that they're cool to have hookups if we've built a level of trust up to that point, but until we have that conversation it would absolutely not be okay.”
With heteronormative monogamous relationships there's the benefit of certain things being unspoken assumed boundaries, says Stuart, like having sex with strangers. Without talking about it, most people would see this as off limits.
But is it actually absurd to assume? Many people never explicitly set the rules of being exclusive and monogamous, though you’re “obviously” in one. You could be three years into a relationship and have never actually brought it up. Even becoming “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” doesn’t require a question and answer these days – it’s often just thrown into a conversation sheepishly.
“When you take a more polyamorous or relationship anarchist approach, you can't make those assumptions,” Stuart continues. “Any and all boundaries are open to being communicated and negotiated – it’s kind of necessary if it's going to work.” Ultimately, though, he believes “there are risks in being too rigid as much as being too loose with boundaries”.
It seems like, rather than laying down hard and fast rules about what “counts” and what doesn’t, a growing number of people see cheating as a broader concept about betrayal. “Cheating is not one specific romantic or sexual thing,” Sophie, 27, suggests. “It's the act of going against a partner's wishes and behind their back.” As a polyamorous person, she stresses that sex means less than openness and honesty. “My rule is always that if a partner has a fling with someone else, they need to tell me about it and the person they have the fling with that they have a partner, so that person can make an informed decision whether or not they're OK with it.”
Sophie’s partner(s) could have “an absolute sex marathon” and she’d be completely fine with it – as long as they give her the heads up with some texts. “But it’d count as cheating the second they hide the hook up,” she adds.
Of course, there probably aren’t many people in monogamous relationships that’d be “completely fine” with their partners having a sex marathon with someone else – text or no text. As Daniel put it to VICE on Reddit: “It’s important to assert that different relationships work differently. You cannot compare fidelity expectations between a monogamous couple and a polyamorous couple.” But aside from questions of monogamy, there might also be a generational element at play.
Social media specialist Rae Radford is 60 and to her, the whole thing is simple. “If your loved one is remotely interested in somebody else, whether physically or mentally, then it's cheating,” she says. “If you love your partner, your lips don't suddenly slip onto someone else's, nor do your messages accidentally slide into someone else's DMs.”
Yet, to me at least, this hardline approach seems to have more fissures than at first glance. What might “mentally” cheating entail? “Now don't get me wrong,” Radford says, “we can all daydream about a movie star, but to mentally think about how you could get away with having an affair, or how you would feel in somebody else's bed is a 'mental affair' and maybe you're not as happy as you thought.” It seems we’re back on slippery, subjective territory.
Saying someone isn’t happy in a relationship if they fantasise about others seems to both condemn non-monogamy entirely and deny some essential facts about what it is to be human. Can anyone really stop all twinges of desire? Should people in monogamous relationships be expected to try? Okay, if you’re contemplating how to get away with bonking your colleague, Alan Rickman in Love Actually style, that might be a dick move. But what about lingering sexual eye contact with someone on the street when you both know, in another lifetime it’d be on? Or spending ever-so-slightly too long ever-so-slightly flirting with someone at the bar? Should you feel obliged to alert your partner to every sex dream and fantasy, or leave them because you’re thinking what it might be like to shag someone else – even if you have no intention of acting on it? That feels like an impossibly high bar to set for long-term monogamy. Surely it can’t be healthy for any relationship to be constantly vigilant to thoughtcrimes?
“I think the question ‘what counts as cheating?’ is so hard to answer because it's not well understood what ‘cheating’ means in monogamy,” says Robin, a self-described relationship anarchist. Acknowledging it’s usually “about breaking an agreement to be exclusively sexual and romantic with one specific person,” they questioned why this actually matters so much. “Why is ‘cheating’ in monogamy so different and more of a big deal to breaking an agreement to take out the trash on time, or water the plants?”
Robin believes it’s all wrapped up in the idea that exclusivity is commitment. “Meaning if you break your exclusivity, you aren't committed, or maybe you didn't even love the person in the first place,” Robin says. To their mind, this is the kind of manufactured social construct that non-monogamy is challenging. “It's like people have been taught to set trip wires, and if their partner gets caught in one of the trip wires, that means their love isn't real.”
The more time goes on, Robin has increasingly come to feel that setting up those kinds of trip wires is unreasonable and irrational. “I've moved more and more away from the idea that individual actions carry greater significance than the overall pattern of behaviour that my partner has shown.” This isn't to say that all behaviour is excusable, they emphasise, but rather they “question the value of taking one action out of context” and using that to decide the nature and value of the whole relationship. “I think people talk about ‘cheating’, but what they mean is: ‘What action or actions could your partner do that would instantly convince you they don't actually love or respect you?’”
Perhaps then, this brings it all back round to trust, and working out how to have relationships that feel safe and don’t operate from a place of fear, suspicion and blame. It takes bravery to battle the status quo, but we’re not expected to marry the first person we shag any more, so why shouldn’t we try to re-write other relationship rules that have been handed down from generations past? Perhaps rather than focusing on working out “rules” of any kind, we should all be working to remove trip wires that set relationships up to fail. Or we could always just go with one Redditor’s opinion on what constitutes cheating: “When the nipple makes its appearance.”