Anyone who has ever watched a television show can tell you that the worst part about doing something bad, apparently, is hiding it. ("The fact that you hid *innocuous activity with ex* from me means you still love her!! I wouldn't have had a problem with *innocuous activity* if you'd just told me.") The secrecy implies guilt. Cheating, of course, is bad whether you hide it or not, but in the ambiguity of our technological present—when DMing, sexting, and messaging emotionally intimate shit to people who aren't your partner is common—the definition of infidelity is unclear. Is there such a thing as an innocuous ass pic, or a platonic 2 AM "i miss uu" text? Can you exchange text messages every day with someone who may or may not have confessed his love for you over cheese fries after a party three months ago and leave it at "we're actually just really close friends"?
I say: Yes. Maybe. In these instances, we must look to honesty and communication as our governing principles. If, and only if, you're hiding these exchanges from your partner—or you know your partner would be perturbed to see a dick flash on your phone—it's cheating. (But if you and your partner have a chill set-up where sexting other people is how you keep things fun and flirty—amazing. I love that. Get. It.) So where's the line? A woman in a monogamous relationship told me she would find it very hurtful if she found out her partner were regularly exchanging emotionally intimate messages without her knowledge. The not-knowing-about-it part would be the worst. "I don't think I would necessarily call it cheating, but to be honest, what is or is not cheating seems pretty arbitrary to me at this point," she said over email. "Telling the other person going in that there are other people who may be important to you, and that's something they're going to have to deal with, would be good. I think the idea that you can only be emotionally intimate with one person forever is pretty nuts." (She signed off with: "Sending you lots of love! (which, if you were a guy, would that be cheating??)")
Another woman in a long-term relationship said she would "absolutely consider it cheating" if her partner had an emotional relationship with another woman online and didn't tell her about it. "If he was talking to some girl on social media that he shared common interests with and was having a non-sexual conversation with and told me about it, I would feel threatened, because I can be a jealous and insecure partner, but I wouldn't consider it cheating," she said. "I would talk to him about it and try to understand it and work from there."
"Relationships to me are about finding someone you can share with, not just your body, but your emotions, your insecurities and your disgusting habits," she continued. "If I found out he was doing that with someone else and was keeping it from me, I would be heartbroken. If it wasn't some kind of cheating, my partner would want that person to be part of my life, too."
Sameera Sullivan, a dating coach at Lasting Connections, is unforgiving about emotional intimacy (secretly) forged outside of a relationship. "Being emotionally involved with another person other than your partner is still cheating," she said. "Whether it's sexting, texting, or any type of message, it's a violation of trust and loyalty that you have with your partner. Respect and trust is the number one priority for a healthy relationship, and if that is broken then it's hard to rebuild."
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But just as an intense emotional relationship can give way to physical cheating, this logic can be a slippery slope. Are you supposed to clear it with your partner every time you have a meaningful conversation with someone? Is it unreasonable to desire friendships—which can often be ambiguous—that exist separate and distinct from one's long-term monogamous relationship?
Ultimately, an honest relationship looks different to everyone. "All couples should define the boundaries of their monogamy," a friend tells me, and I agree. "Because if that doesn't bother someone, then it's not cheating. If it does, and [their partner is] doing in secret, then it is." A friend in a stupid-loving open relationship echoed this sentiment. "I've seen dick pics on my boyfriend's phone, which I didn't care about because he wasn't trying to hide it," he says. "We often share nudes others have sent us. But I might feel differently if they were, like, locked in a super-secret folder. As long as he's honest, none of that stuff feels like cheating. Hiding would be the deal-breaker for me."
Not only was the intent there—he would have happily penetrated me—but he hid it from his girlfriend because he knew it was messed up.
As someone who is extremely not in a loving or committed romantic relationship, the issue of cheating is rarely top of mind, except in the context of Italians losing soccer matches, which I usually attribute to vast anti-Italian conspiracies. Yet, quite frequently, I receive somewhat-intimate and flirtatious DMs from random men who are—very visibly—in committed relationships, and sometimes engaged or married. I would be shocked if their partners were high-fiving them as they messaged me, "Let me know if ur ever in Tulsa ;)." I'll never forget a week-long exchange I had with a comedy writer (OK, I know) from Tinder three years ago. We were close to solidifying meet-up plans when he told me he had an out-of-state girlfriend, but that they were in an open thing. When I pushed him on it, he eventually revealed that his girlfriend didn't know he was on Tinder—or that their thing was open. (I have an uncanny ability to solicit confessions from men, even when I don't care to.) He deleted his Tinder, and I screamed in the shower. Was he cheating? Not to get all Minority Report-y and anticipate people's crimes, but: I think so, yes. Not only was the intent there—he would have happily penetrated me—but he hid it from his girlfriend because he knew it was messed up. He obstructed justice by not being truthful to me or her, and that implies guilt.
This bears repeating: Flirting on apps when you're in a relationship is not inherently bad. Let's look to French philosophy. Simone de Beauvoir, who referred to her 51-year-long open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre "the one undoubted success in my life," can help us understand that cheating-presenting behaviors become cheating only when mutually agreed-upon boundaries are broken. Sartre and de Beauvoir set parameters that allowed them to fuck and flirt with other people. But if those guidelines aren't written into your relationship, the terms of which should be defined by ongoing verbal contract, and you are covertly seeking out romantic or sexual stimulation, maybe you should rethink being in a relationship that requires your dishonesty to protect it. In The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir revels in the liberating magic of honesty—of "bearing witness" with your partner:
One single aim fired us, the urge to embrace all experience, and to bear witness concerning it. At times this meant that we had to follow diverse paths—though without concealing even the least of our discoveries from one another. When we were together we bent our wills so firmly to the requirements of this common task that even at the moment of parting we still thought as one. That which bound us freed us; and in this freedom we found ourselves bound as closely as possible.
One soon-to-be married woman tells me, "A good rule of thumb is, 'What would my partner say if he saw this?' And if you're not comfortable with the thought, that's a bad sign." The informal law here, I guess, is to not be a shady piece of shit. But this law doesn't apply to everything. For example, if you exclusively masturbate to Emily Ratajkowski's Instagram, you can keep that to yourself. Some things should be just for you.