Barn owls, prairie voles, the pot-bellied seahorse, and human beings. What do all these species have in common? They are all animals that—according to nature documentaries—mate for life.
But let's be honest—out of that group, it's only the barn owls, prairie voles, and pot-bellied seahorses that really mate for life. Humans may spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about monogamy, but we're not actually very good at it.
Trustworthy statistics around infidelity are hard to come by, because guess what: Cheating on people involves lying, and people don't always answer surveys about their sex lives honestly. One set of data suggested that between 30 to 60 percent of married Americans had cheated on their spouse; another revealed that 45 percent of British men and 32 percent of women had been unfaithful in the past.
But maybe there's another reason why clear statistics about infidelity are hard to find: because no one knows quite what it means? What "cheating" means for one couple, or one member of a couple, could be completely normal behavior to another? Does cheating always mean penetrative sex? What about the guy who downloads Tinder but never goes on a date? The girl who flirts outside the marriage but would never dream of taking it further? The person in an open relationship who falls in love outside of it?
We asked some people who think about these issues both professionally and personally, "What does cheating on someone even mean?"
Tanseem, Family Lawyer
Legally, adultery is defined as "sexual contact." If you wanted a divorce on the grounds of adultery, that would simply be, "My spouse has had a physical relationship with another person." But of course that definition may vary from couple to couple. It's down to their own perception of the contract between them and what constitutes a betrayal. If people say, "This goes beyond what I agreed or what I wanted" a judge would almost never interfere with that.
It's important to say that, nowadays, there's very little assessment or judgment on the causes of a marriage failing. In the old days, there was definitely still a moral discussion about the cause of a divorce, and adultery was very significant. It changed around the early-ish 20th century. Most of us now litigate around the welfare of children or the division of property. It's more about sorting the debris.
But often our clients don't necessarily understand that. There are moments when clients seem to want to use their lawyers as therapists and insist on giving us every gory detail of why their marriage failed, even when we've explained to them that that's not really our job.
There was one case in particular where a wife filed for divorce; then her husband accused her of adultery—his only evidence being that he claimed she had a loose vagina. What had actually happened is that she had had a vaginal tear during childbirth. The judge and I had to really drum into him that we don't explore any of this stuff as a matter of course—if two people accept it's over, then it's over.
WATCH: 10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Sex Worker
Emma, Sex Worker
It's fairly simple, in a way—if you're having any sort of sex with someone who isn't your partner that they don't know about.
If I had to guess, I'd say my clients are split 50/50 attached or single. Sometimes it's obvious—if they have a wedding ring on, or feel they have to justify themselves, saying things like, "I've been married for 30 years, and my wife doesn't want sex any longer."
Often they have a wife who isn't understanding about a fantasy or fetish, or she might be ill. And I can have some sympathy with that. If my partner was into something that I didn't want to do, I'd say go off and pay for it—let me recommend someone for you.
It's also not always about sex. For a lot of men, it's about intimacy and just being with a woman—warmth and companionship. And again, I have sympathy for that.
On the other hand, sometimes guys do tell me something, and I just think, You're a bit of a shit, and I feel sorry for your wife—if they're in a relationship, but just want to have sex with lots of different women and don't have the honesty to tell their wives they want an open relationship.
I'm actually quite idealistic. I like the idea that if you're in a relationship you should be able to discuss your sexual needs and desires and talk about what the problem is. I couldn't imagine being with someone I couldn't talk about these things with, but obviously that's not always the case.
Then there's the other side: the sex workers themselves. I know a lot of escorts who are in relationships, and it's just work—not cheating at all. They don't sleep with anyone other than clients. But many women don't want to be in a relationship while doing this work. It's difficult—if you meet someone, do you tell this person you're a sex worker? At what point do you say something? Again, that's a complicated issue that will be different for every person in this business.
Dr. Elinor Mason, Moral Philosopher, Edinburgh University
Obviously a philosopher would start by trying to define "infidelity"—different relationships will have different agreements. It would be nice if we could come up with a consistent definition of "infidelity" across different boundaries. Perhaps something like: any activity or relationship that detracts from the main relationship. That doesn't even mention sexual contact. It's conceivable that certain types of really intense friendship could be infidelity—if you are giving part of yourself away that you have actually promised to your partner.
This could, of course, include cyber-sex. People sometimes argue that this is a gray area—I don't think it is. If it detracts from the relationship, it is infidelity.
Part of what constitutes infidelity is what your partner would consent to. I deliberately say "would" because there's an element of good faith there. Paradoxically, if you have to hammer out every eventuality, there may well be an element of bad faith. Some things have to be explicit, but there also has to be an element of mutual understanding.
Then there is the morality of infidelity—the consequentialist question, "What if being unfaithful would have the best consequences?" There are many different kinds of wrongness. Normally, one shouldn't hurt people, but self-care is also a moral good. So should one compromise one's own desires in every situation? There can be a conflict of moral goods. This is a philosophically complicated issue.
"I've had one partner say, 'It's not cheating if you're not sticking your penis somewhere.' Other times, one person thinks it doesn't count when you're out of the country or you're drunk—and the partner is like, 'You've got to be kidding.'"
Catriona May, Relationship Therapist
When people talk about cheating, it means something is being transgressed. It's an agreement between a couple, and that agreement is broken. In my work, for most couples it's an actual sexual affair, but sometimes people are concerned about a very intimate friendship. That can be just as destructive.
It's a question of communication expectations. I often have to put the question to couples, "What does monogamy mean to you?" And the answers will often be very different.
I've had one partner say, "It's not cheating if you're not sticking your penis somewhere," but his partner had totally different ideas and was worried about him building up intense and intimate relationships that were taking away from them as a couple. Other times, one person thinks it doesn't count when you're out of the country or you're drunk—and the partner is like, 'You've got to be kidding.'
Jealousy can be very powerful, and any perceived intimacy outside the relationship can be just as destructive. It's generally that one or both partners has issues with trust that they're bringing into the relationship from before. That's when people get suspicious and start checking phones and pockets.
Brooke and Adam, (Former) Open Relationship Couple
Brooke: We broke up about a month ago after six years together. We started discussing opening things up about three years into the relationship; it then took another couple of years to really appreciate what was cheating and what wasn't.
For me, what infidelity came down to was not bringing it too close to home—not creating awkward situations among friends or going to high-risk emotional places, and about trusting that the other person won't let it interrupt your life as a couple too much. We probably would have broken up sooner if we hadn't explored those areas… we actually didn't do that much if we're honest.
You also don't have to define yourself as in an open relationship forever. If one person is saying, "I can't handle this right now," then the other has to be able to say, "Alright, I'll let go and just reconnect to us." That's where we did fail. One person said I need to close this, and the other person wasn't able to… basically, he was a fool and lost me [laughs].
Adam: For me, it wasn't cheating as long as it didn't affect your dynamic in a negative way. We did agree that if we did anything it would have to be with someone the other person didn't know. Milan Kundera—a French writer—says that to avoid lust becoming love you should see someone two or three times in quick succession and then never again, or only once every three weeks or so.
There's an element of breach of expectations as well. If you get married and say you're going to be faithful in church in front of everyone's friends and family, then you break that, someone's going to be pissed off. But if you've set expectations of freedom then one person doesn't feel shortchanged. We tried to create an expectation that prepared us for when events happened, that we had to deal with our own emotions first—not just fire back at the other person.
I think monogamy can stifle a relationship just as much as the idea of infidelity, so being open can be a really positive thing. On the other hand, we're both musicians, and Brooke's last album was called Wandering Heart and mine was The Road Not Taken, so there may well be some significance in that.
Leah, (Former) Open Relationship Enthusiast
Infidelity to me has always been about a violation of trust. The most important thing in any relationship is trust—the breakdown of trust is infidelity. You can be in an open relationship and have as many partners as you want, but the moment you lie to your partner or partners—in my eyes that's when infidelity happens.
In my experience, a major motivator for people in open relationships is to mitigate hurt and psychological pain. You put barriers up, and there's an element of FOMO, but ultimately a lot of the time it's a fear of vulnerability or a fear of being hurt. A lot of people I know who are vocal about polyamory are people I know that have been hurt big time. It's a way to take an extra step back.
I've been in open relationships in the past, but when I met my current partner, I suppose I just knew I'd met someone I actually didn't want to share. It's not about owning a person; it's about finding the right person for you—and you just go, "Ah, this makes sense."
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