Infidelity, adultery and secrets. Woman holding finger in front of mouth to indicate secret.

Infidelity – what is it and what counts?

I think infidelity is a fascinating topic because it has existed for as long as the construct of monogamous marriage. Most of us have been affected by it it some way. For example, maybe a partner had an affair, maybe you did? Maybe you were the one having a relationship with someone who was married, or maybe your friends or parents were affected?

But what is infidelity? Maybe your perception of it has changed overtime? Is it possible to define it? You might say “Of course!, it’s crystal clear, it’s if my partner would cheat on me!” Ok, but what exactly does that mean?

Adultery vs infidelity

Often adultery and infidelity are used interchangeably. There are however differences which I will explain.

Adultery is often broadly defined as sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than their spouse, whereas infidelity is a wider term. It includes adultery but it can refer to either a romantic or sexual affair, and occur in an intimate relationship that does not have to be a marriage.

Adultery is prohibited by law in some cultures. That of course makes it very clear when you have overstepped the mark. But what about infidelity in a broader sense, and in more modern cultures where adultery is no longer a crime?

Three elements of infidelity

In her book “State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” Esther Perel suggests that infidelity includes one or more of the following components: secrecy, sexual alchemy and emotional involvement. Most of us would probably agree that secrecy is integral to infidelity, after all we tend to expect our partner(s) to be honest. We talk about betrayal, going behind someone’s back. Sexual alchemy means that affairs are always erotic but don’t necessary always involve the physical act of sex. Don’t you agree that erotic tension has little to do with genitals touching? Emotional involvement means there is an emotional intimacy. Some people can untangle sex and emotions but for many this is difficult. Furthermore the emotions may not be attached to the precise act itself, but why did it happen in the first place?

Your definition

So, what is infidelity? This is now very much a question for each couple to define. Do you have fundamentally different beliefs about what might count as infidelity? If you do, this could become a problem if it surfaces later on. Have you talked about it?

People get upset by different things. What you feel is a betrayal, your partner may not, and they may not understand that it is hurtful to you and vice versa.

Therefore, understanding each others’ boundaries and beliefs, and negotiating some common ground of acceptance before something happens that one person considers infidelity, can prevent someone getting hurt unnecessarily. For example, in the table below I have listed a number of things that could be considered infidelity. Each act could happen with or without the knowledge or prior consent of the other person.

Go through the list below and see for yourself where you stand on each of these scenarios. Which of these acts would constitute infidelity to you? What about your partner? Can you work through the list individually and compare? If you have vastly different answers, what are you going to do? What conversations do you need to have so that you can both feel comfortable?

There is no fixed right or wrong

It is important to note that there is no right or wrong in this list. It’s not a test where you should score a certain number. You can both disagree with your respective answers. It does not mean that one person is right, It just means that maybe you look at infidelity through different lenses, or that perhaps you made different interpretations of the questions.

You may want to add other things to the list, it is just a compilation of suggestions, a conversation starter. You may find some suggestions extreme, you may not. We all have different definitions and frames of reference for our relationships. Someone may not be able to accept even a flirt, whereas someone in an open relationship may be perfectly fine with their partner having a romantic relationship with someone else as long as they know about it, or as long as they don’t overstep certain agreements about such relationships that the couple may have defined between them.

Infidelity check list for couples

Infidelity to me is if my partner….. (Yes, No or does it depend?)

Scenario if we had prior agreement – is it infidelity? if I did/do not know about it – is it infidelity?
flirts with someone unknown (eyes meeting) – one off event.    
repeatedly flirts with someone at work but nothing physical happens    
generally has a flirty behaviour (gives compliments to others for example)    
follows “sexy” people on social media, like accounts on instagram with semi-nude or nude images    
is friends with ex-partners on social media    
is still in regular contact with ex-partners but as friends    
spends time with a close friend of the same sex    
spends time with a close friend of the opposite sex    
has a profile on one or more dating apps    
is chatting with people I don’t know on social media    
kisses someone else    
engages in casual sex with someone else as a one-off    
regularly engages in casual sex with one or several other people    
has a romantic relationship with someone else    
watches porn (images, film)    
engages in interactive porn (cyber-sex, camming)    
goes to a strip club    
pays for physical sex    

Talking about it

It may well be that you don’t have a climate in your current relationship where you can even bring up this subject. Maybe you haven’t talked about personal and intimate topics for a long time, Maybe you are afraid that if you bring it up your partner will believe that you are unfaithful already, or suspecting them of some wrongdoing. I do believe that if you do not have a climate of trust where you can talk about these things, you need to begin with creating that first because good communication is the foundation for a well functioning relationship. Seek help if you are unable to do it yourselves.

Further thoughts on infidelity

A number of other questions of course arise on infidelity and I will treat them separately in future articles. For example, questions that spring to mind include: Why is my partner cheating? Is it wrong if I want to seek sex outside of my marriage?, How can we prevent infidelity in our relationship?, Someone has been unfaithful, how do we work through this? My partner doesn’t want to stop cheating, what should I do?

What do you think of this topic? Do you agree or disagree with me? What is infidelity to you?

I would love to get your comments on this article because it gives me ideas for future topics and I love hearing people’s experiences. Let me know what you think. If you don’t want to comment openly you can send me a message via the contact form and it can be anonymous.

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One comment

  • AD May 16, 2020   Reply →

    Good post… As humans, all of us definitely don’t think the same and view things from different perspectives often. As a result, when it comes to the definition of certain things like infidelity, which can vary from person to person, it’s important to define what the other person criteria is, so both people can be on the same page.

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