Cheating in Relationships

December 13th, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

Relationship cheating is a very common occurrence. If you haven’t experienced it yet, there’s a good chance you eventually will. In this article we’ll explore how often cheating occurs, how to define cheating, signs of cheating, and how to deal with it.

Although I personally prefer non-monogamy, I opted to write this article using a monogamous perspective since that seems to be the more popular relationship paradigm. Given the frequency of cheating in monogamous relationships, it would appear that true monogamy isn’t as common as people would have each other believe.

Frequency of Cheating

I found it difficult to track down good cheating statistics. This seems to be partly because people have a hard time being completely honest, even when surveyed in ways that safeguard their anonymity. There’s still some shame and guilt associated with admitting the truth, even in private. So instead of sharing a bunch of detailed stats that might be wrong, I’ll simply share the big picture elements.

Slightly more than half of all married people will cheat on their spouses at some point in their lives. Men apparently cheat more often than women, but the gap isn’t huge.

Most of the time cheating does occur, the other spouse doesn’t know about it, with women being in the dark slightly more often than men.

That’s if you’re married. If you’re in a committed relationship but aren’t married, then I’d imagine that the odds of cheating are even higher. Partly I say that because cheating is more common when you’re younger and becomes less likely as you age.

The big game-changer here is the Internet, which makes even 10-year old stats seem very dated now. Recents surveys suggest that most people have flirted online at one point or another, that when people spend time in chat rooms they’re usually motivated by romantic or sexual interest, and that about a third of adults have had real sex as a result of a connection that began online.

In the USA alone, tens of millions of people cheat on their primary relationship partners. Cheating is very, very common. Most of the time when people cheat, they hide it from their partners, and they usually succeed in doing so, not because they’re so great at keeping secrets but mainly because their partners fail to recognize and acknowledge the telltale signs.

Suffice it to say that cheating is rampant.

Statistically speaking, if you get involved in committed relationships or marriage, the odds are better than 50-50 that you’re eventually going to cheat at some point in your life. And you’ll probably hide it from your primary partner, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Of course you can decline to join this group if you so desire. However, there’s still a good chance you’ll end up in a relationship with someone else who’s a member, and you probably won’t know. Or you’ll know, but you’ll retreat into denial about it.

Defining Cheating

What exactly constitutes cheating? Not everyone defines cheating the same way. Society may condition us to think of cheating a certain way, but deep down we may not feel the same.

Have a heart to heart talk with your partner, and define what you would consider cheating. Your answers don’t have to be the same.

Here are some items to think about.

Would you or your partner find it problematic if you…

  • Have sexual thoughts about someone else
  • Stare at someone attractive walking by when you’re with your partner
  • Look at porn
  • Masturbate to porn
  • Masturbate while imagining having sex with someone else
  • Have sex with your partner while visualizing sex with someone else
  • Go to a strip club
  • Get a lap dance
  • Go dancing with someone you find attractive
  • Have coffee and a long chat with someone you find attractive
  • Go out to dinner and a show with someone you find attractive
  • Hug someone
  • Cuddle someone
  • Cuddle someone naked
  • Go on a vacation with someone
  • Sleep in the same bed with someone
  • Give or receive a foot massage
  • Give or receive a full body massage
  • Kiss someone lightly
  • Kiss someone passionately
  • French kiss someone
  • Hot chat with someone
  • Have phone sex with someone
  • Buy an expensive gift for someone you’re attracted to
  • Give or receive a hickey
  • Suck someone’s breasts
  • Engage in light petting with someone
  • Engage in heavy petting with someone
  • Give someone oral sex
  • Receive oral sex from someone
  • Have an orgasm with someone
  • Give someone an orgasm
  • Have intercourse without having an orgasm
  • Have intercourse with an orgasm
  • Have unprotected intercourse
  • Have a threesome with your partner
  • Have a threesome without your partner
  • Say to someone else “I love you” and mean it
  • Doing any of the above more than once
  • Doing any of the above more than once with the same person
  • Do any of the above with a member of the same sex
  • Do any of the above without telling your primary partner about it beforehand
  • Do any of the above without telling your primary partner at all

There are many possibilities for your boundaries. And your partner’s boundaries may be different than yours.

Think about:

  1. Your boundaries for yourself
  2. Your boundaries for your partner
  3. Your partner’s boundaries for his/herself
  4. Your partner’s boundaries for you

Each of these items may be quite different.

A problem that occurs often in relationships is that people don’t clearly define their boundaries. They just assume they know what their boundaries are and that their partner’s boundaries are similar. This makes it easy for either you or your partner to gradually slide across the border into the realm of “cheating” without ever really deciding to do so.

It would be very rare for someone to say, “I’m going to cheat on my partner.” What happens instead is that at some point, you discover you’ve already slipped across the border without trying to do so, and once you realize you’re already on the other side, then you figure you might as well make the best of it.

You don’t have to get this explicit if you don’t want to, but if you’ve had problems with cheating in the past, perhaps it would be wise to start by clarifying your boundaries with your partner.

You can’t force a boundary on your partner. Either they’ll willingly agree to it, or they won’t. If your boundaries are miles apart, and you or your partner resist closing the gap, then you’re probably better off looking for more compatible matches.

When you agree to certain boundaries and feel good about it, you have a good shot of avoiding cheating, regardless of where your boundaries actually are. If you don’t define your boundaries or if you and your partner only agree verbally but not in your hearts, then you’ve created the space to invite cheating into your relationship.

This article is specifically about cheating, but you can define boundaries in other ways too. For example, if you’re in an open relationship, then you may have very liberal boundaries sexually, so you may be hard-pressed to define anything there as cheating. However, you may still have important boundaries that involve safety, honesty, and kindness that may not fall within the realm of cheating. It’s a good idea to define those too if you and your partner can come to an agreement.

For example, if a friend tells you something in confidence, will you automatically share that with your partner? And will you let your friend know in advance that anything she tells you will be shared with your partner? Or do you slide into the gray area of assuming you’ll share everything with your partner and imagining that your friend expects this, even as you fear that if you told her this up front, she might decide to share less with you?

Signs of Cheating

Despite your best efforts, cheating can still occur. You may have control over your part of the commitment, but you don’t control your partner. Your partner remains free to make his/her own choices, including choices that may violate your mutually agreed upon commitment. It happens.

If you suspect your partner of cheating, you’re probably right, even if you don’t have much objective proof. It’s certainly not uncommon, and when you’ve been in a relationship with someone for a while, you may intuitively or logically notice that something has shifted.

Quite often, however, even when clear signs of cheating are present, people go into denial. They don’t want to believe it’s happening. So in order to preserve the illusion of their monogamous relationship, they pretend everything is okay and try to avoid confrontation.

There are many telltale signs of cheating, some subtle and some not so subtle. No single sign may be a smoking gun, but what do you see when you look at the big picture?

These signs of cheating include:

  • lipstick smudges or perfume odors that didn’t come from you
  • your partner becomes unusually private about protecting his/her email
  • higher than usual phone bills
  • your partner is vague when telling you about travel, nights out, etc.
  • you catch your partner lying to you
  • your mutual friends start distancing themselves from you or acting strange around you
  • people suddenly get quiet when you enter the room
  • if your partner is on the computer, s/he quickly switches apps or hides windows when you walk in
  • your partner shows sudden changes in sex patterns, such as wanting sex more/less often or wanting to experiment with new techniques
  • you find unexplained condoms, birth control, underwear, Viagra, etc.
  • your existing condom supply diminishes faster than you can account for
  • your partner becomes more emotionally distant and communicates less often or less deeply with you
  • your partner runs errands that seem to take much longer than they should
  • if you confront your partner about possible cheating, s/he blows up at you
  • when you ask your partner about certain discrepancies, the explanation doesn’t sound believable to you
  • your partner hides credit card statements or other bills
  • your partner seems to be withdrawing more cash from the ATM than usual, and you can’t discern where it’s going
  • you find unexplained receipts for things like meals and entertainment
  • your partner seems to be doing more business travel than usual, but there isn’t a good explanation for it like a promotion, transfer, or new work project.
  • your partner seems to be eating less and/or you’re spending less on food, suggested there are meals that are unaccounted for
  • your partner dresses nicer than usual when running errands
  • your partner seems unusually interested in getting in shape
  • you learn that your partner missed a day of work when s/he was supposedly working
  • your partner supposedly puts in more hours “at the office,” but there’s no overtime pay or promotion forthcoming
  • your partner is supposedly working late, but you can’t reach him/her when you call
  • your partner has unexplained marks like hickeys or scratches
  • your partner begins wearing his/her wedding ring less often than usual or seemingly forgets to put it on
  • your partner stops taking the kids along on errands when s/he used to do that
  • your partner says “I love you” less often, seems more distant when s/he says it, or seems more distant when you say it
  • your partner seems to resist or delay making future plans with you, such as buying a new car or getting pregnant
  • your partner spends less time with you or seems to be avoiding you
  • your partner becomes unusually critical or hostile
  • your partner seems to be spending a lot more time online or on the phone
  • it’s more difficult than usual to get in touch with your partner when s/he’s out at work
  • your partner takes extra showers, such as immediately after getting home from work or errands
  • your partner does laundry at unusual times
  • your partner takes longer than usual to reply to text messages or seems annoyed when you call
  • your partner behaves strangely when the suspected target is nearby
  • your partner orgasms less frequently than usual during sex
  • your partner suggests that you go on trips without him/her, such as visiting your family for a few days
  • your partner boosts your cell phone plan to add more minutes or text capabilities, but it’s a mystery where that extra capacity is going
  • you catch your partner using their cell phone in odd locations like the backyard or garage
  • your partner accuses you of cheating, but you aren’t
  • your partner starts changing passwords on accounts you used to be able to access
  • your partner seems to intentionally pick fights with you
  • your partner changes or hides his/her relationship status on social networking sites
  • your partner goes out with friends, but if you call the friends s/he is supposedly with, they obviously aren’t out with your partner
  • your partner’s sex techniques change suddenly
  • your partner buys new lingerie that she never seems to wear
  • some of your partner’s clothing goes missing
  • your partner guards/hides their cell phone and never leaves it lying around unattended
  • your partner frequently nukes all saved text messages and/or emails
  • your partner incorrectly remembers gifts s/he gave you but which you never received
  • your partner shuts down and password protects their computer when they leave

Perhaps the #1 sign of cheating is the sinking feeling that your partner is cheating on you. If you get that feeling, you’re probably right.

Incidentally, when cheating does occur, quite often it’s with a co-worker. Most people have sex with a co-worker at some point in their lives, and sometimes they do it when they’re already in a relationship with someone else.

Dealing With Cheating

If cheating should occur, or if you’re suspicious of cheating, it’s entirely up to you how you wish to respond to it. There’s no single right or wrong solution.

Many people bury their heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. This usually doesn’t work so well. It may retain the frame of the relationship, but it kills your chances of lasting intimacy. It may successfully preserve your lifestyle and financial situation for a while though if that’s all you care about.

Some people confront and then forgive their partners. Much of the time the cheating pattern returns, often with the same person but sometimes with new partners.

Some people leave the relationship. Quite often, however, they enter into another relationship where the same cheating pattern surfaces again.

If you find yourself in this situation, take responsibility for it. You chose this particular partner. There were probably warning signs that you chose to disregard. You may have valued certain factors like security above happiness. You may have been excessively clingy and unwilling to accept the truth. You may be harboring the belief that it’s difficult to find good partners.

I’m not saying you should blame yourself or beat yourself up about it. Nor do you need to become hyper-vigilant and paranoid that it may happen again. Simply take responsibility for your role in the situation, consider what lessons you learned, forgive your partner, and move on from it.

My preference is to acknowledge that people always have other options for connection, and they may enjoy other partners besides me, even if we’re in a close relationship together. Rather than seeing this as a problem, I see it as an opportunity to expand my experience of love, shifting it from attachment to abundance. I understand that any woman I get involved with is going to have other options. I also know that change is the only constant. She may change. I may change. Both of us may change. There’s nothing wrong with that per se.

Everyone is unique. Monogamy works very well for some people, while others thrive in open relationships. The key is to figure out what forms of connection work best for you, and then be true to yourself and honor who you are. It may take some experimentation to discover what’s most important to you, but each new connection will teach you valuable lessons about yourself, even those that end in heartbreak.


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