Sorry, But Your Partner Gets To Decide What Counts As Cheating


What counts as cheating has been up for debate since the dawn of modern relationships. What is cheating? Does flirting count as cheating? How about kissing? Or watching porn? If your partner is a stripper or a sex worker, does that mean they’re cheating on you every night?

I’ve been seeing an uptick in this debate as of late. Perhaps it’s because of the recent story about the woman who left her fiancé because she found out he was watching porn. Perhaps it’s because alternatives to monogamy, like polyamory or ethical non-monogamy, are becoming a little more mainstream. Regardless, everyone seems to have an opinion as to what constitutes cheating. And everyone has become quite vocal about it.

But there’s a problem with this. With any good debate, a set of definitions has to be agreed upon, lest your debate goes in circles. Too many people think the definition of cheating is universal – that there is one set of standards that all respecting relationships should abide by.

But that’s the problem: there isn’t.

There’s a reason why this is such a hot button topic. What counts as cheating in one relationship is standard operating procedure in another. And what’s standard operating procedure in one relationship is relationship-destroying infidelity in another. There is no such thing as a universal, cookie cutter, across-the-board, “correct” definition of cheating.

Cheating, as a bare-bones explanation, is breaking the boundaries (and, subsequently, the trust) created in the relationship. Every relationship has a different set of boundaries. In turn, every relationship has to decide for themselves what counts as cheating.

And here’s the kicker: your partner is the one who gets to decide what counts as cheating for you.

Likewise, you get to decide what counts as cheating for your partner. Whether it’s as restrictive as watching porn or as permissive as having sex or even serious relationships with other people. But what rests at the heart of it is that you don’t get to decide if your actions count as cheating; your partner does.

It doesn’t have to be rational. And perhaps this is where people get stuck: they want to debate on what is a rational concept of cheating. They want to judge those who fall outside of that realm of rational, both on the restrictive side and on the permissive side. They want to shake their heads at the restrictive people and say, “That totally doesn’t count as cheating — what is wrong with you?” And they want to shake their heads at the permissive people and say, “That is totally cheating — what is wrong with you?”

But that’s the beautiful (and frustrating) thing about relationships: each relationship defines what they need, what is healthy, and what they’re hoping to get out of it.

Again: it doesn’t have to be rational. And you don’t have to agree with your partner’s definition. But you do have to respect it. Whether you’re with someone who thinks talking one-on-one with the gender you’re attracted to is cheating or you’re with someone who identifies as polyamorous. It can be negotiated, discussed, and analyzed, but, in the end, you have exactly two options: respect it or leave the relationship.

It’s okay to leave a relationship because you don’t agree with your partner’s definition of cheating. It’s the same as ending a relationship because one person wants marriage and kids and the other wants neither. It doesn’t mean someone is right or wrong – just that each person’s values and goals don’t line up with the other.

Perhaps so many relationships hit rough ground because, for many, the definition of cheating is just assumed. For some, that assumption works. But for others, they hit a wall when a partner does something they thought was innocent, or within the boundaries, and the other partner doesn’t feel the same way.

This is why communication is key in any relationship. Talk about what you want, what boundaries you need, and what would hurt you if your partner ever did it. Negotiate the terms of your relationship, as unsexy as that can be. This is not to say you whip out a contract on the third date and demand the person across the table from you sign onto your goal of marriage, kids, and sexual monogamy. But communicating what you need and what you don’t want is vital.

So does watching porn count as cheating? If your partner thinks so, then yes. And they’re entitled to leave you if you watch it (and you’re entitled to leave if you don’t like the terms). By the same token, making out with a stranger at the bar might not be cheating if your partner has consented to such behavior and doesn’t see it as a violation of the terms of the relationship. Such a fluid concept of cheating can be unsatisfying, but everyone benefits from removing the cookie cutter definition and allowing relationships to define it on their own.