Phil Eiseman is a third-year clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studying under Dr. Zoë Peterson. His research interests include the ways in which people express their gender identities, how beliefs about gender influence cross-gender relationships, and boundary setting in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships. His non-research interests include running, puzzles, games and learning new things from people with all kinds of different backgrounds.
Let’s say Sarah and Emily have been dating for two months. Sarah is very affectionate with her friends, tending to hug and cuddle frequently. Emily is more guarded; she doesn’t like hugs much and prefers to only be physically affectionate with her partners. On a dinner date, Sarah makes a comment about her friend Sadie that implies the two were cuddling together while watching a movie. Emily becomes very quiet and sullen for the remainder of the dinner. When Sarah asks her what’s wrong, Emily dodges the question. Then Sarah reaches out by text the next morning, and Emily replies angrily and accuses Sarah of cheating.
If you’re anything like me, you probably assume that most people have the same definition of cheating as you do. But I’ve found quite the opposite.
Cheating can create huge breaches of trust. And it sometimes happens more out of misunderstanding than malice—because people have different ideas about what cheating is. Am I cheating if I fall in love with someone, but never act on those feelings? If I complain about my partner? If I tell someone personal things about myself that I wouldn’t usually tell my friends?
It depends! Dr. Zoë Peterson and I conducted an online survey of college students and found that 90 percent or more of them labeled things like kissing and sex as cheating. However, for most emotionally but not physically intimate behaviors, between 40 and 60 percent of people thought they counted as cheating. So basically, they were pretty evenly split.
The word “cheating” means different things to different people.
So, what can we do? In starting or building a relationship, we need to sit down and have an honest conversation with our partners regarding where we stand. This process should start pretty basic: Are we choosing to be monogamous, or do we want to navigate boundaries in other ways? Whatever the answer, the next step is to start exploring and sharing attitudes toward physical and emotional intimacy outside the relationship. These conversations can address topics like:
- Your current relationships (platonic and otherwise) with people of the gender(s) or gender expression(s) you’re attracted to
- The types of intimacy you share with people other than your partner
- The types of intimacy you feel are exclusive to this relationship
- The types of intimacy you’re comfortable with your partner sharing with other people
- The types of intimacy you want your partner to keep exclusive to this relationship
- How you feel about attraction (your own and your partner’s) to people outside the relationship, and how you want to respond to that attraction
Respecting our partners’ desires doesn’t always mean avoiding behaviors that make them uncomfortable. We never have the right to control our partners’ behaviors, or vice versa. We respect our partners by viewing their feelings as legitimate and by finding ways to demonstrate that we care about their feelings. We show respect for ourselves by treating our own feelings as valid, and by not giving up on outside relationships that we value simply for the sake of keeping our partners comfortable.
In new relationships, we often want to impress our partners. We might be scared to show that we really do care about the relationship, because that investment makes us vulnerable. But if we care enough to be hurt by the other person’s actions, we owe it to them and to ourselves to communicate about it. Talking explicitly about relationship boundaries, aka what constitutes “cheating,” can prevent misunderstandings and can build a foundation for addressing each other’s needs in the future, as one partner will (perhaps inevitably) confuse or cross a boundary at some point.
Emily kept quiet about the feelings that came up for her during their dinner date, not wanting to show Sarah that she really cared enough to be bothered by the cuddling. But Sarah didn’t know what Emily’s boundaries were or how to respect them. If she had asked, or if Emily had said something, they could have figured something out. Maybe Sarah wouldn’t cuddle with her friends moving forward. Maybe she would cuddle with certain friends and not with others. Maybe she would continue cuddling as usual, but text Emily when she does. Both partners have a responsibility to know the other’s comfort level, and to let the other know their own boundaries. From there, they can build a relationship that feels good for both of them.