K, So What *Actually* Counts as Infidelity?

There is no pain quite like the one that comes with being cheated on. Not only does it majorly hurt to know that the person you love broke your trust, but also, the consequences of infidelity can be pretty earth-shattering. From broken hearts, to broken families, and victims left struggling to trust in future relationships—compared with other relationship betrayals, cheating can cause unparalleled anguish.

“All betrayal hurts. But the particular betrayal of being lied to about an affair can feel worse than other types of lying,” says Dr. Tammy Nelson, author of Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement, and other books on relationship dynamics and infidelity. “It impacts one’s sense of self and forces the cheated-on partner to change their own identity to conform to their new role as the partner of a cheater.”

Basically, infidelity is messy and hurts like hell. But learning the different ways it manifests and why it happens in the first place can be a helpful step in overcoming the fear of it happening, or healing after it already has. Here’s what you need to know.

What is infidelity?

“Infidelity is a violation of a couple’s relationship commitment,” says licensed professional counselor Brandy Porche, owner of His Daughter Counseling The Heart. When individuals make a commitment to each other, they should define and agree on expectations of exclusivity. When cheating occurs, it means that commitment has been violated.

Dr. Nelson explains that “couples can feel betrayed by many varieties of straying from a monogamy agreement.” For example, some couples might define kissing another person as cheating, while others might not. Some may be fine with their partner flirting with a sexy coworker, but draw the line at them continuing the conversation after work hours over text. It’s up to every individual to express where that boundary exists for them, even though the conversation can be difficult.

“Every couple should define their expectations up front and before committing,” Porche says. “Couples should navigate and discuss their mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual expectations. This allows both partners to make an informed decision before entering the union.” If your partner knows exactly what cheating means to you, and vice versa, then you’re less likely to face miscommunication down the road.

Why does cheating happen?

Even if you and your partner have an individual agreement about what cheating looks like in your relationship, that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t ever cheat. Ultimately, no one can control anyone else, and according to Dr. Nelson, there are many reasons cheating can happen. Here are just a few:

What forms can cheating take?

Porche says there are three forms that cheating can take: emotional, sexual, and spiritual.

“Emotional infidelity is when one of the partners in the committed relationship establishes an emotional connection and attachment with someone outside of the relationship,” Porche says. This could be texting with a friend so often that it cuts into time with their partner, or secretly allowing feelings of love and attraction to grow with someone else. When cheating is ill-defined within a couple, the cheating partner may claim “nothing physical happened, so it doesn’t count,” but “in many cases, this type of infidelity can be more hurtful and damaging to the relationship,” Porche says.

Sexual infidelity is the most clear cut type of cheating, and it’s when a partner engages in “sexual relationships with someone outside the committed relationship,” says Porche. Generally, sexual contact with anyone outside of the relationship is implicitly defined as cheating, but it’s always best to clearly establish exactly where that line is drawn with your partner.

Porche also describes what she calls spiritual infidelity. “This is when one partner spiritually connects with someone outside of the relationship to the point of attachment and dependence. This particular type of infidelity may start as an innocent spiritual connection in the form of help that leads to emotional attachment and expectations.”

Essentially, if your partner used to come to in times of need or distress, but are instead finding that comfort in someone else, it could be a case of spiritual infidelity.

Can cheating happen in non-monogamous relationships?

There is a false stereotype that people engage in non-monogamy to absolve themselves of any potential instances of cheating, but that is far from the truth. “Affairs can happen even in open relationships,” says Nelson. She describes it as outfidelity, or the betrayal of a non-monogamy agreement. “A partner can keep secrets from more than one partner, just like they can cheat on a monogamous partner. Anytime there is a betrayal outside of an open agreement, it counts as infidelity,” says Nelson.

Most non-monogamists enjoy the greater depth of communication that is required for their lifestyle to work, and are able to clearly define what cheating looks like for them. For example, a triad of partners are not monogamous to just one person, but they may agree to be monogamous between the themselves and closed off to other potential relationships. Or swingers may happily hook up with other couples, but only agree to “soft swap”, in which no penetration occurs. Violation of these boundaries could be considered infidelity by those who originally set the terms.

Some people may mistakenly look to non-monogamy as a solution to infidelity, but most people in the lifestyle know that opening a relationship should be done to enhance it, not fix it. “Changing the agreement when things are not working to be more fluid and flexible doesn’t heal a betrayal,” Nelson warns. “It can only work when both partners are willing to communicate and practice a new, more open monogamy form of agreement and can co-create a vision of their ideal future and continuously redefine it as they grow.”

Can a relationship be salvaged after cheating?

Yes, healing a relationship after infidelity can be possible if both partners still love each other, can forgive each other, and genuinely want to make it work, but that healing can take time. “Truth is the first step when trying to heal infidelity—the cheating partner must admit to the betrayal,” Porche says. The next step is for them to explain their decision to cheat, and admit that it was, indeed, a choice.

“The third step involves the cheating partner being there for the other partner as they mentally and emotionally process the betrayal,” says Porche. They must be supportive as the cheated-on partner experiences the anger of betrayal and grieves the loss of what they believed their relationship was.

Both partners need to be up front about their feelings during this process, and understand that it may feel like a rollercoaster as they adjust to this new reality. Some relationships can come out stronger as a result of enduring this challenge, but it’s also important to recognize when it cannot be salvaged, and when to walk away. “Most times, infidelity is the unreconciled result of the inner happenings of the cheating partner,” Porche says, so generally, a cheater’s willingness to go to personal therapy and address those issues will be essential to healing from the incident.

Healing after a partner cheats is not just about making the relationship work, it’s about recovering from the damage caused by their actions. Whether that’s learning to trust again or recognizing that your self worth is unrelated to their behavior, taking care of yourself first is essential to moving on at all. Surround yourself with affirming people who will listen to what you’ve experienced, practice self care, and remember that you are not responsible for the decisions someone else has made.

Can someone who’s cheated change their ways?

Chances are, you know several people who have been unfaithful at some point in their lives, many of whom have probably gone on to be great partners after working on their relationship and on themselves. So yes, someone who’s been unfaithful can change. Having cheated in the past is not necessarily proof that it will happen again. But! Everyone has the right to date who they want. If a past history of cheating is a dealbreaker for you, that’s totally fine and up to you.

On the other hand, people who are unwilling to look inward work on themselves in therapy might not be able to overcome their desire to cheat. “It is true that some people will compulsively lie and hide repeated affairs,” Nelson says, “and if you’re in a relationship with this person, it might be a sign that it’s time to get out of the relationship.” Cheating partners may have no interest in being monogamous, or are suffering from unresolved trauma that makes it challenging for them to stay committed. You cannot fix this or anything else about a partner—they have to want to do that themselves.

It’s important that if you are the cheating partner and your behavior feels out of control, that you get professional help, Dr. Nelson says. “Therapy can be a good way to get to the bottom of any pattern that is interfering with your life and your (and your partner’s) happiness.”

Ultimately, only those who have cheated can challenge the notion that they can’t or won’t change. Just remember: Almost anything is possible with open communication, therapy, and a willingness to work on the relationship together.

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