What Counts As Cheating in a Relationship: Defining Boundaries and Infidelity

Have you ever caught your partner chatting heartily with an attractive stranger at a party and felt a pang of discomfort? Or perhaps you’ve stumbled upon flirty text exchanges on their phone and had your heart pound with a mix of fear and betrayal? 

These scenarios might trigger a moment of profound unease, leading you to the question: “Is this considered cheating?”

It’s time to probe deeper into the unspoken, the hidden, and perhaps, the inconvenient truths of what counts as cheating in a relationship.

What Is Infidelity?

Infidelity or cheating, in its broadest sense, is the act of being unfaithful to a partner in a committed relationship. This unfaithfulness could occur in different forms. The impact? A wound that cuts deep into trust, the very cornerstone of any relationship.

Cheating is not just a black-and-white issue—it’s painted with different shades of grey. The conventional image of infidelity—secret meetings, whispered phone calls—has hugely altered with the advancement of technology.

Moreover, the complexity of human emotions often takes us beyond the traditional form of cheating. For instance, is following an ex on social media cheating? What about watching explicit content without the knowledge of your partner? Or having a deep conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop?

From micro-cheating to full-blown affairs, what constitutes cheating can vary significantly from couple to couple and even evolve as a relationship grows. Understanding and defining cheating is vital not only for maintaining trust and respect but also for fostering a healthy, meaningful relationship. 

Also Read: Warning Signs Your Partner Could Be Cheating

Forms of Infidelity

Physical Infidelity

Physical infidelity, also known as “sexual infidelity“, refers to a situation where one partner in a committed relationship engages in physical or sexual activity with someone outside of the relationship without the other partner’s consent or knowledge.

It’s interesting to note that, according to a study, men are more likely to view physical infidelity as more hurtful than emotional infidelity. Now, physical infidelity can involve more than just sexual intercourse.

Other acts that fall under this category are:

  • Kissing
  • Cuddling
  • Holding hands
  • Any sexual act

The breach of trust can have devastating consequences on both partners’ relationship’s stability and overall emotional well-being. Committing acts of physical infidelity often signifies a betrayal of the fundamental agreement between individuals in a monogamous relationship to remain exclusive to each other emotionally and sexually.

Examples of Physical Infidelity

Physical infidelity can take various forms, depending on the nature of the sexual interactions:

  • One-time sexual encounter: A single act of cheating, often unplanned and without a preceding emotional connection. Despite its short-lived nature, this type of infidelity can still impact the trust and stability of the relationship.
  • Multiple partners: Infidelity involving several different partners indicates a pattern of behavior and can reflect a more significant issue within the primary relationship or the offending partner’s view of commitment and monogamy.
  • A secret affair: This could involve a long-term relationship with another person, where emotional feelings may or may not be involved, but sexual intimacy is present.
  • Paid sexual services: Visiting sex workers or engaging in any form of commercial sexual services without a partner’s knowledge or consent falls under physical infidelity.

While this definition seems pretty straightforward, the specifics can become blurred. For instance, does flirting count as cheating? Or what about a passionate kiss that doesn’t lead to anything more?

While opinions vary, it’s important to understand that what counts as cheating largely depends on the boundaries set within the relationship.

Emotional Infidelity

At its core, emotional infidelity involves a partner forming an emotional bond with someone outside the relationship, diverting their emotional energy and intimacy away from their significant other.

It’s that grey area where no physical lines have been crossed, but a secret emotional intimacy develops. This may include sharing personal details, feelings, or thoughts that would typically be reserved for one’s partner.

Emotional infidelity differs from simple friendship, as it fosters emotional intimacy and promotes the possibility of a relationship that breaches the established boundaries within a couple’s relationship. This form of infidelity is considered harmful as it can act as a gateway to physical and sexual infidelity.

Frequently, emotional affairs can spark in the workplace, where a person may spend a considerable portion of their time. A professional relationship can gradually morph into an emotional one, with private lunches, constant texting, and personal conversations that cross the boundaries of professional interaction.

While you might think of it as a harmless connection, it’s key to remember:

  • Emotional infidelity can be as damaging as physical infidelity, if not more so.
  • Unlike physical infidelity, emotional infidelity can occur without any party recognizing it.

Examples of Emotional Infidelity

Understanding emotional infidelity can be challenging due to its elusive nature, but common examples can shed some light:

  • Over-sharing personal details: This happens when one partner shares intimate aspects of their life, problems, dreams, or thoughts with someone outside the relationship, which they’re not sharing with their partner.
  • Secrecy and deception: Any form of hidden communication, such as deleting messages or lying about the amount of time spent talking to this other person, can be an indicator.
  • Fantasizing about the other person: If someone frequently daydreams or fantasizes about another person, imagining life with them or wishing their partner was more like this individual, it’s an indication of emotional infidelity.
  • Feeling defensive about the other person: If your partner expresses concerns about your relationship with the other person and you react defensively, this could indicate an emotional affair. A defensive reaction may indicate that you are trying to protect this connection, even at the expense of your primary relationship.
  • Frequent communication: If there’s consistent communication with another person that goes beyond what is necessary for a platonic friendship, and it happens at the expense of communication with the partner, it could be a red flag.

Emotional Cheating vs. Innocent Friendships

Understanding the distinction between innocent friendships and emotional cheating can be tricky. It’s natural and healthy to have close friends outside of a relationship. However, a line is crossed when these friendships start providing the emotional support, intimacy, or fulfillment that should be coming from the significant other.

AspectInnocent FriendshipsEmotional Cheating
Sharing personal detailsSharing occurs within boundaries and does not include personal aspects of your romantic relationship.Personal and intimate details that should be reserved for your partner are shared with the friend.
Emotional supportYou can rely on friends for support, but they don’t replace your partner as your primary source of emotional support.You start seeking emotional validation, comfort, or intimacy from the friend more than the partner.
Honesty and opennessThere’s no need to hide or lie about the nature or extent of the friendship.You become secretive, possibly lying about the extent or nature of your relationship with the friend.
Impact on your relationshipThe friendship doesn’t intrude upon or undermine the romantic relationship.The connection with the friend might cause emotional distance or tension in the romantic relationship.
A handy tip to remember is this: 

If it feels like cheating to you, it probably is. Trust your gut instinct. In many cases, it’s not the physical act itself but the secrecy and deceit that accompanies it which hurts the most.

Online Infidelity

Online infidelity, sometimes referred to as “cyber infidelity” or “digital infidelity,” is when someone in a committed relationship engages in an intimate or sexual relationship with someone else over the Internet.

It includes any form of intimate emotional connection that develops through internet communication channels. These channels can range from social media platforms, online dating websites, chatrooms, and even private message exchanges. 

The cyber aspect makes this form of cheating less tangible, creating a gray area that often leads to misunderstandings. It’s a form of emotional betrayal that doesn’t necessarily involve physical contact, but it’s just as capable of undermining trust and causing pain in a relationship. 

It’s not always easy to draw the line in the sand when it comes to online behavior, but the emotional distress it can cause is real. Understanding what constitutes online infidelity can help individuals navigate their digital interactions responsibly, ensuring their actions don’t cause harm to their relationships.

Examples of Cyber Infidelity

Cyber infidelity can manifest in several ways, as people may have varying definitions and boundaries within their relationships. Some common examples of cyber infidelity include:

  • Flirting with someone other than your partner on social media.
  • Engaging in sexually explicit conversations or sexting.
  • Sharing personal, intimate details of your life with someone other than your partner.
  • Participating in online forums or chat rooms for the purpose of finding emotional and romantic connections.
  • Using the internet to engage in sexual activities, like watching pornography together, cyber sex, or sexual role-playing in a virtual world.


In a digital age, finding yourself straying into uncharted territory is easier than ever. Micro-cheating, a relatively new term in relationship jargon, describes seemingly small actions that could be perceived as infidelity, depending on who’s doing the perceiving.

“Micro-cheating is a series of seemingly small actions that indicate a person is emotionally or physically focused on someone outside their relationship,” 

Melanie Schilling

Micro-cheating involves engaging in actions that might not be outright unfaithful but cross boundaries within a committed relationship. These actions often blur the lines between friendship and flirtation and might not involve any physical interaction at all.

They’re subtle, hence the “micro” prefix, but can still cause damage due to their potentially deceitful nature.

Examples of Micro-Cheating

Micro-cheating could be as subtle as frequently checking an ex’s social media accounts or as overt as having a secret friendship with someone you’re attracted to.

  • Engaging in intimate conversations with someone else, often at odd hours.
  • Continuously flirting with someone outside of your relationship.
  • Maintaining secret friendships, particularly with individuals you’re attracted to.
  • Holding prolonged eye contact or giving suggestive looks to someone.
  • Saving a contact under a fake name in your phone to conceal their identity.
  • Frequently liking, commenting, or interacting inappropriately with someone else’s posts on social media.
  • Sharing private jokes or intimate humor with someone.
  • Going out of your way to get attention or compliments from someone else.
  • Avoiding photos, tags, or public interactions on social media that would indicate you are in a relationship.

Importance of Setting Boundaries and Expectations

Setting Clear Boundaries in a Relationship

Establishing boundaries in a relationship isn’t just essential—it’s pivotal. Picture your relationship as an enchanting castle, where each boundary is a sturdy brick holding the castle together. No brick, no castle. Here’s why:

  • Protection: Boundaries protect your emotional and mental space from any undue strain. They keep unwanted elements, like disrespect or manipulation, at bay.
  • Personal identity: Boundaries allow you and your partner to maintain your individuality, ensuring the relationship does not consume you.
  • Conflict resolution: Clear boundaries often result in fewer misunderstandings and arguments. They provide a roadmap for resolving disputes.

In relationships, it’s important to remember that each person has their own unique set of values and needs. For example:

  • One partner might be comfortable with their significant other having close friendships of the opposite sex, while another might not.
  • Different couples might define infidelity in varying ways—some may consider flirting harmless, while others could view it as a breach of trust.

By having open and honest conversations about expectations early on, partners can ensure that their actions align with the other’s limits, fostering a strong foundation for trust and emotional security.

Communicating Your Expectations Regarding Fidelity

Effective communication is crucial in discussing expectations about fidelity. Couples should approach the conversation honestly, explicitly, and empathetically, acknowledging that each person might have different views on what constitutes cheating.

Do you think the emotional attachment to someone else counts as infidelity? Or is it only physical contact? How about a cheeky text message or a prolonged gaze? The answers to these questions may differ from person to person, so it’s critical to communicate your stance and understand your partner’s views.

Here's a hot tip: 

Try to discuss expectations regarding fidelity early on in the relationship to ensure you're both on the same page. These conversations can be challenging, but they can also provide a foundation of trust and understanding that's invaluable.

Here are some ways for successful communicate about fidelity:

  • Choose a quiet, neutral environment to hold the conversation.
  • Use “I” statements to express personal feelings and avoid accusatory language.
  • Actively listen and validate the other person’s perspective, even if you disagree.

Negotiating Boundaries and Expectations Together

Negotiating boundaries and expectations involves understanding and reconciling each partner’s limits and exploring potential compromises. This process may be ongoing, as perspectives on what counts as cheating can change due to personal growth and evolving circumstances.

Various factors can influence an individual’s perception of cheating, including emotional cheating and physical infidelity. However, this negotiation also provides an opportunity for partners to deepen their understanding of each other and renew their commitment.

When negotiating boundaries, it’s essential to:

  • Be open to altering your own expectations and understanding the reasoning behind your partner’s perspective.
  • Consider what makes both partners feel safe and valued, focusing on what serves the best interest of the relationship as a whole.
  • Regularly revisit and reassess these boundaries to ensure they continue to meet each person’s needs as the relationship evolves.

As author David Augsburger once stated, 

“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” 

The process of negotiating boundaries can indeed be an act of profound love and respect.

Impacts of Infidelity on a Relationship

The damage caused by cheating is far-reaching, affecting various aspects of a relationship and an individual’s well-being. The specific impact can vary based on the unique dynamics of each relationship, but several common themes can be found across different situations.

  • Loss of trust: Trust is the bedrock of any healthy relationship, and when it’s broken, the entire foundation can crumble. Cheating is one of the most profound betrayals of trust, causing a seismic shift in how partners view each other. 
  • Emotional distress: It’s common for the betrayed partner to experience a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, confusion, and even depression. The roller coaster of emotions can be overwhelming, often leading to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Lowered self-esteem: Cheating can shatter the self-esteem of the person who has been cheated on. They may start questioning their worth, attractiveness, and abilities. This negative self-perception can spill over into other aspects of life, affecting their work, social interactions, and general quality of life.
  • Damage to self-identity: When an individual is cheated on, their sense of self can be fundamentally shaken. They may struggle to reconcile their self-perception with the new reality, leading to a self-identity crisis. This can further exacerbate feelings of insecurity, confusion, and uncertainty.
  • Relationship uncertainty: The betrayed partner might start questioning the validity of their relationship and its future. Even if the couple decides to stay together, there may be lingering doubts about the stability of the relationship.
  • Strained communication: Cheating can create a communication divide between partners. Conversations may become fraught with tension, evasiveness, or hostility. This, in turn, exacerbates the disconnect and further damages the relationship.
  • Sexual issues: The person cheated on may struggle with feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, or resentment that interfere with intimacy. They may also fear sexually transmitted infections if their partner has been physically unfaithful.
  • Social and family impact: The fallout of cheating is not confined to the couple alone. Family members, particularly children and mutual friends can be caught in the crossfire. This can lead to difficult social dynamics, as well as psychological impacts on children who are old enough to understand the situation.
  • Financial consequences: In cases where a relationship ends because of infidelity, the costs of separation or divorce can be substantial. Even if the couple chooses to stay together, the process of rebuilding may involve expenses like couples therapy or individual counseling.
  • Health risks: Infidelity increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Additionally, the stress of dealing with infidelity can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, as well as physical health problems like sleep disorders and cardiovascular issues.

Steps in Rebuilding the Relationship After Cheating

Step #1: Acknowledge the Problem

This seems simple, but it’s often overlooked. Cheating is not a figment of imagination—it’s a real issue that requires immediate attention. You must admit to the issue and discuss it openly. Only by acknowledging it can you begin to understand the underlying issues that led to the betrayal.

Step #2: Apologize Sincerely

A sincere apology is not just saying, “I’m sorry.” It means expressing remorse for the action, understanding the pain caused, and showing empathy towards the person wronged. Your partner needs to know that you truly regret what happened. A sincere apology can be a powerful first step toward healing.

Step #3: Accept Responsibility

Accountability is critical in rebuilding trust. If you’ve cheated, taking full responsibility for your actions is important without placing blame elsewhere or making excuses. This shows maturity and a willingness to change, both of which are necessary for repairing a broken relationship.

Also Read: How to Repair a Relationship After Cheating

Step #4: Show Consistency and Reliability

Trust is not rebuilt overnight. It takes time and consistent, reliable behavior. By keeping your promises, showing up when you say you will, and being truthful in all situations, you can demonstrate that you’re worthy of your partner’s trust again.

Step #5: Be Open and Transparent

Be open with your partner about your feelings, intentions, and actions. This might mean sharing passwords, discussing your daily plans, or being open about interactions with others. Transparency might feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s a necessary part of rebuilding trust.

Step #6: Patience

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to restoring trust. It’s important to remember that healing takes time. Don’t rush your partner or expect them to forgive and forget quickly. Be patient and provide them with the space they need to heal.

Step #7: Seek Professional Help

If the relationship is struggling to recover despite your best efforts, seeking professional help may be necessary. Therapists or counselors trained in relationship issues can provide guidance, helping both partners to understand their feelings, communicate effectively, and devise a plan for moving forward.

Step #8: Forgive and Learn

Forgiveness is a personal journey that requires letting go of resentment and blame. It’s not about forgetting the past but rather learning from it. When forgiveness occurs, it signifies a willingness to leave the past behind and focus on the future.

Step #9: Rebuilding Intimacy

Cheating shatters not only trust but also intimacy. Thus, rebuilding intimacy—both emotional and physical—is crucial. Start by communicating openly about your feelings and working together to restore a safe, loving environment.

Step #10: Commit to Change

The final step to restoring trust is committing to change. You must show through your actions that you’re dedicated to improving yourself and the relationship. This can mean setting boundaries, being honest at all times, and showing respect and love towards your partner.

On the Flip Side of the Coin

Hard pill to swallow: Not every relationship can or should be saved. 

Many times, people stay in relationships where they’ve been cheated on due to reasons like love, habit, or fear of being alone. While some relationships can weather the storm of infidelity, it’s equally valid and acceptable to choose to end the relationship. 

It’s important to remember that everyone’s threshold for pain and their capacity to forgive and move forward is different. You may find that you’re unable to trust your partner again, or the pain of their betrayal is too much to bear. 

Both scenarios are perfectly fine and understandable. This decision should not be based on societal pressure or judgment but solely on your feelings and well-being.

Letting go is not a sign of weakness. Sometimes, it is the bravest decision one can make, opening up the path to healing and better opportunities in love and life.

Therapy or counseling can be a lifeline in such tumultuous times. Mental health professionals provide a safe space to express feelings, understand emotions better, and guide you through this difficult time. Their expertise can be pivotal in healing and deciding your course of action.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can cheating be prevented?

Creating a relationship that’s built on trust, respect, and open communication can help prevent cheating. Here are a few concrete steps:

Effective communication: Discuss your feelings openly. If you’re unhappy or dissatisfied, share it with your partner rather than seeking solace elsewhere.

Set boundaries: Every relationship has different comfort zones. Be clear about what constitutes cheating in your relationship. Set rules that both partners agree upon.

Keep the spark alive: Spend quality time together, and express love and appreciation often. This can help keep the emotional connection strong.

Maintain a healthy sexual relationship: This can contribute to relationship satisfaction and decrease the desire to look outside the relationship.

Counseling: If things become difficult, don’t hesitate to seek professional help like couples’ therapy or counseling.

Is it possible to rebuild trust after cheating?

Yes, it is possible to rebuild trust after cheating, but it’s not easy and doesn’t happen overnight. The first step is full disclosure. The person who cheated must come clean about their actions, expressing remorse and understanding of the hurt they’ve caused.

The cheated party needs to express their feelings openly. It’s okay to feel hurt, angry, or confused. Being honest about these emotions is a critical part of the healing process.

Both parties should consider seeking professional help, like a relationship counselor, to navigate this difficult journey. Remember, rebuilding trust is a choice, and not everyone may choose or be able to walk this path.

Is it considered cheating if you are on a break?

Whether or not it’s considered cheating if you’re on a break largely depends on the terms set during the break. If both partners agree that they’re free to see other people during the break, then it wouldn’t typically be considered cheating.

However, if the terms were vague or one person believed the break was just for personal reflection and not for seeing other people, it could feel like a betrayal.

The key here is clear communication. Before taking a break, ensure both parties have a mutual understanding of what is allowed and what isn’t.

Is unintentional cheating still cheating?

Unintentional cheating can be a grey area in relationships, and it largely depends on the specific circumstances and the individuals involved. If a person unknowingly crosses a boundary because it was never clearly defined, that’s a sign of miscommunication rather than infidelity.

However, it’s important to note that actions have consequences, even if those actions were unintentional. If these actions have betrayed a partner’s trust, it could be seen as a form of cheating. Open communication about boundaries can prevent such situations.

Is it normal to cheat in a relationship?

While cheating is not uncommon, it isn’t “normal” in the sense that it’s a healthy or acceptable behavior in a relationship. Relationships should be built on trust, respect, and mutual understanding. Cheating erodes these values and can cause significant harm.

It’s important to remember that dissatisfaction, unhappiness, or feelings of attraction towards others should be addressed through open and honest conversation, or with the help of a professional counselor, rather than resorting to infidelity.

No relationship is perfect, and people can make mistakes. However, consistent patterns of cheating may indicate deeper issues that need to be addressed, either individually or as a couple.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we have discussed various forms of cheating in a relationship. These can include:

  • Physical infidelity is where one partner engages in sexual activities with someone other than their significant other.
  • Emotional infidelity involves forming deep emotional connections that jeopardize the primary relationship.
  • Online infidelity refers to engaging in emotional or sexual behaviors with someone other than one’s partner via the internet.
  • Micro-cheating, which refers to those small, seemingly innocent actions that might cross the line between being flirtatious and disrespectful to a partner.

Establishing a strong foundation for a healthy and faithful relationship can help couples fend off the threat of infidelity. Tips for doing so include:

  • Cultivating a deep emotional connection through spending quality time together.
  • Practicing empathy and understanding in the face of conflicts and challenges.
  • Fostering a sense of mutual respect and admiration for one another.

Remember, no blog or article can dictate what should or should not be considered cheating in your relationship. It’s a dialogue that needs to happen between you and your partner, keeping in view your shared values, cultural backgrounds, and personal boundaries.

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Clariza is a passionate writer and editor who firmly believes that words have great power. She has a degree in BS Psychology, which gives her an in-depth understanding of the complexities of human behavior. As a woman of science and art, she fused her love for both fields in crafting insightful articles on lifestyle, mental health, and social justice to inspire others and advocate for change.

In her leisure time, you can find her sitting in the corner of her favorite coffee shop downtown, deeply immersed in her bubble of thoughts. Being an art enthusiast that she is, she finds bliss in exploring the rich world of fiction writing and diverse art forms.