Tiger Woods. Bill Clinton. Brad Pitt. All famous people in the media for their cheating behavior. Each one has a different story. Bill Clinton initially lied about his cheating but then came clean. Tiger Woods claimed he was innocent of his cheating because he suffered from sex addiction. Brad Pitt was forgiven by his fans for his cheating on his wife because he found “true love” with the woman he cheated with, wound up marrying her, having and adopting children, and is now a part of Hollywood’s biggest power couple.
We often think of cheating in black and white: it’s either cheating or it’s not. But is it really that simple?
What constitutes cheating and how do we feel about it?
In the wake of the recent Ashley Madison hack, what has always been a controversial issue has re-emerged at the forefront of our minds. For some people the answer is very clear. They believe in a black and white definition of sexual intercourse, kissing, and the like as examples of cheating behavior.
But what about other less concrete situations?
Would talking to someone on a dating website constitute being unfaithful, even if the two people never meet in person? What about buying a Playboy or looking at pornography online? Nowadays, people feel very conflicted on the issue and unfortunately there is no right answer that everyone can agree on. This makes it all the more natural that you may be worried or anxious about your partner cheating or whether something you are doing is betraying your partner.
And what if you’ve been diagnosed with GAD or OCD?
If you are a Generalized Anxiety or other anxiety disorder sufferer this is an especially significant issue. Cheating is a much more tangible and potentially real situation than an anxious obsession with heights or death of a loved one. Cheating, unfortunately, does happen relatively frequently.
Because of this, having a deeper understanding of what cheating is and knowing the signs to look for in a relationship are of the utmost important for everyone, but especially for those coping with anxiety. Having a more accurate understanding of the dynamics of being unfaithful can assist you in reality testing your worry thoughts more accurately.
If you are an OCD sufferer whose intrusive thoughts are scrupolisty-themed or morality-based, you also need to be mindful of what constitutes cheating. In your pursuit to cope more effectively with your disorder and manage your impulsive urges and obsessive thoughts, you may sometimes feel the need to do things that might constitute cheating on your partner. If you want to keep your relationship as well as your mental health, you might want to seriously scrutinize and develop a deeper understanding of what constitutes cheating.
There are a few signs that what you or your partner are doing in your relationship may be cheating, or at least putting you down the path to it.
Are you really cheating – or is it just “emotional cheating”?
The stereotypical definition of cheating is usually engaging in sexual activity with a partner other than your spouse. However, over time people have come to understand that the issue is more complex than this. In recent years, people have colloquially started referencing the idea of “emotional cheating” to refer to someone getting emotional needs met by someone else. This speaks to the idea that people are coming to understand that when someone is getting needs met by someone else outside their relationship it is a slippery slope that can very quickly turn into, if not actually be considered, cheating.
Have you joined a new kickball league and noticed that you really enjoy laughing and talking with your teammates but are doing less and less of this at home? Have you been grabbing beers with your friends more frequently after work to relax yet being home with your partner starts to feel more and more stressful?
Participating in an activity outside of your relationship is not necessarily bad in any way. However, it becomes a problem when the activity you are doing replaces a need that could, and should, be found in your relationship with your partner. That person who enjoys socializing with his teammates has nothing to worry about unless he or she is actively seeking that out because of a lack of positive socialization opportunities at home. Instead of working to fix that situation they actively look outside the relationship to fulfill that need. When this happens, it may be considered cheating or very quickly lead to it.
Anxiety about a breakup? Please read Dealing With A Breakup.
The slippery slope of disconnection
The deterioration of a relationship often starts with people growing apart. This can begin naturally and in the initial phases is not necessarily anyone’s fault. It is important for couples to notice when this begins to occur and actively work together to grow rather than continue to separate. If something you are doing encourages disconnection it may be considered cheating or quickly lead to it.
Most people can understand how engaging in sexual activity with someone else who is not your partner (including “cybersex”) encourages disconnection in your relationship. Less often discussed in this manner are friendships with new people you might meet. Even less discussed are things like volunteering with your local church or joining a book club without your spouse.
There is nothing inherently wrong with trying new things or meeting new people without your partner. When it becomes problematic is when these behaviors encourage you to separate from your partner in an unhealthy way. Put another way, how does spending time with this new friend or participating in this new activity make you feel relative to your relationship? Does it make you feel closer? Does it separate you? Something else? Do you feel increasingly separate from your partner rather than connected the more you engage with your book club? Do you find that your partner is no longer the first person you want to call with good news? If so, you may want to reconsider your behaviors.
You haven’t talked about it
There are many different kinds of relationships. Some people are only ok with committed relationships. Some people idealize open relationships where each partner can engage in relationships with other people as well. Other people regularly attend swinging parties. Some people regularly attend Comic-Con conventions and travel the nation on weekends to do so. Some people spend money on throwing lavish parties rather than saving for retirement.
There is nothing wrong with any of these choices as long as the partners are open and honest, making decisions together about what is considered acceptable in their relationship. Communication is one of the most important foundations in any relationship. If you are engaging in a particular behavior or activity without discussing it with your partner, you have no way of knowing if they are ok with it. As a result, you may be cheating or heading down the road towards it.
You don’t want to talk about it
A good rule of thumb is that if you are doing something that you actively avoid talking to your spouse about, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Meeting up with your co-worker for drinks after work and rather not tell your partner about it? Spending more time volunteering so you can be out of the house but not too keen on telling your spouse where you will be and what you will be doing?
The first question you have to ask yourself is why you would want to hide something from or avoid sharing something with your partner. Whatever the answer is, ultimately, everything in a healthy relationship is discussed. Sure, there is always a line. Obviously, your husband or wife doesn’t need a documented list of the amount of times you urinated throughout the day. However, if you are feeling a desire to avoid discussing something with or telling something to your partner this should speak volumes. If you aren’t cheating already, you may be heading down that road.
In all of these potential problem situations, the common theme is a lack of communication. Feeling like a secondary priority in your partner’s life? Tell him or her. Noticing you aren’t emotionally fulfilled in your marriage? Talk about it. Having the urge to avoid coming home or steer clear of your spouse? For the good of the relationship you would be better off having a heart to heart about what is going on and doing the work to help each other get your respective needs met.
Everyone’s relationship is different and what each couple decides is right for them will subsequently be different than the couple next door. The key part is that in a healthy relationship boundaries are actively discussed and agreed upon. It takes a lot of work, self-awareness, and willingness to address these ongoing issues if you are in it for the long haul. No matter who you are, at various points in your relationship opportunities for conversations like these will inevitably come up. It is how you choose to manage them that can make the difference between anxiety about cheating and a happy, healthy life together.
Rachel Roos Pokorney, LCSW, is an expertly trained mental health therapist currently practicing in New York City. She received her Master’s Degree from Columbia University and was trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy by Andre Ivanoff, president of Behavioral Tech and Director of the DBT training program at Columbia University. She is especially interested in the use of evidence-based therapy techniques to help people cope more effectively so that they can accomplish their goals.