All cheating is not created equal.
Ask 10 people what “counts” as cheating and you’d probably get 100 different answers. “Infidelity is a gray area because different individuals have their own boundaries and ideals for romantic relationships,” says Dana Weiser, Ph.D., assistant professor at Texas Tech University.
While you might consider texting an ex to be crossing a line, other people might not consider something cheating until intercourse is involved. “In fact, if one is in a consensually non-monogamous relationship being physically and sexually involved with another individual would likely not be considered infidelity,” Weiser says.
Despite all that gray area, there are certain categories infidelity can fall into—whether you’re monogamous, non-monogamous, straight or queer.
Cheating typically involves at least one of these three elements: secrecy, emotional involvement, and sexual alchemy, Esther Perel, Ph.D., a renowned relationship expert writes in her book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. In fact, cheating is usually defined less by a specific behavior and more by the element of deceit.
In a recent study published in Personal Relationships, Weiser and her colleagues explored how people defined cheating IRL and found that “it is the secrecy, deception, and omissions that seem to be really central to definitions of infidelity,” she says.
Since instances of infidelity are as unique as individual couples, we asked the experts about the different types of cheating and what they can look like in-real life relationships.
Being physically intimate outside your relationship
Physical infidelity is pretty self-explanatory. “It’s typically construed as any type of touching, kissing, or sexual behavior with a person who is not your exclusive partner,” says Weiser.
But physical infidelity isn’t just about being monogamous. “A lot of people assume there’s no such thing as cheating in a non-monogamous relationship, but of course that’s not so,” says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a relationship therapist in New York. “Some couples have restrictions on gender or restrict sex with someone their partner knows (or doesn’t know).”
The key, Lundquist says, is “talking explicitly about what’s kosher and not kosher around sex and intimate relationships of all sorts.”
Harboring feelings for someone else
Emotional infidelity is a different form of crossing the line. “It can refer to liking, love, or romantic feelings for a person who is not your exclusive partner,” explains Weiser.
Just like limits need to be discussed around what sexual behaviors are considered cool in your relationship, emotional connections should be discussed, too. “With all sorts of couples there’s an important conversation around transparency,” Lundquist says. “Having a close relationship with someone your partner doesn’t know or who doesn’t know your partner (or that you have a partner) can be a no-no.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having emotionally intimate relationships with people other than your partner. The question of cheating comes into play when those relationships aren’t respectful of your partner, says Lundquist.
In other words, if you’re having heart to hearts with someone else behind your partner’s back—something you know could be hurtful—that enters emotional infidelity territory.
Fantasizing about someone else
Having a robust fantasy life—even when you’re in a relationship—is totally normal. When it’s shared with your partner, that is, says Lundquist.
Healthy fantasies enter infidelity territory when they could lead to “unsafe or dishonest behavior,” says Lundquist. For instance, if your fantasy is more of a temptation to see what it would be like to make out with that hot girl at the bar and less of a spark for your IRL sexual relationship, that could be an issue.
Hiding your money habits
Since cheating is so heavily rooted in secrecy, “failing to inform a partner about financial matters or decisions that affect both parties,” can be a kind of infidelity, says Lundquist. Yep, you can cheat financially.
If you and your partner agreed to save for a wedding, but you’re blowing your half on late-night Amazon binges, you’re cheating on your agreement.
Having secret social media habits
“Infidelity either through social media or facilitated by social media is becoming very common,” Weiser says.
Social media infidelity can have two forms. First, the overtly sexual. If you’re liking an ex’s suggestive posts, or even checking in on your old Tinder profile, those behaviors all fall into the gray area of social media cheating.
The other form of social media infidelity can be thought of as cheating on your partner with your phone. “Looking at your phone and social media when you should be connecting with your partner,” suggests you’re having a deeper relationship with Instagram than you are with your actual significant other, says Lundquist.
The bottom line: Because cheating can mean different things to different people, “it is important to openly discuss what your boundaries are and what you consider infidelity,” says Weiser.