Cheating. Infidelity. Adultery. “Playing” on your girlfriend. “Creeping” on your man. Home-wrecking.
No matter which of those words or phrases you use, they all refer to the same concept: a betrayal of trust in your romantic relationship.
I have been both the person cheated on and the person who cheated in past relationships. The pain I felt back then made me never want to be a variable in that type of equation again. It’s too hurtful.
After discussing whether or not flirting is considered a form of cheating, I realized that different people have different understandings of what cheating is.
Renelle E. Nelson is a certified sex therapist and infidelity-recovery coach who has made it her mission to be the voice she herself needed during her healing after a painful betrayal journey.
I spoke with her about the definition of cheating, the various types of cheating, the effects it can have on the people in the relationship, and whether or not it is possible for a relationship to truly recover after an incident of infidelity.
What Is Cheating?
A very basic definition of cheating is “to act dishonestly or unfairly,” but as Nelson notes, cheating or betrayal in a relationship varies from couple to couple.
If you have made a solid agreement to be monogamous in your relationship, then any type of romantic activity with another person would be considered cheating.
“There may be common forms of betrayal like sex or emotional, yet it is still up to the couple to decide what constitutes betrayal in their relationship,” Nelson told me.
Sexual cheating is a more obvious form, but emotional cheating is a real thing, too—and it’s something people sometimes engage in without fully acknowledging what it is that they are doing.
Building sexual or romantic emotional intimacy with someone who is not your significant other is cheating.
Again, the determination has to be made by you and your partner, and as Nelson cautions, the understanding of what cheating is for you and your partner “only comes from ongoing communication about your personal circumstances and feelings.”
There’s No Real Way to Prevent Cheating
Cheating is an active personal choice, Nelson told me.
“You can’t prevent anyone from cheating,” she said, “but you can safeguard your relationship by committing to honest communication.”
She advises couples to eliminate assumption from their relationships.
Be clear, open and honest with each other about your wants, needs, expectations and desires. Communicate with your partner in a nonthreatening way, because ultimatums and threats do not prevent affairs.
Make a commitment not to avoid difficult subjects such as feelings and sexual satisfaction, and let your partner know right away when you feel your needs are not being met.
“Couple check-ins and checkups are a great way to take your relationship from assumption to facts,” Nelson said.
The Effects of Cheating
The effects of finding out that your partner has cheated can be extremely damaging and long-term.
“The effects are devastating and can resemble [post-traumatic stress disorder] to the injured partner,” Nelson said. “Emotions can range from anger, depression and even a loss of self.”
She added that even the partner who stepped out on the relationship can experience bad effects, including feeling anxious and depressed.
The key, she said, is to acknowledge these emotions and be fully open to healing and understanding.
The loss of trust and hope in the relationship is a major issue that both parties will have to deal with, but infidelity does not have to mean the end of the relationship.
“With commitment to the journey of reconnection and to each other, many couples live to love another day,” Nelson said.
Rebuilding After the Pain
“There is love after betrayal,” Nelson said.
Mending a relationship after infidelity takes a committed couple who are aware of the setbacks and possible long road ahead.
Nelson was firm when she said, “The affair must have ended with no contact with the third party.
“You have to make your relationship your No. 1 priority,” she said. “There can be no leftover love.”
She advises couples to make it a point to spend time rebuilding intimacy through honest communication. Learn each other’s love language and the things about each other that you may have previously taken for granted.
“What worked when you first started dating may not work now,” she said.
Nelson offers these tips on mending a relationship after an affair:
- Learn how to fight fair by removing emotion and sticking to the facts. Understand the root of the conflict in order to solve the problem and not condemn your partner.
- Change the language you use from “you never” to “I feel.”
- Make your home a safe and unconditionally loving environment.
- Understand that you are two different people who may not agree on everything but who are ultimately on the same team.
- Keep your conflict private but not secret. In other words, don’t bury it under the rug.
- Keep sex off of autopilot. Be attuned to your partner.
- Make yourself feel complete, and don’t project or expect all your needs and shortcomings to be your partner’s responsibility to fix.
- Don’t stop dating!
- Take timeouts from the negotiations, but always come back. Be comfortable with the fact that issues won’t immediately be resolved, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love and respect your partner.
“Always make your partner feel loved, validated and heard,” Nelson said.
Her last bit of advice is probably the most important: “Never assume monogamy in a relationship. It is an ongoing committed conversation.”