In 2024 what counts as cheating?

a person in a dress kissing with a search bar
How do your views on cheating compare to others'?Artwork: Jaime Lee

You might be surprised to hear that cheating on your partner is a pretty subjective concept these days. There are different definitions for what everyone defines as cheating and from ‘micro-cheating’ behaviours – like flirting in a bar or following OnlyFans models on Instagram – to full-blown affairs that end marriages, everyone seems to have a different take on what actually counts as infidelity and unfaithfulness.

A 2023 paper from the Archives of Sexual Behaviour says that, “information about the psychological nature of monogamy and infidelity is paradoxical and conflicting. Representative

polling shows that nearly all respondents view infidelity as a ‘moral transgression’. But most people have conflicting views on what constitutes an “immoral” act.

And when you add the soaring numbers of people experimenting with open relationships and ethical non monogamy into the mix, alongside new attitudes to how we access and view erotic content online, although feeling like you’ve been cheated on hurts, concepts like objective morality become much harder to nail down. So how do we decide what counts?

What is micro-cheating?

You might have seen the term “micro-cheating” being thrown around on TikTok lately. The phrase has spawned millions of videos that question whether small behaviours are acceptable in a relationship or whether they’re red flags and dump-worthy offences.

TikTok users have expressed concern over their partners’ shady behaviour, questioning whether micro-cheating AKA sending messages to other women and hiding their phone from their SO actually counts as cheating. Some say it’s a pipeline to lying and physical infidelity further down the line and you absolutely should not tolerate micro-cheating, whereas others have weighed in to say that they’re okay with their partners having a harmless flirt with female friends and boundaries when it comes to their personal social media and privacy with their phones.

What’s important to note here is what feels right to you personally. If your partner insists they’re doing nothing wrong but you feel hurt by their behaviour, you’re not seeing eye-to-eye on what counts as cheating and you’re going to need to discuss what you are and aren’t okay with. Only you can decide what’s right for you.

Relationship Counsellor Deborah Krevalin explains that, “traditional cheating is clear cut, the behaviour is disrespectful, dishonest and quite honestly unfair. With micro-cheating it’s a bit more under the radar and subtle. It’s text messaging, private conversations, social media and picture messages but at the end of the day the intention is the same. It is a blatant betrayal.”

a person lying on a bed kissing a stranger
Artwork: Jaime Lee

How do I decide what counts as cheating in my relationship?

An expert like Krevalin will tell you that regardless of what you consider to be a moral transgression, it’s the intention that matters when we’re talking about cheating – whether micro or macro. If your partner simply uses social media, that isn’t technically cheating, but if they’re using it to send spicy messages to people who aren’t you and you’ve expressed that you’re not okay with that, they’ve clearly disrespected your wishes and crossed a line.

Anna Hint, Dating Expert and Marketing Lead at PURE APP says, “nowadays, there is so much choice. The internet and social media mean we have access to others 24/7. If your relationship is unstable, this can cause jealousy and lead to dishonest behaviour.”

So, according to experts, the best way to define what counts as cheating in your own relationship is to have a conversation with your partner about this and make your specific boundaries clear. Especially if you’re both using social media and absolutely if you’re experimenting with opening your relationship. ENM and consensual non monogamy aren’t scapegoats for crossing a partner’s boundaries. If both parties don’t consent to being polyamorous and if one person doesn't want their partner to hook up with people and they do so anyway, that’s a problem.

“What is considered cheating and infidelity to some, to others means nothing at all.” says Hint. “We do not own our partners, we can’t control their thoughts, desires and fantasies. For all of us, the boundary of what is acceptable in a relationship would be different. But we always have to ask ourselves first why we feel this way and communicate it in a non-judgemental way to our partners.”

Dr. Tammy Nelson, a sex and relationship expert, advocates for negotiating a monogamy contract every few years. “Through these negotiations, you and your partner can clearly define your boundaries when it comes to acts of infidelity – creating a shared understanding of monogamy.” she says.

For some, cheating constitutes watching OnlyFans creators. For others, it’s sleeping with someone else. The important thing to remember is that if you’ve had a conversation with your partner about your personal boundaries and made it clear what you are and aren’t okay with, any intention to cross those boundaries technically counts as cheating. You told them, and they ignored your wishes. This is why it’s always worth having regular check-ins with a partner on what you feel makes a strong relationship built on trust.

“No one has to suffer quietly and minimise their feelings to make others feel better, but it takes active listening and compromise to find something that works for the couple, and both partners have to be ready to do the work.” says Hint. “To combat the hurdles of modern dating, as technology changes we may need to start changing how we define relationships. We need to say what feels ok and what’s hurtful but there is no unique recipe to make it easy for everyone.”

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