“Is my boyfriend cheating?” “Am I cheating?” “How do I catch my girlfriend?” “Why can’t I have my fun and my wife too?” “What are the signs?” “How do I confront her?” “How do I talk to him?” Over half of the letters I receive every week are questions about cheating and what to do about it. The stories are achingly familiar tales of betrayal, outrage, disappointment, fear, and sadness. Some people torture themselves and each other as they try to work through their suspicions and broken trust. Other people haven’t a clue that they are inadvertently supporting their partner’s affairs. Some relationships make it. Lots don’t. At least some are lost unnecessarily.

The Rules: When, exactly, is it cheating?

Unfortunately there is no “cheat-o-meter” that gives a clear answer to whether or not something is a “cheat”. There are two factors, though, that are common to all the troubled couples I’ve known:

It Breaks the “Contract”

Every relationship has a spoken or on-spoken “contract” about what is and what is not okay regarding sexual fidelity. If I’ve learned only one thing in 35 years of doing couple counseling, it’s this: It’s pointless to try to identify a particular arrangement that will make all couples happy for evermore. People are much too unique for that. Some couples agree to always be sexually faithful and to reserve all intimacy for their own special relationship. Others are fine with each having very intellectually intimate and deep friendships but draw a boundary around all things sexual. Still others are fine with sexual liaisons with others as long as both members of the couple are aware of the affairs and give the okay. Whatever their agreement, the key to happiness lies in a couple’s mutual commitment to honor and respect their own unique contract. Being committed to that commitment as well as to each other is what keeps couples stable and reasonably happy over the long haul. When one person unilaterally breaks the contract, however the couple has defined it, it’s cheating.

It’s a Secret

It doesn’t matter how it is rationalized, excused, or explained: If one person in a couple is keeping a secret about deviating from their special contract, it’s “cheating”. If one person deceives the other about another relationship that threatens the couple’s commitment to each other, it’s cheating. Whether a direct lie or avoidance of the truth, it’s cheating. Although contracts differ, the basis of a good relationship doesn’t. Relationships that last require trust and honesty.

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to define cheating (or having an affair) as any sexual relationship that is secret and outside the couple’s agreement.

To the Cheater: Why do you “cheat”?

Wake up Call

Some affairs really are kind of accidental. These fall into the category of a “wake up call”. Feeling distant from your partner and unsure how to fix it, you reached for or responded to a good friend with whom there’s an attraction. You feel surprised, upset, and guilty about what has transpired but you’re also relieved to finally feel less alone. Is this cheating? Yes, absolutely. But in this case, your slip into a sexual encounter and your feelings of guilt and sadness may be a wake-up call that something has gone terribly wrong with your coupledom or marriage. If you still love your partner and still value the life you share, this kind of cheating is more about an unconscious move to tell yourself and your partner that you can’t ignore what is wrong in the relationship any more if you want to save it. Wake up calls only happen once. More than once? See below.

Issues of Character

Other explanations for cheating are more about self-centeredness, immaturity, dishonesty, or just plain meanness. These are issues of personal character, or rather, the lack of character. Here are some of the dishonorable reasons behind cheating.

Denial

You’d think that a commitment to being sexually faithful would be clear enough. But sometimes people who want to follow their impulses twist their thinking so they don’t have to acknowledge what they are up to. You minimize what happened. You make excuses. You blame the other person. You pretend that you weren’t really straying; just playing. Go back to the rules. Is it a secret? Did you break your contract? Is trust jeopardized? Yes to any of these? It doesn’t matter how you justify it or what you call it. You’re cheating.

Excitement

Are you an excitement seeker? Do you always head for the roller coaster instead of the merry-go-round? Let’s face it: The beginning stages of any relationship, especially a relationship with sexual overtones, are exciting. Maybe you also find the breathless drama of sneaking around, barely getting caught, and pulling something off intoxicating. But it’s also unfair. In order to get the adrenaline boost that comes with sneaking, there has to be a victim – the person you are sneaking away from. There’s nothing wrong with liking excitement but there’s a whole lot wrong with betraying your partner to get it. A decent person will either find an extreme sport to feed the endorphin addiction or find a partner who also gets off on the drama of cheating.

Moral Confusion

To talk about morals can seem old-fashioned these days. In a time of situational ethics, it’s sometimes hard to know just what virtue and goodness mean. Are you clear about what is right and wrong? Are you clear that you should treat others as you expect to be treated? Do you believe that promises to be faithful should be kept – no matter what? People who are morally confused can talk themselves into just about anything – even cheating.

Fuzzy Boundaries

A boundary is a circle of trust that a couple draws around itself. The couple agrees that certain behaviors are reserved just for themselves and no other. If one person allows that boundary to blur, the couple can end up in trouble. For example: When both people in a couple work outside the home and especially when that work is intensely demanding and interesting, partners can easily start to spend more quality time and more creative energy with co-workers than with each other. The slope from co-worker to friend to lover can be a slippery one indeed if you don’t have clear boundaries and a clear moral compass. It’s flattering if an attractive person makes a pass. It may be hard for your partner to fully appreciate how brilliant and interesting you are at work when she or he is relegated to the more mundane aspects of your life (paying bills, disciplining kids, dealing with house repairs). But if you justify moving from intellectual sparring to secret sexual intimacy with a colleague or friend, you’re cheating.

Think it’s Normal

Up until recently, this thinking was more true of men than women but it’s beginning to change. If you come from a family where philandering is just what men do, you may not realize that your wife doesn’t agree with you. Once a man told me that at his father’s funeral, many women found a chance to privately talk to him about what a wonderful man his father was, how he had “helped them” feel sexually attractive and interesting and how important he had been in their lives. Having always sought his dad’s approval, he also tried to be a man as his father was, “helping” lonely women. Never mind that his mother ended up stoic and bitter. Never mind that his wife felt threatened by every woman he befriended. To him, being a real man meant being quietly but frequently unfaithful. In each case, father and son broke the contract with the woman he married. They were cheating.

Similarly, there are men who have been raised to believe that they should have two women in their lives: the wife at home who raises the children and a mistress who is available to be centered entirely on him. In some cases, the man may not even really want a mistress (they are expensive) but he lives in a world where he and other men expect that he will have a paramour. In some cases, the wives accept (even if they don’t like) the deal. But if she doesn’t accept it, if you promised to love and honor and keep it exclusive, you’re cheating.

Entitlement

The winner gets the girl (or guy), right? Some people feel they “deserve” to have more than one sexual partner. Maybe you have an idea that you are so special that no one person could possibly fulfill all your needs. Or maybe you believe that with success comes the bonus of not having to follow the societal rules of the rest of us. Back to basics. Does your partner disagree? Are you sneaking? Then you are cheating.

A “Gift” to the Partner

Perhaps you really want your commitment to a partner to end but want to inflict as little pain as possible. Maybe you are the kind of person who is willing to sacrifice your own reputation rather than hurt a perfectly nice person you find you just don’t love. You cheat. You get found out. Your partner gets to be the one to leave in righteous outrage instead of being left. Friends side with your wronged spouse. You get out of the relationship, feeling virtuous for having spared your partner’s feelings and feeling martyred for letting yourself be labeled as the cad.

A “Set up” for the Partner

Alternatively, maybe you are one of the mean-spirited people in the world. Such a person doesn’t want to deal with the stigma of being the one to break up a family or perhaps wants to really hurt the spouse. So you set up your partner by arranging to reveal an affair in a way the partner finds so humiliating that she or he has to leave but can’t share the reasons why with others. Ironically, you get the sympathy. You get to act like the wronged party who was left by an unreasonable spouse. Your partner is left hurt and with no support.