How Do You Define “Cheating”?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

If you’re married or in a long-term relationship, it’s likely that you and your partner have agreed to be sexually and romantically exclusive. But have you ever talked to your partner about exactly what he or she considers to be inappropriate behavior while in a committed relationship? It may seem like it’s obvious—but different people may have very different ideas about this!

In a 2013 study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, about 450 heterosexual college students completed a survey on this topic. Students were asked whether they felt that various behaviors were a sign that someone was cheating on his or partner.

Unsurprisingly, 98% of students felt that sexual intercourse with someone other than one’s partner was indicative of cheating. At the other end of the spectrum, only 8% thought that giving a person of the opposite sex five dollars was a potential sign of a problem.

But when it came to behaviors like going out to dinner with an opposite-sex friend, sharing secrets with him or her, or frequently talking to such a friend on the phone, some thought these actions were questionable…and others did not. Importantly, students whose survey responses showed that they were insecure about their relationships were more likely to interpret both casual interactions and closer relationships with people of the opposite sex as “cheating.”

These findings remind us that different people have varying ideas about what behaviors are appropriate when in a relationship. In an era when it’s very easy to locate past partners or crushes online and to communicate privately via computer and smartphone, these issues become even more pressing.

In order to avoid damaging misunderstandings, it’s really important crucial for partners to talk openly about these matters. Communication on subjects like this one can be the difference between a healthy relationship and one that founders due to crossed wires, anger, and mistrust.


Kruger, D. J., et al. (2013). Was that cheating? Perceptions vary by sex, attachment anxiety, and behavior. Evolutionary Psychology, 11(1), 159-171.

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2013). The definition of cheating. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida.)

Photo Credits: Christopher Robbins/Photodisc/Thinkstock


Posted: May 15, 2015

Category: Relationships & Family, Work & Life
Tags: Health And Wellness, Healthy Relationships

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