Our society is constantly changing. We are slowly evolving into a system that has reached a stage where relationships in particular aren’t as black and white as society used to expect. For example, non-monogamous relationships have become legitimate forms of romance. But the slow mainstreaming of polyamory and other non-traditional forms of romance doesn’t seem to have done much to destigmatize cheating, which is still considered unacceptable by 90 percent of people.
Why is it that as our understanding of the vast complexity of human sexuality continues to evolve, our expectations of monogamy haven’t evolved much with it? If anything, in our age of 24/7 social media surveillance, those morally opposed to cheating seem to have become more punitive. A 19-second video posted to a few hundred followers is all it takes to turn ordinary people into internet villains for maybe, possibly cheating – as was the case with last year’s TikTok ‘couch guy’, who was widely accused of being unfaithful to his girlfriend because he didn’t seem happy enough to see her during a surprise visit.
One thing’s for sure: People cheat. Getting accurate statistics on exactly how many people do it is tricky, because not everyone defines infidelity the same way – in one study, nearly 6 percent of people said buying food for someone of the opposite sex would qualify – and not everyone is willing to confess to researchers. The definition of cheating varies across cultures, demographics and even situations. Is masturbation cheating if you’re thinking about someone else? What about flirting? Grinding on a dance floor? Sexting? A lap dance? What if you’re drunk? Drugged? Or what if you paid for it? Is it cheating to watch porn? What about making it? What if you don’t know their name? About 70% of people have not discussed with their partner what counts as cheating. Does downloading a dating app count, for example? Between 18% and 25% of Tinder users are in a committed relationship while using the dating app. Presumably, meeting up with people you met on Tinder does. Unsurprisingly, Tinder users who are already in relationships are more likely to have casual sex. Official figures vary widely. According to a 2021 survey, just over 46 percent of respondents in a monogamous relationship admitted to cheating; higher estimates put the figure at up to 68 percent of women and 75 percent of men. More recent research suggests that men and women cheat at similar rates.
The fast paced internet has blurred the boundaries of cheating. Whatever happened to hiding in the wardrobe, lipstick-stained collars, breathless meetings in the darkest part of the restaurant? It’s worked for centuries. Now many are wondering if sending a flame emoji on Instagram is cheating.
We don’t want to downplay the emotional damage that infidelity and adultery can cause, but who can resist a little flirting, a shy glance or a flame emoji? Research suggests that the importance of appearing loyal and pure is a key reason why people make these moral judgements. In fact, maintaining loyalty is more important than protecting someone’s feelings. If the most important thing was not to cause harm, then people would have said that keeping the affair secret was more ethical than confessing. Whether this is in fact the best course of action is another matter.
What about emotional cheating? Emotional infidelity is particularly difficult to define. One place where emotional transgressions might occur is in the workplace, where overlapping professional and personal interests lead to close relationships. Plausibly, this could create opportunities to cross the line from innocuous friendships to something more intimate.
In one study, researchers asked women about their attitudes to relationships at work. These women, all in their 30s and 40s and in committed relationships, were asked about times when they felt the lines between appropriate and inappropriate relationships at work became blurred.
Everything in our culture suggests that cheating is bad. Many people talk (even openly) about all the desires they have that don’t fit comfortably into their monogamous arrangements. So what do we do with these desires? If everyone has them, why is cheating still seen as the ultimate betrayal? For something that happens with astonishing regularity to all kinds of couples, perhaps it should be acknowledged that so many people who explore sex and intimacy outside their long-term relationship are not so much trying to replace what is missing from their relationships as they are trying to discover something new about themselves.
So is cheating as bad as everyone says it is, or can it actually be good for character development? Are we monogamous just to be practical? Infidelity is as diverse as we are, hopelessly flawed human beings – all of us trying our best to love and be loved.
Header Image Credit: Photography by James Patrick Dawson for xy magazine (1997)