Asking for a Friend: What Is Considered Cheating in a Relationship?

Whether it's deciding when to end a relationship, spotting signs of codependency in a relationship, or determining why people cheat, we often turn to the experts when we're dealing with matters of the heart because it's hard to see clearly when you're in love with someone and wearing rose-colored glasses.

So we asked Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and human development at California State University, San Bernardino, to weigh in on one of romance's most controversial questions: What is considered cheating in a relationship?

Meet the Expert

Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., is a Psychology Professor at California State University, San Bernadino, with research on connections among friends and partners. She's the author of More Than Chemistry: What Makes Relationships Tick.

First and foremost, she advises, "Partners have to define this for themselves. Each person may have a different take on what constitutes 'cheating,' so [you] should be clear with each other about [your] definitions [for clarity on] when a relationship rule or norm has been violated."

While the boundaries surrounding cheating might vary from person to person, ahead, a relationship expert will talk us through two scenarios: What to do if you're tempted to cheat on your partner and what to do if you suspect your partner is cheating on you.

what is considered cheating in a relationship
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The Scenario: You're Considering Cheating

The first thing you should do is "talk to your partner about your sources of dissatisfaction," advises Campbell. "One of the most taboo topics for couples to discuss is the relationship itself, but it's necessary if you want to maintain a healthy, satisfying union."

It's good to ask yourself why you're considering cheating. Is there something happening in your relationship that is leaving you dissatisfied that your partner doesn't know about?

"Some people cheat because their needs are going unmet in the relationship, and it's up to that person to communicate their needs," explains Campbell. "If [you remain] dissatisfied despite repeated attempts to repair the relationship, then break up with [your partner] before cheating on them."

The best way to avoid cheating? "Knowing yourself and what your needs are and clearly communicating those to your partner should minimize the likelihood of infidelity," says Campbell.

The Scenario: You Suspect Your Partner Is Cheating

If you suspect your partner is cheating, it's wise to plan how you confront them. "Try to approach the discussion in an open-ended, non-accusatory way," suggests Campbell. "Use 'I' statements and say how you feel. For example, 'I've been worried lately because I feel like you are pulling away from our relationship. Has anything been on your mind?'"

If you want to know the truth, your partner is "going to be more likely to admit to [cheating] if you [make it known that that's] something you are willing to hear," says Campbell. You could ask, "'Have you thought about being intimate with another person or have you already done so? I am willing to hear the truth because I think it's important.'"

Regardless of your partner's answer, it could be wise to seek outside help for your relationship concerns.

To address relationship anxiety around fear of being cheated on, you can "see a therapist to sort out if [your] concerns are legitimate or rooted in [your] own insecurities," offers Campbell. "If it's just [jealousy], you can work on yourself, work on boosting your confidence and recognizing your value as a relationship partner."

The Red Flags

To better understand how to spot infidelity, we asked Campbell to talk us through three of the most common signs that indicate a partner might be cheating.

Changes in Behavior

"They suddenly want to try new things in the bedroom, or they didn't used to be protective over their phone and now they are; or they didn't used to care so much about their appearance (getting in shape, how they dress, wearing perfume/cologne) and now they do, or they didn't used to stay late at work and now they do," explains Campbell.

They're More Distant

"If you notice them becoming more distant, not disclosing as much, not taking as much interest in you, it could be a sign," she says.

They Accuse You of Cheating

"If they get suspicious of you and wonder if you're cheating, this is also a sign (they are projecting their own thoughts and behaviors onto you)," adds Campbell. "Or maybe they shower as soon as they get home—also a sign!"

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