Dating & Relationships

How Do You Define Cheating?

March 4, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller

Cheating is common. For instance, among heterosexual married persons in the United States, research generally indicates that somewhere between one in four and one in five people report having cheated on their partner previously [1]. However, estimates of cheating prevalence can vary widely across studies depending upon how “infidelity” is defined. It turns out that not everyone perceives the same actions in the same way. As some evidence of this, let’s examine the results of a new study in which people were asked to determine what they think constitutes cheating in a relationship.

In this study, 456 heterosexual college undergraduates were given a list of 27 interpersonal behaviors and were asked to imagine that someone in a long-term relationship engaged in that behavior with a person of the other sex [2]. Participants then rated the percentage likelihood that the behavior was indicative of cheating on a scale ranging from 0% (clearly not cheating) to 100% (definite cheating). The behaviors fell into three different classes: sexual interactions (e.g., kissing, oral sex), emotional closeness (holding hands, sharing secrets), and casual interactions (e.g., hugging briefly, loaning each other money).

Below, you can see how the behaviors stacked up. People were largely in agreement that very erotic and physically intimate behaviors are likely to indicate cheating and that more casual encounters are probably more innocent. However, it is important to note that people’s ratings of the behaviors depended upon their sex and their attachment style. Specifically, women were more likely than men to say that emotionally intimate behaviors (e.g., sending erotic texts, holding hands, forming emotional bonds) represented cheating. In addition, persons with an anxious attachment style (i.e., people who fear being abandoned by their romantic partners) were more likely to label casual behaviors as cheating than those who are more secure.


One other interesting thing about these findings is that not a single behavior was rated at 0% or 100%, which tells us that there is no universal agreement about what represents cheating. This means that some people think that sexual behaviors outside of a primary relationship are acceptable. It also means that some people think that just talking to a person of the other sex is a form of cheating. These results underscore the importance of having an open conversation with your partner about how each of you define your cheating threshold. It is well worth the effort to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that nobody ends up accidentally getting hurt.

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[1] Luo, A., Cartun, M. A., & Snider, A. G. (2010). Assessing extradyadic behavior: A review, a new measure, and two new models. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 155-163.

[2] Kruger, D. J., Fisher, M. L., Edelstein, R. S., Chopik, W. J., Fitzgerald, C. J., & Strout, S. L. (2013). Was that cheating? Perceptions vary by sex, attachment anxiety, and behavior. Evolutionary Psychology, 11, 159-171.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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