For whatever reason, we don’t talk about cheating. We don’t know where everybody stands on the topic or what their experience with it is. It’s often a shameful experience for both the cheater and the cheated on, so maybe we cautiously avoid it out of a concern for other peoples’ feelings. When I respectfully disregarded that respectful distance, I found out that broaching the topic is welcomed and oftentimes needed.
Asking seven fairly simple questions about peoples’ experience with and views on cheating, I entered into conversations that lasted anywhere from 3 to 45 minutes (transcribing was a beast!). Everyone I approached was willing to partake in the survey, and most were curious about my findings. ‘What did other people say?’ was a common question I received when mine were finished.
Below is a summary of what I found, meant to be reflective of the 54 responses I received. Each participant was generous in sharing their views on such a personal subject, and they warrant more space than I can give in one article. Thank you to all who shared your experiences with me.
The participants were 30 males and 24 females of various adult ages. The interviews were done on the street, at coffee shops, in bars, on trains, in FedEx lines and anywhere else I found myself in conversation with people willing to chat. Participants were from 6 different countries and interviewed in a few different states and countries.
As you read the responses to these questions, I challenge you to think about what your answers are for these questions. It’s not all as simple as you might think. So, deep breath! Here we go.
- What is your definition of cheating?
This question garnered two types of answers, and sometimes a person would respond with one and then add in the other.
The first type of answer was specific acts. These specifically included or excluded kissing, making out, sex, lusting, emotionally investing, and even liking social media posts. Sex was generally agreed upon as cheating. However, many people added a stipulation, which brings us to the second type of answer.
“For me, an emotional infidelity is worse than a physical one. They’re both tied together.”
“Once it crosses a line into physical, then it’s cheating. The emotional connection thing I’m having a hard time with because I think I’m guilty of that, and so I don’t like that to be the one. I think for me it’s kissing.”
“Basically, sleeping with someone else. Any kind of sexual relations with someone else. Kissing? Nooo, but you shouldn’t do it much.”
The second type of answer, and the most common, was the condition of deception. Many respondents thought that cheating depends on the relationship, and with open relationships or partially open relationships, outsiders can’t judge what cheating is for that given situation. The important part was that if someone goes outside of the agreements and/or expectations of their relationship. If you’re being sneaky or feeling like your partner wouldn’t like what you’re doing, you’re cheating.
“If you’re breaking the rules that you’re supposed to be playing by. I think if you’re having to sneak around to do something because your partner would be uncomfortable with it.”
“Anything which breaches trust.”
“It’s about going outside the bounds of what the relationship establishes. So people in open relationships, the definition bends a little bit, but there’s always a bounds. So if you go outside of that, even if it’s on an emotional level, it can still be cheating if that’s how it’s been painted.”
“One or both parties in a relationship are not being honest with each other or faithful to one another, or there are more people in the relationship than there should be.”
- 2.What are your feelings about cheating?
This was perhaps the easiest of the questions for people to answer. Almost every person asked did not like it, was not for it, or thought it brought trouble. Only two people thought it was okay in some circumstances, as long as the other person did not find out. One reasoning was that there were some ways of having sex that he needed to do that he could not do with a woman he loved. Another was that he needed to follow his heart.
“I think it’s completely individual and depends on the circumstances. I think there are some relationships in which cheating- that is being attracted to another person of the opposite sex and pursuing that attraction- is reasonable. And there’s others in which it’s not.”
The rest were variations of the following:
“It starts with dishonesty, and I hate that.”
“I think it’s bad. I think it’s not nice. It’s slightly selfish and its just not being nice because you’re not being honest with them.”
“Would I want someone to cheat on me? No. Do people do it? Yes. There are many reasons why people cheat, and they’re very complex things.”
“It’s definitely wrong.”
“I think it’s weak. Unless you’re being threatened with abuse or death. Or someone you love is being threatened.”
“I’m against it. I feel like you should probably end your current relationship before starting another one. I mean if you’re done with somebody that’s cool but end it and then move on. I don’t think you should move on while you’re still with somebody else.”
“We shouldn’t do it but it happens.”
“I’m pretty hostile towards it because I think most of the time the person who cheats does it because of some insecurity on their part as opposed to true unhappiness with the relationship they’re in.”
“I’m really against it as a rule. That said, I don’t want to be the other woman. I don’t want anyone to cheat on me. Those are my feelings.”
“Once it happens, the trust is pretty much gone. It’s pretty hard to recover.”
3. What percentage of people in relationships do you think cheats on their partner?
Framed in the contexts of participants’ own definitions of cheating, participants were asked to guestimate how many people in relationships cheat on their partners. This question was added in an attempt to see if there was some universal knowledge of cheating. No one knew, and people answered with varying degrees of confidence and perception of their own pessimism. The answers ranged from 10 percent to 100 percent. Some guessed like it was a ‘How many jelly beans in the jar contest’ with answers like 19.8 or 54.7. Many asked what the right answer was. I don’t have any idea, and I haven’t found a reliable source of anyone who does know the answer. The most frequently guessed percentage was somewhere between 30 and 40, although guesses were spread out pretty evenly. Few people guessed anything over 80 or under 20 percent.
“I think it’s a lot, so I think 75% is about right. From my experience and people I’ve talked to.”
“30 or 40. It was a ball park guess. It seems high enough to not be conservative and low enough to be pessimistic. I feel like the percentage is much lower among people that I actually know.”
“By my definition. A LOT. A whole lot. I have a pretty strict definition. Probably 60-70 percent.”
“I don’t know. You never can tell. 50 percent.”
“Maybe like a good 65. Maybe? Is that a terrible thing? I know that cheating and divorce is on the rise.”
“I think cheating is probably a lot more common in dating relationships before a serious commitment is made. After a commitment is made, I’m going to say 25-30 percent.”
“Easy 50 percent. It’s like this. Let’s do some mathematics. If the average divorce rate in America is nearly 70 percent, and… I would say that’s a good number.”
I asked follow up questions about where they came up with those numbers and if they experienced or saw that level of cheating around them. Most people thought that was appropriate for what they saw around them or heard about. Bartenders, servers, and divorce attorneys guessed noticeably high.
“I have two unique insights that give me that impression. I work in bars and I see people come in with people who I know are not their spouse and engage in physical activity or I know they’re married and I see them trying to take other people home with them. And when I was in the military, I saw military wives going to the local club trying to hook up with other guys when their husbands were in the fields. And people in the service cheated on people back home.” (guessed 75)
“I work in family law. Divorce court. So like, everyday. That’s my life everyday. I’m looking at people who this happened to.” (guessed 70)
4. Have you ever been the other man/woman in someone else’s relationship? If so, did you know at the time?
People who fell into this camp simply had not been in that situation. This was 36 of the respondents.
“I purposely tried never to do that, and as far as I know, I never was.”
“Have I ever been the side dude? No.”
These two people from my survey population had a sneaking suspicion somewhere along the line that they were the side game. They didn’t suspect until later on in their involvement and never had suspicions confirmed.
“They were broken up but I felt like the other woman because they had broken up and I was kinda the fling on the side, and I don’t think she knew about it. Even though they were broken up. It didn’t last.”
Yes, but didn’t know
While the maybes felt sheepish about their experiences, the six people who found out for sure that they were unwittingly the third party were not happy one bit about it. Some ended it when they found out, some kept up the affair, and others didn’t find out until after everything was over anyway.
Yes, and I knew
Those who were willingly the home wreckers (5 of our sample) had various reasons for playing that role. Sometimes, they saw it as a fling free from commitment. Sometimes, they wanted the person for themselves. Also, a common belief was that if a relationship was so easily corrupted, something else was wrong in the first place, so it wasn’t such an awful thing. It seems that being the other person feels like less responsibility than being the person in a relationship cheating. These relationships rarely lasted, and some noted trust issues coming up later.
“It’s horrible. Yeah. It’s not good. Because you’re comparing yourself all the time with some guy. You just don’t know. If you start to become more attached to the person then you don’t know if they feel the same because it’s an unusual situation.”
“Yes, and it didn’t work out well for me. I got attached and I knew I shouldn’t have.”
“She ended up getting a divorce. Because that’s what she wanted to do before she even cheated with me. In the end, I feel like it was the best for her, and that was basically the first step for her saying this is the end. At the time, I was not with it. I was like, ‘no, this isn’t cool.’ But I still went through with it. But I didn’t necessarily want it to happen that way. I would’ve rather her get a divorce beforehand…and then it happen. It was a morality thing. I wanted to keep her morals intact. Because I wasn’t the married one, so I wasn’t going against my morals. I mean, I guess I was because I was sleeping with a married woman.”
“The first time she just kind of faded away. The second person, she left her husband to be with me and then she cheated on me. So I can’t really be upset. about it.”
One person explored how she might feel in that situation:
“Honestly, if they’re open to me about it, I don’t know that I would care. Because I’m not in the relationship. Like, if someone said, ‘I’m in a relationship, and it’s not great” and they were interested in me, I don’t know if that would stop me. As long as they were open to me about what the status was. Because it might be that I don’t want a relationship, and I’m not in the relationship. I don’t necessarily feel like I have to protect that.”
- 5. Have you ever been cheated on?
While some people I spoke with have avoided cheating partners (24), many were not so lucky (21). Those who have been the unlucky jilted ones have stories to test the sturdiest of souls. As one participant put it, “cheating is not a victimless crime.”
“I had a really good friend who we got into a relationship right after she broke up with her man, and she got back with him. So I guess she never was mine.”
“Yes. The person that I was with, we knew that we weren’t going to continue on with the relationship, but we were still in the relationship, if that makes sense. So, the cheating was set up for post relationship but it was during our relationship. We were in the process of winding it down because we knew we couldn’t continue the relationship, and then that person did things that were unfavorable to us still being in a relationship. Absolutely I considered it cheating.”
“Yes. We broke up.”
“Yes, we were dating for almost a year, and we’d said I love you, and everything, and then I pick up his phone one day when it’s going off and it’s a girl telling him how much she loves him and they had all these messages going back and forth with all of this. And it was someone I knew. He always said they were just friends and I took him at his word. I mean we’d hung out, I just felt really stupid.”
“She slept with someone else, and I just wish she would have told me. If she would have said she wanted to see other people, I would have been fine with that, but she wanted it to be only us. So I was living up to her rules, but she wasn’t. It didn’t feel great.”
“I loved her so much, I would have done anything, ANYTHING she asked… even when she cheated, I didn’t like it, but if that’s what she needed to be happy, then that’s okay. But she left.”
“It was my very first serious boyfriend and for the three years that we were together, he was going back and forth between dating me and dating her. And I know that they had sex multiple times when we were together. She ended up telling me after we had broken up. It was really bad. We were young and stupid. But it sucked! At the time… Especially because it was my first long-term serious relationship.”
“We did not get past that. That’s why I threw her out and moved from Louisville.”
But there is resolution, and those injured from broken trust can move onward and upward.
- 6. Have you ever cheated?
I talked to yeses (21) and nos (32), and some who were in the middle of affairs (2). Those who had cheated long before (when they were in high school usually) chalked their experience up to being young and immature and were adamant about changing their ways. Others who had cheated in the past described wanting to get out of a relationship and cheating was a means to that end. Some talked of regret. Two felt guilt, but were happy with the outcome. One thought it was fine.
“Yeah, once. It was a one night stand type of thing after a lot of drink. I told her immediately and she forgave me.”
“Yes. The relationship deteriorated. I think when you’re doing something like that, you become accusing of the other person to cover up what you’re doing. It doesn’t work out. She never knew.”
“I have cheated in a previous marriage, and it ended that marriage. So, on the one hand I feel guilty that I ended that marriage. On the other hand, it was a very good relationship.”
“Emotionally for sure, but physically, no. It was super lame emotional cheating. We all just kept on living. I was definitely dating girls when I was thinking I’d much rather be dating someone else specifically. That was much more about me than about them”
- 7.What advice would you give someone who is thinking about cheating?
A common thought was that the desire to cheat was indicative of something going on with you or with your relationship. Advice came along the lines of examining and possibly working on those things, and then if necessary, making a decision to leave before entering a new relationship.
“So, I would say, #1: get off the internet 2: have things. Projects, so that you’re not tempted to just like, let your mind wander into like… you gotta do things. You can’t just like, get on the internet and like… especially the internet. That’s the problem. Limit internet access. You don’t need to be on the internet all the time. It’s not important to do that. Too much internet can ruin anything.”
“I think they should get out of the situation and take a look at the long view of it. I think taking a look at why they want to cheat and addressing it from there. Because in terms of cheating, it’s just an analysis of what is the gain versus the loss. But I do think that if your agreement with your partner is that It’s an exclusive thing you should at least have the decency to provide dignity to that person and get out.”
“Talk to their partner, tell them, and see if the relationship is feasible for it to continue for yourself and the other person. And if it’s not, break up. And then be with the other person.”
“If I ever wanted to, I would get out of the relationship. That would be what I would do. I don’t see the reason for it. I’m not the type that has to be in a relationship, I guess. I’m fine on my own. If I had that urge, then I’d be like, well this is over, this is obviously not for me anymore. And so I would say get out of the relationship or counseling if you don’t want to give up on it. I don’t know. that seems sort of extreme. “
“I have adopted the attitude that if you’re not man enough to talk to your spouse about that opportunity then you’re not man enough to be with your spouse or to be doing much cheating. It’s not cheating if you communicate it and you’re both accepting of it.”
“I would just talk to my significant other. Just get it all out on the table because honestly I’d be less inclined to cheat if the other person knew exactly what was going on.”
“Nothing good comes from cheating. And people reap what they sew. A lot of unintended consequences can come from it… such as death or physical harm or who knows.”
“To make yourself emotionally available, to flirt with the idea of emotionally abandoning and trying to establish an emotionally romantic relationship with someone else… I can see that happening because people are looking for things they don’t have in a relationship. And so they’ll go looking somewhere else. Instead of going back to their original relationship and trying to work it out. Make it clear that you’re not feeling satisfied with your partner in an open and honest way. And if you can’t get what you need, that’s when you terminate that relationship. You don’t start working on a second relationship while you’re in one and not let your partner know what’s going on.”
“You can do anything you want in life. But keep it honest. Be with who you’re with. Be real with what you want, and be real with what you want to love.”
“Seriously question why they’re with the person they’re with and how it’s going to make them feel, and if they really want to be with this other person, then they need to ask, ‘what is it that this person is not giving me. Can I get it from somebody else?'”
Listening to these people and hearing their experiences and opinions led me to the conclusion that our thoughts and feelings about cheating are based on our common humanity, not on age-old societal expectations. People accept and understand that each relationship and each person is different, and that some people play with different rules in their own relationships. ‘You do you’ was a common theme in these interviews… as long as you’re not hurting people.
Cheating is known to cause pain, and we revolts against an act which is bound to cause such acute pain. We don’t want to be lied to, to be duped into believing a false reality for the most intimate facet of our lives. We typically avoid inflicting this pain on others, and when we do, we regret it. Though most people believe cheating to be fairly common and an inevitable part of life, most people also believe that it is a mistake.
These were all comforting things for me to hear. In a world that tells people in so many ways that cheating is not a big deal, and that it may even be something to expect in your own life, I have found that plenty of people don’t cheat (past high school or college) and that they believe in honesty and respect in relationships. It just comes back to the same rule that we use in all other ethical guideposts for society: treat others as you would like to be treated.