From kissing to sexting: What exactly does infidelity mean in the 21st century?
The concept of cheating and the circumstances under which it is unforgivable are both highly subjective
When Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine admitted to sending flirty messages to other women, he acknowledged that he had crossed a line but insisted that he had not cheated on his partner. Others disagreed, and social media attacked Levine for being unfaithful to his wife. Clearly, infidelity means different things to different people.
So, how are we to understand what constitutes cheating? What factors determine how infidelity is defined? For starters, it’s predicated on concepts of the couple and “monogamy,” as sociologists Yuliuva Hernández García and Víctor Pérez Gallo explain in their paper “A Feminist Analysis of Marital Infidelity” in the Critical Journal of Social and Juridical Sciences. In that article, the authors cite Friedrich Engels and his famous work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, to point out that monogamous relationships have not always existed. “The only objectives of monogamy that the Greeks specifically mentioned were the triumph of private property over primitive common property, the man’s dominant role in the family and the procreation of children, who could only be fathered by that man and were destined to inherit his estate. Monogamy was decidedly not the product of individual sexual love; then as now, marriages were/are calculated arrangements.” The paper’s authors also emphasize that “marital infidelity has been a historically and socially constructed process within the cultural context of patriarchy, and it has different implications for women and men.”
Historical considerations of how monogamy emerged and the ultimate definition of fidelity aside, we can ask people who’ve been in monogamous relationships how they define cheating. Gleeden (Europe’s most important online platform for extramarital encounters) did just that in a report they prepared in partnership with the YouGov polling firm. In April and May 2022, they surveyed 6,042 people from all over the European Union. The report revealed that all age groups (from 18 to 70) consider having regular or sporadic sexual relations or performing oral sex on someone who is not the current partner to be cheating. However, over 60% of Spaniards consider French kissing, flirting or sexting (sending messages with sexual content) with someone who is not the current partner to be infidelity. Remarkably, people over 70 view the last three activities most flexibly; only 50% of respondents of that age attached importance to sexy messages, fleeting kisses – even French kisses – and flirting.
Some 25% of respondents believe that thinking about an acquaintance while having sex with their current partner or as they’re masturbating is being unfaithful. Some people even consider fantasizing about a celebrity during sex with their regular partner (12%) or while masturbating (7%) to be cheating; again, these respondents fall into the younger age brackets.
In addition to these figures, Gleeden also conducted street interviews in Madrid to find out what women between the ages of 20 and 40 think about infidelity. Most of them agreed that infidelity is “anything that is done behind the partner’s back, a lie, especially if it happens repeatedly.” Aurora, 40, defined it as anything “that is perceived as a lack of respect, that makes you think that the person you are with is not who you thought they [were].”
On the question of whether infidelity is necessarily physical or if it can occur in the digital world as well, many agreed with the thesis in Manuel Jabois’s viral article “Hay más cuernos en un buenas noches” (or, The infidelity of saying goodnight). In it, the author argues that maintaining a bond with someone chatting via WhatsApp can be even more intimate than a one-night stand, because, for many people, sex has become strangely more banal. “I would consider anything that involves being dishonest, not just sexually but also emotionally, to be a betrayal,” Leire, 27, emphasized in the survey.
A changing concept
“Infidelity normally refers to a breach of agreements or established pacts…'disloyalty’ in romantic or sexual relationships or even friendships. Depending on the culture, the time and the social and religious norms, this concept will vary. That’s why [the meaning of cheating] has changed throughout history and still does,” explains sociologist and sexologist Lara Herrero.
The problem with the concept of infidelity is that it isn’t universal. Not only does the concept’s definition change across history and cultures, but its meaning is also unique for each person, depending on how they understand relationships and sexuality. Susana Ivorra, a psychologist and expert in romantic relationships and infidelity, says: “As I see daily in my practice, one partner clearly sees something as a betrayal, while the other does not, or at least they see it differently.” Ivorra emphasizes that there’s no consensus on what infidelity means. Moreover, “in the age of technology and information, how cheating is defined has become even more open to interpretation.”
The underlying issue is that partners often haven’t reached an agreement on the matter and strongly disagree about it later. “In monogamous relationships, it’s very common that partners take the meaning of infidelity for granted. It is not [explicitly discussed] because it is part of that relationship’s many social expectations. In contrast, in consensual non-monogamous relationships, the partners come to an agreement [on what constitutes a betrayal] and communicate more frequently about which lines can’t be crossed. Those agreements are also revisited over time. Nevertheless, infidelity is more socioculturally acceptable than ordinary non-monogamous relationships are,” explains Lara Herrero.
It’s not just what happened but how
When it comes to whether we would forgive our partners for cheating, in real life, everything depends much more heavily on the context than the act itself. For instance, how do you feel when your partner privately confesses to you that they had a one-off kiss at a party versus when you find out about it in a video on social media, knowing that everyone you know has also seen it?
“Each couple establishes their own boundaries of respect and determines what constitutes a betrayal. But the public eye can change what we consider acceptable in our relationships; we feel judged and may believe that we have to make decisions, not so much based on what happened, but rather because of its public consequences, such as mockery or jokes, exaggerations and decontextualizing the episode,” Susana Ivorra notes.
Beyond whether an infidelity is public knowledge, the circumstances in which cheating occurs varies and can change everything. Context matters. Such was the case for Marina, 38: “I found some emails of my ex-partner fooling around with someone from work. Maybe at another time I would have overlooked it. But [when it happened], I was six months pregnant, and that told me that we weren’t in that pregnancy together, that I was and would continue to be alone.”
In addition to whether we think something is cheating or not, the issue of whether we are truly willing to forgive the betrayal and continue trusting our partner is crucially important. “I caught my ex with an active Tinder account. He swore up and down to me that he hadn’t slept with anyone, but I still knew that he was looking online for hookups, which was worse than if he had just slipped up one night. I can forgive a mistake, but I can’t forgive you for premeditatedly looking to cheat on me, regardless of whether you’ve been able to do it,” says Sofia, 33.
“People who have been cheated on often talk about degrees of infidelity, the severity of the betrayal. If their partner kissed or had sex with a stranger, they would have preferred something emotional and not physical, for fear of it happening again. If it was something emotional with an acquaintance, co-worker or friend, they would have preferred a physical affair with a stranger… We tend to see what happens to us as more serious, because we feel incapable of moving on, forgiving or not letting the betrayal influence us in future relationships,” Susana Ivorra notes.
Ultimately, we forgive more than we say we will. A 2018 YouGov/HuffPost poll of 1,003 people found that 42% of respondents would leave their partner without considering reconciliation, while 7% would stay in the relationship and forgive the infidelity without allowing it to affect the relationship. Another 19% would leave their partner but say they could forgive and even get back together with them, while 17% claim that they would not end the relationship but concede that their partner’s betrayal would affect them.
“The dominant model of romantic relationships is based on monogamy and places the partner at the center of everything. It has even become a status symbol, so cheating ends up being less harmful than ending the relationship,” Herrero says.