Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Counts as Cheating in a Relationship?

Boundaries, confidence, and a couple's code.

Key points

  • There are a variety of ways to define an affair.
  • Affairs have mental health consequences.
  • Couples can benefit from crafting a shared definition, which can be used to set relationship boundaries.

“Affair” is one of those words that we think we know the definition of quite clearly until there comes a point to fully explain it to someone else. As a mental health counselor, educator, and advocate, when I think about the definitions I have seen in family therapy textbooks, the renditions I’ve observed in counseling sessions, and the beliefs that are instilled from society—from places of worship to pop culture—I notice that there are lots of inconsistencies.

Typically, inconsistencies like this can cause mental health consequences ranging from personal incongruence to wider interpersonal conflicts. What I do notice consistently across these realms is that folks often assert with confidence that they know what an affair is. Yet, if it were crystal clear, would we have varying renditions and misunderstandings related to them? Gaining clarity in what qualifies as crossing the line may have the potential to improve self-awareness, communication, and relationship quality. Here are a few considerations that may help.

1. It’s often more than “just sex.”

Similar to the tendency of overly associating intimacy with sexuality, the same may be said for affairs. Genesis Games, licensed mental health counselor and Gottman-Trained therapist, shares that, “most people associate affairs to ongoing sexual encounters with another person, whereas infidelity is the wider umbrella that an affair falls under.”

As common as this perspective may be, a single sexual encounter or an ongoing nonsexual connection may not be considered, although many—frankly, myself included—could also perceive these to be affairs. If romantic partnerships are more than sexual, then there is the potential for an affair to span beyond that as well. Although physical breaches have traditionally been the most commonly agreed-upon example of affairs, in reality, there are a variety of avenues, such as emotional, that may be important to consider. This perspective also helps to normalize why some individuals perceive a one-night stand as an affair; while there may be a singular sexcapade, a deeper emotional connection diverting from the previously established partnership may span beyond that time.

2. It can happen without a marriage.

When we are confused with boundaries at a personal level, we tend to look beyond ourselves for examples. In reference to affairs, we may consider how they are defined by our loved ones or even our wider community. Many quote what counts as an affair from a legal standpoint. According to the Legal Information Institute, “Adultery is a form of extramarital sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not a party to the marriage.” While this definition may help some, others, especially those who are in monogamous nonmarital bonds, may find this to be too narrow.

3. There is often an element of secrecy.

According to Dr. Zach Bloom, counselor educator and licensed marriage and family therapist, “one of the most harrowing parts of an affair is that they're typically formed and maintained in secret.” In some instances, particularly in relationships with unhealthy power dynamics and/or abuse, while a partner may learn about the affair, they may feel helpless and powerless. The hidden element of an affair hinders trust, a critical element in most partnerships.

4. They have a harmful effect on mental health.

Dr. Bloom highlights that “affairs cause all kinds of distress across the gamut of human emotion ranging from devastation to rage, all of which can be bounded up with guilt and shame. Affairs and the process of healing that follows can lead someone to lose sense of their own value or even their ability to trust themselves or their judgment or their intuition.”

In addition, Games points out that “the betrayed partner can struggle with impacts on self-esteem and confidence, self-worth, unclear sense of self, poor self-esteem/confidence, appearance insecurities, etc." She also emphasizes that studies have shown that betrayed partners may suffer from depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder–like symptoms, including flashbacks, hypervigilance, and nightmares.

5. It often parallels underlying relationship problems.

Affairs may be shocking; however, Dr. Bloom points out that “rarely is a solid relationship unexpectedly unrooted by infidelity or an affair. Moreso, cracks form in a relationship over time, which, if left unattended, allows for infidelity to take hold. When couples come to therapy to heal from infidelity, there’s usually a relational history that needs to be worked through as well.” While the affair may be the unexpected result, through courageous reflection, the couple may see the series of events that paved the unfortunate path to betrayal.

6. What qualifies as an affair should be proactively defined in a relationship.

Just as we may assume we understand what an affair is, we may presume our partners do as well and that discussing affairs may be pointless. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Dr. Bloom points out the tendency for couples to check the fine print when a conflict surfaces. Conflict resolution adds an additional layer of complication to communication, as does the mental health effects of an affair. Instead, we need to be more proactive about how we define affairs, especially with our partners.

Each person has to explore what the range of infidelity looks like, including the line that crosses into an affair. At this point, I define an affair as becoming involved with an individual in a manner that goes against the previously established code of the relationship. To me, this may encompass romantic intent or not. That definition may work for you; however, as we are all unique, your definition may vary.

Games points out that “every individual has a different definition of infidelity. Couples have to come together to create a shared definition and then create boundaries to protect that.” Dr. Bloom points out that “it can be trickier if the members of the couple have different thresholds of tolerance for time, attention, or affection directed elsewhere, and that can range from a connection with people or even materials—like online dating apps or pornography.”

If you’re hoping to infuse this into your relationship, here are some discussion points you may want to consider with your partner. If discomfort arises, please don’t get discouraged. Couples therapists can help you explore this topic further and enhance your bond.

  • How do you define an affair?
  • What qualifies as an affair?
  • What is included in our relationship code (e.g., values, beliefs, traditions)?
  • What would you need to feel confident that I value our relationship?
  • What boundaries do we need to protect our relationship?

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

More from Shainna Ali Ph.D., LMHC, NCC
More from Psychology Today