What Is Considered Cheating In A Relationship? The 11 Main Types Of Infidelity And How To Recognize Them

Whether you’re in a committed relationship or just enjoying the dating scene as you look for “The One,” knowing the various ways people cheat can help you protect your heart and make informed decisions. After all, you might want a committed monogamous relationship, but that doesn’t mean the people you date will be on the same page — and they might not even be honest about that. It’s also possible that their definition of infidelity might be different than yours. So, what is considered cheating in a relationship?

First, you have to know the various ways a partner can be unfaithful. Then, we can dig into how to recognize signs of those types of infidelity as well as problematic behaviors that may not necessarily be full-fledged cheating but still make you uncomfortable. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to handle these things if they pop up (though let’s hope they don’t).

What are the main types of cheating?

1. Emotional affairs

Emotional affairs are a form of infidelity that revolves around forming a deep emotional connection with someone outside of your committed relationship. It goes beyond friendship and involves sharing personal thoughts, feelings, and intimate details of your life with this person, often at the expense of your partner’s emotional intimacy. While it may not involve physical intimacy, emotional affairs can be just as damaging to a relationship because they breach trust, create emotional distance, and often serve as a precursor to physical infidelity. This is an incredibly common type of affair, and one of the most hurtful to the other partner.

Recognizing emotional affairs can be challenging because they often start innocently as close friendships. Signs may include a partner who becomes increasingly secretive about their interactions with a particular person, frequently mentions or compares the two relationships, or shows a sudden decline in emotional intimacy with you. To address emotional affairs, open and honest communication is crucial. Initiate a respectful conversation to express your feelings and concerns and encourage your partner to do the same. Seeking the assistance of a couples therapist or counselor can also be beneficial in navigating the complexities of emotional affairs and rebuilding trust. By addressing emotional affairs head-on, couples can work towards a more emotionally fulfilling and secure partnership.

2. Physical/sexual affairs

Physical affairs are perhaps the most recognizable (and devastating) form of cheating within a committed relationship. They involve engaging in sexual activities with someone other than your partner. These activities can range from one-night stands to long-term affairs and often result in emotional pain, betrayal, and broken trust. Physical affairs can inflict deep wounds on a relationship, as they signify a breach of the exclusive commitment to one another. If you’ve ever been cheated on by a partner in this way, you know just how hard it can be to recover from.

Recognizing physical affairs can sometimes be challenging, as cheaters may go to great lengths to hide their actions. Signs may include going AWOL without explanation, changes in sexual behavior within the relationship, or finding evidence like incriminating texts or items belonging to their affair partner. If you suspect a physical affair, it is essential to approach the situation with care. Initiating an honest and respectful conversation with your partner to discuss your concerns and feelings is a crucial first step. Many couples find it helpful to seek the guidance of a therapist or counselor to address the emotional turmoil and navigate the challenging process of rebuilding trust.

3. Micro-cheating

Micro-cheating is a subtle yet significant form of infidelity that involves small, seemingly harmless actions that suggest emotional or romantic interest in someone other than your partner. Examples include flirtatious texts, secretive social media interactions, or regularly confiding in someone outside the relationship. While individually these actions may appear innocent, when viewed collectively, they can indicate a deeper emotional connection outside the relationship.

Recognizing micro-cheating often involves paying attention to patterns and changes in behavior. Signs may include a partner who becomes overly protective of their phone, frequently mentions or interacts with someone in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or downplays the significance of their interactions with others. To address micro-cheating, it’s crucial to initiate an open and non-confrontational conversation with your partner. Express your feelings and concerns honestly, and encourage them to share their perspective as well. The goal is to establish clear boundaries and expectations within the relationship to prevent further micro-cheating incidents and rebuild trust. Ultimately, addressing micro-cheating can help foster a more honest, open, and secure partnership.

4. Financial infidelity

Financial infidelity is a form of betrayal within a relationship where one partner hides or misrepresents their financial situation or activities. It can take various forms, such as maintaining secret bank accounts, incurring significant debts without their partner’s knowledge, or making substantial financial decisions unilaterally. This breach of trust can be as damaging to a relationship as other more conventional forms of cheating because it involves deceit, dishonesty, and can have long-lasting financial consequences.

Recognizing financial infidelity often requires vigilance and open communication. Signs may include unexplained changes in financial behavior, unexplained expenditures or withdrawals, or discrepancies in financial records. Addressing financial infidelity begins with an open and honest conversation about the financial concerns and misgivings you may have. Couples should discuss their financial goals, establish transparency in financial matters, and consider consulting with a financial advisor or therapist to help navigate the emotional and practical aspects of resolving financial infidelity. Rebuilding trust may take time, but with effort and a commitment to financial transparency, couples can work toward a healthier and more secure financial foundation for their relationship.

5. Cyber cheating

Cyber cheating encompasses a wide range of behaviors such as engaging in explicit online conversations or maintaining secret online relationships, and it can significantly damage relationships. It’s also incredibly common, with some statistics estimating that roughly 17% of people in relationships have done it! It undermines trust, emotional intimacy, and often leads to feelings of betrayal and insecurity. This form of infidelity, while not physical, can be emotionally devastating due to the emotional connection and secrecy involved.

Express your feelings and concerns calmly and respectfully, and encourage your partner to share their perspective as well. Seeking the guidance of a relationship counselor or therapist can be valuable in navigating the emotional complexities and rebuilding trust. Additionally, establishing clear boundaries for online behavior and leveraging technology to enhance your connection can help prevent future instances of cyber cheating and strengthen your relationship. That’s not to say you need to demand the password to your partner’s phone or stand over their shoulder every time they’re online, but something will have to change for the relationship to survive.

6. Office romance

When one partner becomes romantically involved with a coworker, it can divert emotional and time investment away from the primary relationship, potentially leading to neglect and emotional disconnection with their partner. Moreover, office romances can introduce secrecy, workplace gossip, and complications that strain trust and communication in the relationship. No one wants to worry that their partner is getting off with Nancy from accounting in the copy room every day. (However, one study discovered that nearly 50% of people have had an office romance at one point, so this doesn’t seem all that unlikely.)

If this is happening (or you suspect it might be), dealing with it requires transparency and open communication between partners. It’s crucial to establish clear boundaries within the workplace and discuss how to maintain professionalism while nurturing a healthy relationship outside of work. Couples should also prioritize spending quality time together and reaffirm their commitment to each other. In some cases, seeking the advice of a relationship counselor or therapist can help navigate the challenges of balancing work and personal life while preserving the integrity of the relationship. Ultimately, addressing office romances head-on can help prevent emotional infidelity and maintain a strong, trusting partnership.

7. Neglect and emotional disconnection

Cheating isn’t always about engaging with someone else; it can also manifest as neglecting your partner’s emotional needs or disconnecting from them. This can result from busy schedules, personal stress, or a lack of effort to maintain emotional intimacy, leading to feelings of loneliness and resentment. It’s usually not intentional, but it’s still incredibly hurtful and damaging and could spell the end of the relationship if not dealt with.

Addressing it necessitates open communication and a willingness to share feelings and concerns. Seeking couples therapy or counseling can also help identify underlying problems and rebuild emotional intimacy. By addressing neglect and emotional disconnection, you can rekindle the emotional bond in your relationship and prevent further damage to trust and connection.

8. Substance abuse cheating

Substance abuse cheating is a term used to describe a situation where one partner uses alcohol or drugs to the point that it feels like a form of cheating on the relationship. This behavior can be deeply damaging to both the individual struggling with substance abuse and their partner.

Recognizing substance abuse cheating often involves observing changes in behavior, mood, and priorities. Signs may include:

  • Neglecting the relationship The addicted partner may increasingly prioritize obtaining and using drugs or alcohol over spending time with their partner. This neglect can result in emotional distance and neglect of the relationship’s needs.
  • Increasingly erratic or unpleasant behavior Substance abuse can lead to unpredictable and erratic behavior, which can be confusing and really upsetting for the other partner. This might include lying, stealing, or engaging in risky behaviors to support their addiction.
  • Physical and emotional abandonment Addiction often leads to physical and emotional neglect of the other partner. The addicted individual may become unreliable, emotionally distant, and neglectful of their partner’s needs and well-being.
  • Financial strain Substance abuse can be financially burdensome due to the cost of drugs or alcohol. This can lead to financial strain and disputes within the relationship, potentially causing further damage.

Confronting substance abuse cheating requires a compassionate and supportive approach. Encouraging your partner to seek professional help and treatment for their addiction is the way to start. At the same time, it’s vital for the non-addicted partner to seek support for themselves, whether through therapy, support groups, or counseling, to navigate the challenges and emotions associated with this difficult situation. Ultimately, recovery and healing are possible, but they often require commitment, patience, and professional assistance. It’s up to you whether or not that’s something you feel equipped to handle.

9. Time cheating

Time cheating, also known as “time infidelity,” is kind of exactly what it sounds like: It’s when one partner neglects to spend quality time with their significant other and prioritizes other commitments or interests over the relationship. It’s not about a lack of time but rather a lack of effort and presence in the relationship. This form of neglect can be just as damaging as other types of cheating because it can make your partner feel undervalued, unloved, and unimportant in your life.

Recognizing time cheating often involves paying attention to patterns and behaviors in the relationship. If you notice that your partner frequently cancels plans, arrives late, or consistently chooses to spend time with friends, work, or hobbies over spending quality time with you, these may be signs of time cheating. Additionally, if your partner seems emotionally distant during the limited time you do spend together, it can indicate a lack of investment in the relationship.

Communication is key to addressing time cheating, and it could really turn things around, especially if you’re both committed to making things work. Initiate an open and honest conversation with your partner about your feelings and concerns. Ask them to share their perspective as well. It’s possible that they may not be aware of how their actions are affecting the relationship, and together you can work on finding a more balanced and fulfilling way to spend time together. Prioritizing quality time and demonstrating your commitment to the relationship can help repair the damage caused by time cheating and strengthen your bond.

10. Neglecting personal growth

Neglecting self-growth within a relationship can definitely be seen as a form of cheating, even though it doesn’t involve another person in the traditional sense. When we talk about self-growth, we’re referring to personal development, pursuing your interests, and evolving as an individual within the context of a partnership. After all, just because you’re in a couple doesn’t mean the work is done.

Imagine a relationship as a journey where both partners are supposed to grow together, emotionally and personally. Neglecting your own self-improvement can be akin to cheating because it stalls your progress and commitment to the relationship’s growth. It’s like you’re opting out of the shared adventure you embarked on with your partner.

When one person neglects their self-growth, it can lead to stagnation and emotional disconnect within the relationship. It can make your partner feel like they’re in a one-sided partnership, where they’re putting in the effort to grow while you remain unchanged. Just as emotional and physical infidelity erode trust, neglecting self-growth can erode the trust in the promise to grow and evolve together, which is a fundamental aspect of a healthy and thriving relationship. So, it’s crucial to prioritize personal development not only for your own well-being but also for the sake of your relationship.

11. Object affairs

An “object affair” refers to when one partner becomes excessively attached or emotionally invested in something outside of their relationship that often becomes a detriment to it. While it might sound unusual, it can happen when someone uses material possessions, such as a car, a hobby, or even a smartphone, as a way to escape from or replace emotional intimacy with their partner. It’s like having a secret love affair with an inanimate object instead of nurturing the connection with their significant other.

Recognizing an object affair can be tricky, but one of the most apparent signs is when your partner spends an excessive amount of time, energy, or money on something, almost to the point of obsession. They might prioritize this thing over spending quality time with you, neglecting your emotional needs, or even refusing to discuss their attachment to it. If you feel like your partner is more emotionally connected to their possessions than to you, it might be time for an open and honest conversation to understand the underlying issues and work together to strengthen your relationship.

Behaviors that many people consider cheating

A 2013 University of Michigan study aimed to identify the answers to that question. The report, titled “Was That Cheating? Perceptions Vary by Sex, Attachment Anxiety, and Behavior,” was published in the Evolutionary Psychology journal and involved 456 students at two different Midwestern universities.

Participants looked at 27 different behaviors and rated them on a scale of 0 to 100 according to whether or not they believed they count as cheating. In this case, a score of 0 would be definitely not cheating while 100 would be definitely cheating.

It’s no big shocker that actually having intercourse with someone got a 97.7 on the scale (how was it not 100?!) and oral was close behind at 96.8. However, here are some other problematic behaviors on the list:

  • Kissing on the lips: 88.7
  • Sending undressed photos: 88.2
  • Sending erotic texts: 82.6
  • Sleeping in the same bed: 68.4
  • Holding hands: 63.2
  • Sharing a hotel room: 52.7
  • Forming a close emotional connection: 52.4
  • Going out for dinner: 41.4
  • Talking on the phone multiple times per week: 40.1
  • Giving $500 to the other person: 37.6
  • Hugging for longer than 10 seconds: 34.5
  • Telling dirty jokes: 25.9

Why do people cheat in a relationship?

The answers to this will certainly vary depending on the person, but psychologists have done extensive research into the mindset of those who are unfaithful.

One of the most interesting studies on the topic was published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy in December 2020. After collecting data from 495 people (88% of whom were straight), researchers found that the old stereotypes about infidelity didn’t necessarily hold water.

Participants were willing to open up not only to the fact that they cheated but also to share why they did it. While every person’s exact situation was unique, the motivating factors were all very similar.

The eight most common were:

  • Anger
  • Issues with low self-esteem
  • Feeling a lack of love from their partner
  • Having a partner who isn’t committed
  • Wanting to switch things up/feeling a need for variety
  • Feeling neglected in their primary relationship
  • Being sexually attracted to the affair partner
  • Situation or circumstance

Not only did these things push people towards having affairs both long and short-term, but they also tended to inform how long things lasted, what they got out of it, and whether or not their relationship with the person they cheated on survived the infidelity.

For instance, those who had long-term affairs tended to be cheaters who were motivated by anger (i.e. a desire to “get revenge” on their primary partner) or feeling unloved. However, those whose motivations were situational, i.e. being drunk or going through a stressful time, tended to cut things off much sooner. On average, women who had affairs tended to keep them going longer than men.

Jennifer Still is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience. The managing editor of Bolde, she has bylines in Vanity Fair, Business Insider, The New York Times, Glamour, Bon Appetit, and many more. You can follow her on Twitter @jenniferlstill