One of the topics that can always generate strong views is cheating in a relationship. Almost everyone will agree that it’s a cruel and awful thing to do, but there isn’t always clear agreement about exactly where the lines are drawn.
We can (and do) disagree about what counts as cheating in a relationship. We might also disagree about what’s the right thing to do if you’ve cheated on someone.
In this article, we’re going to look at another area where people hold strong (but differing) views. When does “cheating” become a thing in a relationship? And is it cheating if you’re not in an official relationship or haven’t discussed being exclusive?
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One of the core differences for most people between a dating relationship and a friendly relationship is the degree of commitment and sexual exclusivity1. But even if you think your views are “normal,” it’s worth understanding where the differences can appear and why people might have different approaches.
Typically, we increase our commitment to someone else slowly as we start dating them or forming a relationship. For example, most couples move relatively quickly towards a commitment not to sleep with other people. We might eventually commit to sharing our entire lives with them “till death do us part.”
This isn’t inevitable. Despite how it can sometimes seem, we’re not on a “relationship escalator”. We don’t have to go from ‘flirting in a bar’ to ‘married with children’ for our relationships to be valid or meaningful. But it is often assumed that we all share this underlying goal.
So, what are the types of commitment we might see in a relationship?
This is a commitment not to be sexually active with other people. Different people will interpret this differently.
For example, many people will interpret flirting or sexting outside your relationship as sexual infidelity. They see this as sharing part of your sexuality with someone else and consider it unacceptable2.
Other people will be perfectly happy with having a New Year’s snog with a friend because no one took their clothes off or expected them to progress to sex. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.
Neither of these is right or wrong. The important question is simply whether these definitions have been communicated and are shared between partners in a relationship.
Being “official” means that you can reasonably talk about the other person as your “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” or “partner.” At this point, most people would assume that you are not dating other people unless this has been discussed and agreed upon.
Unfortunately, lots of us aren’t entirely clear about what being someone’s partner actually means. Or rather, we assume that it’s so obvious that we never talk about it… until there’s a problem3.
For example, some people will assume that being in an official “relationship” means that you’ll automatically spend holidays together. Other people will still want their traditional family celebrations and be surprised that their partner is expecting an invite.
Being fluid bonded means that you are happy to have unprotected sex with your partner. You’re making a commitment to protect your partner’s sexual health and trusting them with yours. Many couples who have already become exclusive will want to take extra steps, such as getting tested, before they agree to be fluid bonded.
It might seem odd to include dating in a discussion of levels or types of commitment, but there is an implied commitment if you’re dating someone. You’re saying that you are interested in them in a way that goes beyond just friendship and that you would like to see what happens.
Many people assume that dating means that you already have romantic feelings for someone, but that’s not guaranteed. If you’re demiromantic, for example, you might date someone for a while before you develop romantic feelings4.
Agreeing to merge your finances with someone else is a big commitment. It is one way to show that you are planning to work together with them to build a life together.
In the past, this would have been automatic after marriage. In relationships where only one partner was the breadwinner, shared finances become essential.
Today, many couples decide to keep their finances separate for their entire relationships5. This isn’t because they don’t have a deep commitment to each other. They are simply making a different decision that works for them.
Marriage or a civil partnership are both ways of making your romantic commitment to each other official, and it will often have legal and financial ramifications such as reducing your overall tax burden.
Some people aim for marriage as a final, unequivocal sign that they are in a serious, committed relationship. This is especially true for people who are socially conservative or deeply religious who might not agree with cohabiting or sex before marriage.
For others, marriage is outdated or unnecessary. They feel that their private commitments are more important or valid than a certificate from the government. Neither of these positions is better or worse than the other. You can’t always draw conclusions about whether a relationship is serious or not from whether they are married.
The first thing to consider is why cheating is a problem in a relationship. There are very valid concerns around sexual health and pregnancy, but these aren’t usually the core problem for someone who has been cheated on. Instead, it’s about the betrayal.
This makes sense if we start from the position that we all have sexual autonomy. We have the right to have sex with people we are attracted to (if they want to have sex with us) and we have the right to refuse sex with anyone we don’t want to sleep with.
When we form an exclusive relationship with someone else, we don’t lose that right to sexual autonomy. They don’t suddenly “own” our sexuality. Instead, we make a promise to them that we will only share our sexuality with them. It’s a voluntary agreement rather than an automatic entitlement.
If you agree with this position, cheating is a problem because you have broken your promise to them. It’s a big problem because it’s an important promise. Being sexually intimate with someone else isn’t inherently wrong. It’s wrong because you said you wouldn’t do it.
Under this approach, you actually can’t cheat before you have made a commitment to someone else. If you haven’t promised not to be sexually intimate with other people, you can’t break that promise.
If you’re not official or exclusive, seeing other people isn’t cheating.
Although no one else has the “right” to expect you to be exclusive until you’ve come to an agreement, it’s not reasonable to ignore the strong cultural signals that can lead someone to believe that you won’t be sleeping around.
Even if you haven’t made a promise out loud, the other person might feel that you’ve made an implicit promise. For example, they might assume that you’re official or exclusive if you’ve said that you love them. If you then sleep with someone else, they would probably feel justified in believing that you have cheated on them.
In an ideal world, we would all sit down at the kitchen table and have an in-depth discussion about our expectations, needs, and boundaries early in a relationship. We would also keep having these conversations regularly to make sure that we’re still on the same page. But that’s not how most relationships work6.
However you prefer to structure your relationship, you can’t ignore the fact that other people will have expectations based on social norms. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with those norms, but you do need to respect the fact that other people will be forming expectations based on them.
Ignoring those social norms is a bit like turning up to a job interview in your swimwear. You’re technically allowed to do it, but it’s not a good idea and you probably won’t get the job if you do.
If you know that your partner believes that you wouldn’t do something with someone else and you do it anyway, claiming that it isn’t cheating because you hadn’t actually promised is probably a technicality. Even if you’re right, you’ve hurt someone you care about. No one wins here.
The exception to this is if you have explicitly said that you’re not exclusive but your partner doesn’t believe you because they have a rigid idea of how relationships work. In this case, they are ignoring your boundaries in favor of their own preconceptions.
If you’ve been open and honest about where you place the boundaries in your relationship, you can’t be responsible for your partner refusing to listen to you or accept what you tell them as true.
Another way to think about whether your actions count as cheating when you’re not technically in an “official” relationship is to ask yourself whether you would feel comfortable telling the other person about what you are doing.
Bear in mind that this isn’t necessarily the same as actually telling them. Most people wouldn’t feel super comfortable turning up to a date and listing all of the other dates they have planned that week. But ask yourself whether you would be ok talking about it if it came up in conversation.
For example, you might be on a date with someone and they start talking about a great restaurant they’d like to go to. If you’d been there the previous week with a different date, how would you feel about mentioning it? Would you avoid going there with them in case you were recognized?
This really comes down to behaving ethically and with integrity. If you feel you have to hide what you are doing, it’s probably a sign that you think that it’s not ok.
Being in a situationship means you are seeing someone casually but have made no commitments to each other and you’re not an official “unit.” In this case, you’re technically free to sleep with whomever you like. It’s still better to talk to the other person and let them know, however.
For most people, you can only cheat on someone once you’ve agreed that you are exclusive. On the other hand, you might be sending out strong signs that you’re in a relationship despite not having a conversation about being exclusive. In this case, they might still be hurt.
Each couple sets their own rules for what counts as cheating. If you’re really keen on someone, try having the conversation about what is and isn’t ok as early as possible. Rather than thinking about whether something is cheating, consider how you will both feel about it.
You can only actually cheat on someone you are in a relationship with, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t (or shouldn’t) take other people’s feelings into account.
Rather than thinking about the strict definition of cheating and whether it’s actually cheating if you’re not official, it’s better to talk openly about expectations and boundaries. This sets the scene for healthy communication for the rest of your relationship.
What do you think? When do you think that seeing someone else becomes cheating? What are the signs that tell you a relationship is moving towards being exclusive? Let us know in the comments below. And remember to share this article with anyone who might enjoy exploring different views about communication and expectations in a relationship.