Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How do you know if you’re cheating?

To begin, let’s see how much you know about cheating.
Look at the following list and determine which of the these actions can be considered cheating on a romantic partner:
  • Flirting with someone else
  • Kissing someone else
  • Having sex with someone else
  • Watching pornography
  • Dancing with another person
  • Lying to your partner
  • Buying a gift for someone else
  • Talking to someone else online
  • Hugging someone else
  • Posting a personal ad
  • Chatting with a stranger in an online chat room
The answer? All of the above.
That’s right, all of those actions on the list – and many, many more – can be considered cheating.
Traditionally we’ve defined infidelity as something sexual i.e. having sex with someone else. But that simple definition just doesn’t work for most couples these days. If we define cheating sexually it can start long before people actually have intercourse; for example, kissing another person or other physical acts can all count as cheating.
And we can take the definition a lot further than just the physical aspects of cheating. A lot of cheating can be considered emotional. Loving or having romantic feelings for another person is a form of emotional cheating. But, the definition can include flirting, sharing secrets or even just talking to another person.
Taking these things into account, there’s a chance you may have cheated and not even realized it! But don’t worry, a lot of these actions are based on the context. For example, talking to a friend online may be considered cheating and it may not, it depends what you talk about and what the person means to you.
Like many things in relationships, it's personal. Cheating comes down to a personal view of infidelity and what is acceptable behavior for you and your partner. With the types of cheating it’s clear that some are more explicit (obviously cheating) and some are more ambiguous (difficult to tell if it’s cheating or not).  It then comes down to you to determine if your actions are cheating. But how can you do that?
 A group of psychology researchers discovered that when we’re looking at cheating, people who feel guiltier about ambiguous behaviors (like talking to someone online) or deceptive behaviors (like withholding information from your partner) are more likely to consider the behavior as cheating. So if you feel guilty about a certain interaction you’re having, it could be because you know in the back of your mind that you might be cheating.
Another way to determine if a behavior is cheating is to look at the goal of the behavior. In an examination of internet infidelity, two researchers found that the most serious types of cheating online where those that were goal-oriented – telling someone you love them or making plans to meet up in person, for example. Informal acts, like chatting to a friend about sports or joking around, were less serious. This model can be taken into activities offline too – so ask yourself “what’s my goal here?” and think about whether or not that goal tends you toward cheating.
Finally, a great way to know if something is considered cheating is to talk to your partner.  Figure out what physical commitment means to you both and what emotional cheating might look like. I suggest broaching the topic gently … when I turned to my husband randomly one night and said “hey, I was thinking we should talk about cheating” he, justifiably, looked a little shocked until I explained myself!
So think for yourself and talk to you partner about what you consider cheating to be. Come up with a guideline for yourself and try to avoid any action that might be cheating. After all, cheating is one of the biggest relationship problems and one of the prime reasons for divorce in the US, so if you want to maintain your relationship, figure out how you can stop yourself from cheating!

Research for this blog comes from:
Docan-Morgan, T & Docan, C. A. (2007). Internet infidelity: Double standards and the differing views of women and men. Communication Quarterly, 55, 317-342.
Wilson, K., Mattingly, B. A., Clark, E. M., Weidler, D. J., & Bequette, A. W. (2011). The gray area: Exploring attitudes toward infidelity and the development of the perceptions of dating infidelity scale. The Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 63-86.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What about the children?

Imagine this scenario:
A child grows up with two loving parents who have a committed, stable relationship. Despite one of the parents having to travel a lot for work, the pair makes it through some tough times and their three children have a great example of an adult romantic relationship.
But then something goes wrong. After decades of marriage, the parents decide to split. Although some of the children are older and some are younger, they now have divorced parents. As the children, they don’t have say in the dissolution of their parents’ marriage but they know something must have happened to instigate it.
Then almost immediately Dad has a new girlfriend and suspicious circumstances point toward the fact that they may have been dating before the marriage was over. Suddenly the simple times of childhood and the traditional family of five are over.
In circumstances like this it can be hard for children, with no control over their parent’s marriage or the dissolution of it, to figure out what their relationship is now with each of those parents. And the circumstances of that break up can play a role in how easy or difficult that process is. If the break up concerns infidelity, how do the children deal with that?
The scenario I described above is a very simplified version of my family life. A few years ago my parents split up after 25 years of seemingly happy marriage. The impetus for my study of infidelity this semester stems from my experience with my parent’s divorce, because (and there’s never been an official owning up of this) my dad found someone else and that happened to overlap with his previous marriage to my mum.
So far in my study of infidelity I’ve touched on impact of infidelity and how damaging it can be to a relationship but I haven’t discussed the impact on other close to the couple. Cheating doesn’t just affect the cheater’s partner, but everyone else who is connected emotionally with that relationship. And children are the prime candidates to be heavily impacted by a parent’s infidelity.
Various scholars have looked at this topic, with studies looking at how the parent-child relationship is affected, how the method of discovery plays a role and communication strategies used by children to continue relationships with both parents.
There are various ways that children can find out about a parents infidelity. Interestingly, when Allison Thorson studied the effect that different types of discoveries can have, she found negligible differences between the types. This surprised me because some types seem more severe than others:
  • Discovery from the parent who cheated
  • Incremental discovery
  • Explicit discovery
  • Discovery from a family member
  • Third party discovery
Whichever of these discoveries a child had, in this study it had no significant difference on the future relationship between the child and parent. The author speculates that this may be because the method of discovery characterizes the relationship of the child and parent before the discovery anyway, so their relationship would remain the same, regardless of the discovery method.
Looking at communication between a child and parent after the discovery has occurred, the same author determined in another study that children will privately negotiate rules to deal with the infidelity in a way that will cause least harm to the relationship.  
I found the rules about how and when they could talk to the parent about the infidelity most interesting – Thorson calls these access rules. These include context, sex, age, physical environment and code terms.
  1. Context: It is permissible to bring up the infidelity only in certain situations.
  2. Sex: Children are more likely to talk to mothers about the infidelity, possibly because women generally disclose more than men.
  3. Age:  Only when a child reaches adulthood would it be acceptable to talk to the parent about the infidelity.
  4. Physical environment: A neutral space outside of the parent’s home is the best place to talk about the infidelity.
  5. Code terms: It’s best to avoid using value-laden words like “infidelity,” “cheating” and “affair.”
So here are my take-away points for today:  If you’re a parent then remember what effect your infidelity can have on your children as well as your spouse. And if you’re a child, I guess just try to deal with it and maybe use these communication rules if you want to talk about the situation with your parents.

Thorson, A. (2008). The influence of discovery method on relational outcomes: A study of parental infidelity. Conference papers – National Communication Association, 1-32.
Thorson, A. (2009). Adult children’s experiences with their parent’s infidelity: Communicative protection and access rules in the absence of divorce. Communication Studies, 60, 32-48.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

You cheated on your girl/guy? Maybe you’re just insecure …

“She didn’t mean to do it; she’s just really insecure right now.”

“He’s not trying to hurt her; he just acts out because he doesn’t realize how much she loves him.”

We’ve probably all heard some well-meaning person spout these kinds of ideas when talking about why someone cheats. And it turns out there might be something to it, at least according to scholars Boģda and Şendil of Turkey.

Infidelity is more likely for people with insecure attachments styles, they claim. Why is this? Well it’s perhaps because those with an insecure attachment style are more likely to be less satisfied in their relationships for a variety of reasons. And it doesn’t stop there. If support from a partner drops off then an insecure person would be more likely than a secure person to seek out someone new to compensate for that. So it seems that being less secure really does make a difference, at least on a basic level.

But what about when we look at more attachment styles? Well Treger and Sprecher wanted to take an in depth look at influences on infidelity and so completed a 14-year study to do just that. They found that there were sex differences for cheating, much of which I’ve talked about before: Men generally thinking physical cheating is more serious and women generally thinking emotional cheating is more serious. Attachments styles play a role here too though they found, or at least some do:
  • Men with a preoccupied attachment style were more likely to see sexual infidelity as more upsetting than other men with fearful, secure or avoidant styles.
  • With women, those with preoccupied styles were more likely to bothered by emotional infidelity compared to avoidant women (but not secure or fearful).
  • Avoidant women were more likely to see sexual infidelity as the most serious compared to preoccupied and fearful women.

These results differ from the traditional male-female/physical-emotional divide when it comes to cheating so it shows that, while that traditional idea does hold up, other factors like attachment styles also play a role.

In fact, Treger and Sprecher also found that differing levels of sociosexuality (how open a person is sexually) also play a role in their attitudes to cheating. Those who were more permissive (people OK with uncommitted sex) found sexual cheating more upsetting versus those who are more restrictive (have a focus on long-term commitment) and consider emotional cheating more serious. However, where sociosexuality is concerned, it better predicts men’s attitudes than women’s.

There’s also another sex difference that Boģda and Şendil highlight regarding those with a tendency toward infidelity – men are more likely to cheat than women. (I said “well duh!” in my head when I wrote that but good to point it out anyway…)

I’m discovering more and more as I research this topic that determining what makes people cheat is a complex business and my research question will not be answered simply!

Boģda, D. K. & Şendil, G. (2012). Investigating infidelity tendency and conflict management based on attachment styles and gender. Electronic Journal of Social Sciences, 11, 205-219.
Treger, S. & Sprecher, S. (2011). The influences of sociosexuality and attachment style of reactions to emotional versus sexual infidelity. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 413-422.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It’s only cheating if you’re supposed to be monogamous … right?

 If you’re in a committed relationship, how many partners are you allowed to have?

Chances are you answered only one partner is allowed. If so, you fit with the majority of people in our society who agree that humans should be monogamous with only one partner if you’re married or in a dating relationship.
So what does this have to do with cheating you may ask? Well, when someone cheats on their partner, they’re no longer monogamous. So in defining cheating, we’re also defining something outside the bounds of a monogamous relationship. I’m not going to delve into the details of whether or not humans SHOULD be monogamous or not (I’ll leave that to the evolutionary scientists and others like that). However, it’s clear that, although monogamy is the norm in our society, it’s not the only way people chose to live. When I discuss cheating, for the most part I’m discussing it in relation to monogamous relationships. But, cheating can still occur in nonmonogamous – or open – relationships too.
In an article aimed at therapists who may come across clients in open relationships, Kevin Zimmerman outlines the various types of nonmonogamous relationships:
  • Partnered nonmonogamy – “a committed couple that allows for extradyadic sex”
  •  Swinging – “nonmonogamy in a social context”
  • Polyamory – “partners have more than one relationship that is sexual, loving and emotional”
  • Solo polyamory – “nonmonogamous individuals who do not want a primary partner”
  • Polyfidelity – “three or more people who have made a commitment to be in a primary relationship together”
  • Monogamous/nonmonogamous partnership – “one person is monogamous and the other is not”
(Zimmerman, 2012, p. 273)
The key to all of these open relationships is honesty and boundaries, according to Zimmerman. For partners to be successful in a nonmonogamous relationship, they must be honest with their partner about what they want and the actions they partake in outside of the primary relationship. There must also be clear boundaries set and continually negotiated between the partners to make sure neither is unhappy with the situation.
A study of gay male open relationships by Tony Coelho found that rules about what is allowable outside of the primary relationship may vary greatly between couples and deviate from the norm of monogamy. However, as long as they are established and understood by both people then relations – either sexual or emotional – can be allowed and not constitute as cheating.
So in open relationships, much like in traditional relationships, cheating is whatever deviates from the rules about the relationship set down by both partners. In monogamous relationships these rules can be unspoken and are understood based on societal ideas of monogamy. In open relationships they often need to be worked out in a more explicit fashion. We see this level of ambiguity and variation more when it comes to emotional cheating in monogamous relationships too so perhaps those couples, as I’ve previously recommended, could benefit from more explicit rules about what constitutes cheating for both partners.
In my discussion of infidelity I’ll continue to operate under the assumption that cheating is actions of an intimate nature outside of a primary committed relationship. I wanted to look into the idea of open relationships for a brief time however. Given the information that emerged in this blog, I’m now amending my research question to include the more specific explanation of the type of committed relationship I’m researching.
New RQ: What motivates people in committed, monogamous relationships to cheat?

Coelho, T. (2011). Hearts, groins and the intricacies of gay male open relationships: Sexual desire and liberation revisted. Sexualities, 14, 653-688.
Zimmerman, K. J. (2012). Clients in sexually open relationships: Considerations for therapists. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 24, 272-289.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

When it comes to cheating, is it really “a small world after all?”

“It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears.
It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears,
There’s so much that we share,
That it’s time we’re aware,
It’s small world after all.”
– Theme from Disney’s It’s A Small World
Disney teaches us that, despite living in different spots on the globe, it’s not our differences that divide us, but our shared experiences that unite us. And while this may be the case in some areas and a worthy ideal to uphold, some research shows this is not always the case when it comes to the shared experiences of cheating.
The consequences of cheating can vary based on the individual circumstances – after all, no relationships are exactly the same, so infidelity affects different couples in different ways. However, a big determinant in how a couple responds to one partner’s infidelity is the culture and norms of the society of they live in. Everything, from the TV we watch to the interactions of others around us, can teach us how we should behave in our culture and what is considered acceptable. While culture is not the only factor that determines how people respond to cheating, it is an important one.
Labeling a culture as individualist or collective is a broad, general way to describe the attitudes of most people within a culture. Research shows that the USA is generally considered to be an individualistic culture. China, on the other hand, is generally considered to be a collectivist culture. The difference in the focus of a culture’s people – whether they consider themselves or the group to be of highest importance – signifies the extent to which a culture is individual or collective.
What does that have to do with infidelity? Well, the type of culture a person comes from can affect how they react when their partner cheats on them. One study by researchers from California State University at Fullerton determined that there are certain types of responses to cheating that are typical of Americans, and other types typical of Chinese. Although individual personality factors can play a role too, cultural differences can predict how a person would respond if their partner cheats.
American responders were likely to engage in:
  • Exit responses – where the person would leave or dissolve the relationship when they found out about a partner’s cheating.
  • Anger-voice responses – where the person expresses their own emotions (anger, frustration, hurt, etc.) to their partner, without any goal of solving the problem or resolving the situation.
On the other hand, Chinese responders were likely to engage in:
  • Loyalty responses – where the person reaffirms their commitment to the cheating partner and to the relationship, despite the infidelity.
  • Third-party help responses – where the person did not interact with the cheating partner until they had sought advice from another person outside of the relationship (a family member or friend usually) on how to deal with the situation.
Given these differences, one can infer that couples in the US are more likely to break up after a partner cheats compared to China where they are more likely to stay together.
China is not the only country with collectivist ideals and differences to the US. Another study by American researchers looked at Asian Indians and how their cultural values affected their response to infidelity. Like in China, Indian culture is also highly collectivist with the focus on interdependence and less of a focus on individual happiness. Relationships outside of marriage are less common and most marriages are arranged. Love is not the deciding factor for getting married and is actually discouraged in many circumstances, according to the researchers.
For these reasons, often times it is the male of a relationship who engages in an extramarital affairs and the woman in the marriage is encouraged to be silent about the infidelity or find ways to interest her husband in their marriage.
The power structure and gender dynamics in Indian, Chinese and many other cultures varies; it affects how people respond to infidelity and why they respond in certain ways. Comparing these cultures with the US and how we see infidelity can be helpful in understanding varying attitudes toward infidelity. Also, considering how this research can relate to inter-cultural relationships is also important.
So the take away for today is to think about the cultural influences you and your partner have when it comes to relationships. What is important and unimportant to you both? How do you differ in your expectations when it comes to being faithful in a relationship? And finally, if there is a major transgression in your relationship, like cheating, how can you move past it?

Madathi, J. & Sandhu, D. S. (2008). Infidelity in Asian Indian marriages: Implications for counseling and psychotherapy. The Family Journal, 16, 338-343.
Zhang, R., Ting-Toomey, S., Dorjee, T. & Lee, P. S. (2012). Culture and self-construal as predictors of relational responses to emotional infidelity: China and the United States. Chinese Journal of Communication, 5, 137-159.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cheating & Sex: There's more to it than you think ...

News Flash: Men and women think differently!
OK so maybe that’s not news to you. In fact, it’s probably common sense to know that a person’s biological sex and her/his gender can affect how she/he thinks.
What might be a little less well known is that men and women think differently – and act differently – when it comes to cheating.
In a nutshell, men consider physical infidelity – having sex with another person for example – as the most serious type of cheating. Women, on the other hand, consider emotional infidelity – establishing a loving bond with another person – as more serious. On top of that, men are also more likely to engage in physical/sexual infidelity whereas women are more likely to engage in emotional infidelity.
Back in 1985 researchers Shirley Glass and Thomas Wright decided to take on this comparison of sexual versus emotional infidelity since research before that had focused simply on the physical side of things. And while their study may seem dated, it serves as a great basis for evaluating these sex differences when it comes to cheating. Their study was simple but effective: They asked people which of two cheating scenarios – one physical and one emotional – was more serious. And their results corresponded with traditional sex roles in our culture – men connected physically and women connected emotionally.
These sex differences continue when it comes to cheating. Both men and women engage in relationships that include both a sexual and an emotional element. However, for those cases where only the physical cheating occurs, men are more likely to be the cheaters. And for those cases where only emotional cheating happens, women are more likely to be the cheaters. (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here…)
Now it gets a little more complex here, but, see if you can guess what the sex differences in the next scenario might be.
For those extramarital relationships that start out as either sexual OR emotional and then progress to include BOTH elements, which do you think men will start out with and which will women start out with?
Gold star for you as I’m sure you got the correct answer! Men start off with physical cheating and then progress to both, whereas women start off with emotional cheating and then add in the sex later.
These differences don’t play too much of a role when it comes to marital dissatisfaction (how happy/unhappy the cheater is in her/his marriage). Basically, if one type of cheating, emotional OR physical, occurs, then relational happiness is higher than if both types are present. So, if you find out your partner is having sex with someone else AND they really like them, then your relationship is in trouble … go figure.
Glass and Wright’s study back in 80s still pertains to research today, even though we may think our traditional sex roles have progressed in the past few decades. In fact, further studies have gone on to build on theirs. Because their study looked at middle-class, middle-aged, white Americans, other researchers wanted to find out if these sex roles for cheating happened in other groups too. In 2006 a study looked at Spanish speaking, younger people to see how women and men view cheating. Sure enough, their results correspond almost exactly with the older study.
These sex differences can alter when we look at the role of the internet; as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it’s harder to have physical infidelity through a computer. But there’s still sex differences when it comes to how emotionally connected the cheater is.

Of course these are generalizations. To make claims about men and women as a group based on a few studies is simply that: A generalization, and not a hard and fast rule about the sexes. So my take home for today is to be aware of these potential differences in focus when it comes to cheating and, if your partner takes issue with another relationship you have, think about the sex difference that could stop you two from seeing eye to eye.


Fernandez, A. M., Sierra, J. C., Zubeidat, I. & Vera-Vilarroel, P. (2006). Sex differences in response to sexual and emotional infidelity among Spanish and Chilean students. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37, 359-365.
Glass, S. P. & Wright, T. L. (1985). Sex differences in type of extramarital involvement and marital dissatisfaction. Sex Roles, 12, 1101-1120.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Internet: Making cheating easier for 20 years

RQ: What motivates people to cheat?

In the early 1990s the Internet became available for the general public to use and it revolutionized communication as we knew it. Suddenly a medium was available through which people could build relationships without having to be face to face. Because of this, it makes forming relationships easier and, as one scholar puts it, “hyper-personal.” Sarah Tonkin, an Australian researcher attests that we form intense relationships online that differ in many ways to those formed in person - and this means we can also form potentially adulterous relationships too.

Not only does the Internet make connecting with others easier, it also makes those connections more private. A husband can connect with an old flame and spend time chatting and engaging with her, without his wife even knowing (Tonkin gives the great example of the Tiger Woods affair scandal here, one I’m sure you’ve all heard about).

So forming relationships online is easier because it’s more private, but also because it creates more opportunity. Add to this the fact that relationships tend to move much faster online – we’re more likely to tell our secrets and disclose information sooner online compared to in person – and you have a “hyper-personal” relationship, and potentially, infidelity. (There are various reasons why relationships progress faster online; the anonymity and compensating for a lack of physical presence are two of many reasons studied to explain this.)
But, you say, how can you cheat online? You’re not in the same room as the person, never mind the same bed! Well, cheating isn’t just restricted to having sex with another person. There are various forms that cheating can take, and while I’ll leave the in-person types of cheating for another blog post, there are various ways activity online can be considered infidelity.
For starters, cheating doesn’t have to be physical. Studies show that emotional infidelity can be just as upsetting and harmful to a relationship as physical infidelity. And, since becoming “hyper-personal” is easier and quicker online, emotional infidelity is rampant! But still there are varying degrees of emotional infidelity. For example, having a conversation online about sports, joking around or catching up on the latest happenings in your life are considered by researchers Docan–Morgan and Docan as “superficial/informal acts” and not generally cheating. But once the communication becomes more “involving/goal oriented”, when you tell the person you love them, tell them secrets your partner doesn’t know or flirting with them for example, the infraction becomes more apparent – that’s considered cheating.
So with cheating online, the intent and the level of intimacy matter. If you’re talking to someone online but don’t consider them more important than your partner and don’t have romantic feelings toward them, chances are you’re safe, that’s not cheating. But once the interaction becomes more intimate, it’s likely you’re on the path to infidelity.
(An important note here is that women tend to be more upset by emotional infidelity than men, although both sexes are bothered by online infidelity. In fact, there are many differences in ideas about cheating when it comes to gender but that will have to wait for a later blog post too.)
Here we can bring in physical infidelity online. And while you’re not physically present with a person online, some types can still be seen. Having cyber-sex with a person who is not your partner = obvious cheating.
Another interesting thing to note here is that cheating online doesn’t have to involve another specific person. As long as it’s involving and goal-oriented, it can be cheating. So watching pornography, posting a personal ad online or looking at other personal ads can all be considered cheating.
Finally, while these are generally what is considered cheating by certain scholars, it comes down the couple themselves to determine what “counts” as cheating. So my take-away for today is to think about that. What counts as cheating in your relationship? You and your partner may have unspoken ideas about this, or may have talked about it. Either way, that’s something to figure out.
And, once you know what counts as cheating for you both, then think about your activity online. Could you be cheating via the Internet?

Docan-Morgan, T & Docan, C. A. (2007). Internet infidelity: Double standards and the differing view of women and men. Communication Quarterly, 55, 317-342.
Tonkin, S. (2012). Getting hyper-personal. Global Media Journal Australian Edition, 4, 1-9.