Someone recently asked me if my last boyfriend ever cheated on me. The answer depends on your definition of cheating. As an actor, he was often in faraway places, surrounded by other attractive people with too much time on their hands between shows. One night he and some of his castmates played spin the bottle to pass the time, and he kissed a few girls. He called to tell me the next day. Had he crossed a line?
I didn’t consider it cheating at the time. I still don’t. But I also wasn’t okay with that behavior. It forced us to have a conversation about where the boundaries were in our relationship and what we expected to get from each other in return for our trust.
Most of us think of cheating as something that happens in other relationships, not our own. But the statistics tell a different story. In a recent study in the Journal of Martial and Family Therapy, 47 percent of participants said they'd cheated in the past and 56 percent said they'd been cheated on by a partner. Effects of sex, sexual orientation, infidelity expectations, and love on distress related to emotional and sexual infidelity. Leeker O, Carlozzi A. Journal of marital and family therapy, 2012, Sep.;40(1):1752-0606. And that’s just the number of people that were open and honest with researchers.
Relationship experts and couples counselors agree that it's best to be proactive and discuss the taboo topic. We've got five tips to make those conversations less awkward and more productive.
5 Things You Need to Know Before Having "The Talk"
1. Do it sooner rather than later.
Instead of taking a doomsday approach, talk about boundaries and expectations before entering into a committed relationship. These conversations are meant to size up your significant other’s values, says Laurie Sloane, a family therapist in New York. Besides asking where your potential partner draws the line on cheating, it’s fair game to ask if they’ve cheated in the past, Sloane says. Whatever twists and turns the conversation takes, it's important to not sound accusatory. You want to come off as curious, respectful, trusting, and open-minded, says Elisabeth Mandel, a marriage and family therapist in New York.
2. Define cheating.
For some, infidelity necessitates a physical encounter; others draw the line at emotional relationships or even watching pornography. Our increasingly connected world has made it easier to impulsively reach out to past lovers or flings, whether it’s a quick text or a liked photo on Instagram. “You can look up anybody you’ve ever kissed,” says Rebecca Hendrix, a marriage and family therapist based in New York. So it’s more important than ever to establish from the get-go the types of behaviors you find to be absolute deal breakers.
3. Focus on how you will react.
Try to stop the conversation from becoming a list of things that can never happen, says Dan Savage, author of Savage Love, the acclaimed sex and relationship advice column. Instead, flip the narrative to talk less about the behavior that is an act of betrayal and focus more on how you will handle the situation if said behavior occurs. So rather than saying, "I draw the line with flirty texting," it's more productive to say, "If you end up in a flirty texting conversation with someone, I'll probably get upset, but I hope you'd be open enough to tell me about it, so we can talk about it before it becomes a serious issue."
4. Know things won't be cut-and-dry.
Even with all this planning and discussion, everything gets more complicated when it’s personal, Sloane says. In my case, if a friend told me her boyfriend had kissed a bunch of other girls—even if it was during a silly game—I would have pinned a bright red "A" on his chest faster than you can say scarlet letter. But at that point in my relationship, I felt secure enough to know I had nothing to worry about.
5. Return to the conversation.
One of the cornerstones of developing trust and security in a relationship is dealing with questions when they come up, not sweeping them under the rug, Mandel says. That means discussions about infidelity and crossed lines doesn’t stop with those initial conversations. If you or your partner feels distant or uncertain about something, address it head on.
Working Through Infidelity
In the moment, cheating feels like a soul-crushing, relationship-ending moment. You feel wronged and betrayed—and have a right to feel that way. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the road. "If we define any infidelity as a relationship terminating event, they’re all going to end," Savage says. "We should be defining it as something that happens, something that is relatively common, and something that needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis."
Can we agree before it happens, if it happens, that we will value the relationship enough to work through it?
Savage advises couples combating cheating to view their relationship as a set of scales. On one side, you have the years you've spent together, the love you bear for each other, and the life you've built. On the other side, you place the betrayal. Which weighs more? For Savage, a relationship with honest communication and commitment is worth more than an indiscretion. "Can we agree before it happens, if it happens, that we will value the relationship enough to work through it?" he asks. "Our default setting will not be, ‘This is the end.’ Our default setting will be, ‘This might be the end, but it doesn’t have to be.’”
When it comes to having the conversation about cheating, no one can tell you what’s right or wrong for your relationship, says Hendrix, who urges her clients to practice some serious empathy. “Trust can only be built through trustworthy actions over time,” she says.
At the end of the day, the lines are blurry, and it's about discovering what you're comfortable with. My boyfriend and I had to explore that together as we each figured out the things that didn't bother us and those that made our skin crawl. Ultimately, Spin-The-Bottle-Gate proved to be a good thing, and for a time, it brought us closer. Whether it stems from boredom, a need for validation, the urge to feel desired again, or plain old "brain addling horniness," as Savage puts it, cheating is a reality, and one that demands a conversation.