Talking Connections: Defining cheating and why people feel the need to step out of a relationship


Cheating can be broadly categorized into the physical and the emotional. Not all cheating requires a sexual component, as some classify grabbing coffee with an ex-partner without consent of the current partner as cheating.

Jill Olson

Editor’s note: This is part five in our weekly relationship series “Talking Connections.” Sensitive content may follow.

Cheating can cause the destruction of a relationship, and a diversity of reasons may motivate a cheater.

Cheating can be broadly categorized into the physical and the emotional. Not all cheating requires a sexual component, as some classify grabbing coffee with an ex-partner without consent of the current partner as cheating.

Whether there is a physical encounter or not, cheating typically results in a betrayal of trust in the relationship. For some, this may cause a termination of the relationship completely, but others may still desire forgiveness and continue the relationship.

David Wahl, graduate student in sociology with an emphasis on human sexuality, explained 12 common reasons people may cheat on their partner. While the list explores many reasons, Wahl emphasized it is not a complete examination of all possible factors.

Potential motivations Wahl cited included:

  • A desire to break constraints felt in the current relationship
  • A feeling that desires are unfilled in the current relationship
  • An understanding that sex does not equate romance, so if the cheating relationship is only physical, there is no cheating at play
  • A lack of needs being met in the current relationship
  • A redefining of what cheating involves to conclude that no cheating actually occurred
  • A mental disorder of narcissism and pride found in sharing one’s sexual prowess
  • A desire for both the stable relationship and adventurous sexual encounter
  • A breaking of rules established in a polyamorous relationship
  • A utilization of cheating as punishment for their partner’s behavior
  • A justification of cheating by claiming the rules of monogamy do not apply to them
  • An adoption of behavior as learned from an admired parent who cheated on a spouse
  • A submission to peer pressure because friends do not approve of current relationship

Whatever the motivation, attempting to hide cheating requires effort and calculation.

“It’s a full-time job to cheat,” Wahl said.

To actively pursue someone outside the relationship can translate into misdirecting a partner or trying to find time to see that additional partner.

Regardless of motivation and time commitment, cheating and the negativity associated with it partially result from those who founded America, said Susan Stewart, professor of sociology.

“Puritans came here with very traditional ideas of what marriage should be, as kind of a legal contract for procreation only,” Stewart said.

This perception of full-time relationships’ necessitating monogamy spread to modern society, which often blames only the cheaters for their betrayal. While cheating may not have been the correct decision, Stewart admits assigning severe blame can be toxic in committed relationships.

“The cheater is always portrayed as the bad guy,” Stewart said. “And so that can be very destructive to relationships with kids, especially if the other parent is promoting the idea that that one [cheater] is the bad guy. Relationships are very much two people.”

If cheating is involved in relationships with children, it can be important for both members to show respect for others affected by the cheating behavior.

Stewart also mentioned the blame game fails to recognize that cheating is not always a result of malice.

“People who go outside the marriage are most often still in love with their partner,” Stewart said. “We tend to think that there’s something wrong with the relationship, that it’s really dysfunctional, but most of the time, it’s fine.”

In situations where no obvious ill-intent is involved, Stewart mentioned cheating is often a result of opportunity. Both genders work in the modern era, which increases the couple’s access to new people constantly, both at the office and through travel, Stewart said.

While cheating frequently leads to a breakup or divorce, some people may desire to forgive their partner.

Nathaniel Wade, professor of psychology, suggests that although the trust was broken in the relationship, some couples may seek forgiveness.

In one of Wade’s forgiveness intervention studies, his team asked for participants who wanted to forgive some sort of hurt. All participants were college students and over 60 percent of participants described the hurt they sought counseling for was related to cheating.

College students use apps like Bumble and Tinder, which facilitate easier, faster access to other people seeking a variety of relationships.

For younger populations, cheating can be difficult to define because casual dating prevails, which produces many questions on whether a relationship actually exists, Stewart said.

If this communication remains unclear, disagreements and hurt may arise because of confusion surrounding whether the relationship is a committed one.

To restore trust, Wade said it is the responsibility of the cheater.

Wade also emphasized for trust to be restored, it is easier to accomplish if the cheater does not imagine themselves as completely villainous afterwards because such an attitude can be debilitating.

“All of us do crappy things, but that doesn’t mean we’re crappy people,” Wade said. “There’s ways to change our behavior.”

For instance, a cheater Wade worked with offered their partner full access to all their messaging services: texting, emails, chat rooms and any other form of communication.

While this may not be possible for all, it acknowledges to the partner that the cheater recognizes the trust they broke and the cheater is taking active steps to restore it, Wade said.

A common theme with cheating in relationships is that a lack of communication could increase the likelihood of infidelity.

Whether a member needs to communicate a new desire or to express their boredom, sharing these issues early could prevent a necessity for forgiveness later on.

How students define cheating:

”Physically, cheating can be a complete betrayal of trust, but there’s different levels of emotional cheating. If you entertain flirting, then that’s not great, but we all like the attention from someone else, so it’s not necessarily bad. If you’re relying on another shoulder to bear burdens, though, that’s a problem because it’s inappropriate.” – Claire Baudler, senior in agronomy

”My parents are divorced because of an affair. Obviously, a physical encounter is cheating, but you can have emotional affairs too. If you’re spending your time away from your spouse or girlfriend, then you may be more inclined to develop physical feelings. But I think entertaining flirting can just be fun, and it’s usually harmless. If your relationship is rocky, watch who you’re speaking to, but if you’re in a trusting place and you know yourself, then it’s harmless.” – Ashlynne Beninga, senior in agriculture and society

”My answer would be, I guess it doesn’t necessarily have to be physical, it can be emotional, it can be spiritual or however you’re deviating from your connection with your significant other, in kind of an untrue way. If your connection or what is keeping you together is in some sort of spiritual way, then you’re kind of betraying the other person.” – Erik Brandt, senior in finance

”I feel like cheating is pretty much lying and depends on the common interest of the two parties, I would say. I guess it’s just being disloyal and not being honest with the other person about other interests you’re in communication with.” – Madeline Baird, sophomore open option major

 ”Cheating can be both emotional and physical. I know a lot of people view emotions in different ways, but it can be just as bad as physical. [Emotional cheating] is when you allow yourself to develop a strong romance for someone else.” – Cassandra Bond, senior in agriculture and society

“Flirting with other people is cheating, just talking to other people isn’t, but anything past that, I would classify that as cheating.” – Jacob Garten, freshman in computer science and math

”I think it’s definitely cheating if it’s doing something physical, but I think even if it’s just that you don’t want to tell your significant other about something, it would maybe be considered cheating. Too much of an emotional connection, like an emotional connection over your significant other would also be considered cheating.” – Molly Breen, senior in finance

”Cheating carries – you could have the emotional, you could have the physical – that’s cheating on your significant other. You don’t have to actually be doing something. It could just be talking, snapping, doing what you shouldn’t.” – Kelli Wicks, senior in agriculture and society