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What Counts as Cheating?

“I’ve been dating a great guy for five months, but I still text back and forth with my ex-boyfriend. That’s okay, right?”

“There’s this girl at the gym who flirts with me and, yes, sometimes it gets a little risqué. I’m sure my girlfriend wouldn’t be thrilled, but it’s just harmless banter. What’s the big deal?”

“He doesn’t know I’m having dinner with someone else this weekend, but it shouldn’t matter since we’ve never exactly said we’re exclusive. That’s not breaking any rules, is it?”

Maybe you’ve heard statements like these—either from a friend or from yourself. What constitutes cheating is a huge gray area. After all, dating relationships are in a constant state of flux. They morph without warning from one thing into another, assuming a variety of forms such as “just friends,” hanging out, casual dating, broken-up, back together, with each other exclusively, engaged, and so on. Each form has its own rules and expectations, and to complicate matters further, the two people involved may not agree on what kind of relationship they actually have.

No wonder it’s so hard to determine when you’ve crossed the line. There may not be an approved checklist for what qualifies as cheating, but here are some questions that will help clarify the issue for yourself:

1. Even if you’re not sure you’re cheating, would your partner say you are?

Do you know what your partner’s expectations are? Are those expectations acceptable to you? If not—if you think they’re unreasonable for your present stage in the relationship—the two of you are overdue for a conversation to spell out what you consider appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

2. Are you secretive about seemingly harmless things?

Sometimes we hide things—site memberships, passwords, innocent interactions with attractive colleagues or friends—not because we’re doing anything questionable, but because we want to make things easier on ourselves in case we want to do something questionable in the future. If this sounds familiar, you might not be cheating at the moment, but you’re open to the opportunity. Not a good sign.

3. Are you anticipating the next step?

Even if anyone observing your actions would agree you’re not breaking rules, are you secretly eager to see how the third party responds and what might develop? Every time you interact, are there subtle shifts in how that relationship feels? Is it progressing toward something that is not entirely platonic in nature, and do you find yourself looking forward to each progressive step before it occurs?

4. Would you be uncomfortable if your partner acted the way you do?

A helpful reality check is to turn the situation around and determine if you would get upset if your beloved behaved the same way. If you have a friendship with an opposite-sex co-worker that’s gotten a little too cozy, ask yourself if you’d want your partner to have that kind of workplace relationship. If you’re checking up on an old boyfriend or girlfriend on Facebook, ask yourself if you’d want your current partner doing the same.

5. What’s the intent behind the interaction

Most often the issue of cheating can be boiled down to a single word: motive. Why do you banter with the girl at the gym? Why are you sending text messages to your ex? Why are you meeting that person for coffee? Caution: even the most self-aware individuals sometimes deceive themselves about their true motivations. Be honest with yourself in order to be honest with your partner.

The cliché “cheaters never prosper” applies more to relationships than any other context. Since cheating is often a gray area, your best bet is to take a giant step back from the line that serves as the border crossing between trustworthy and untrustworthy behavior.