When does sex cheating become emotional cheating?

Where do you draw the line?


When does Sex Cheating become Emotional Cheating? And Where do you draw the line?

I have always thought that if you asked most people whether they would rather that their long term partner fell in love with someone else, or had a guilty one night stand purely for sexual reasons the answer would always be the latter. The realisation that your long term partner has connected on an emotional level with somebody else would be devastating, even if they had not begun a physical relationship with this individual. The closeness that you build with a long term partner is such that it can really feel as if you have your own little world, with its own systems, traditions and routines. To have somebody encroach upon that territory, not just with their body but their tastes, laughter, feelings, can be unbearably painful. Furthermore, this kind of cheating feels like more of a personal insult. After all, we all want someone to love our little quirks, to find our conversations funny and engaging. We all want to be special to someone. I think, if we girls were being truly honest, we would much rather our other half cheated on us with a busty bimbo caricature that we could ridicule rather than an ordinary, nice woman who he had plenty in common with. We would much rather the thought of a boyfriend groping someone else’s “funbags” than their “breasts”.   

Meaningless nights of passion can be, arguably, more easily forgiven. Of course, sex is an integral part of any relationship and can be deeply personal. Many couples find it incredibly difficult to move forward after a casual affair, or even a one off, with the common issue cited as “the loss of trust”. Indeed, the act of sexual intercourse with somebody that you genuinely care about, love even, is a huge act of trust. Journalist Abraham Lloyd once wrote an article for Marie Claire where he expressed the view that for men “physical cheating is more painful than emotional cheating because we as a gender relate to everything in a physical way first”. This is an interesting perspective and makes sense when you take note of the prevalence of nightclub punch ups between male love rivals. Maybe at heart men are all antler locking Stags with their pride and their emotions all locked within their sexual prowess. Lloyd’s view appears to be backed up by public opinion. A 2014 study sponsored by Canadian dating website Elite Singles found that 65% of men believe that physical cheating is worse. Interestingly, it was found that 55% of women would be more hurt by emotional cheating.   

As a woman, I would say that it would always be the emotional cheating that would be, for me, the most painful to deal with. Of course it is quite difficult to be clear where the separation between emotion and physical cheating lies. Often the two can combine. For the sake of clarity, I will treat the act of emotional cheating as person developing strong feelings for a person other than the person that they are in a relationship with, without engaging in sexual activity. This could take many forms. The person could develop romantic feelings towards a close friend or could find that the supposedly innocent flirtations they had been having with a colleague were in fact becoming the brightest part of their day. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they always lose affection for their other half nor does it necessarily signal the end of their relationship. On the contrary, developing feelings for another can be a means of escapism when a relationship becomes complicated. For example, the changes a couple can go through after reaching a milestone birthday or becoming parents. Could emotional cheating be a more messy equivalent of getting lost in a romantic novel or developing a celebrity crush? In fact, does purely emotional cheating constitute as cheating at all? I wonder when it begins to class as cheating at all: the first secret coffee together perhaps, the first “I like you”, or maybe even the feelings themselves count as cheating, whether you try and squash them or not. After all, we can’t help the ways in which our hearts can turn without our say and maybe we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for this.       

Emotional cheating is less tangible than sexual cheating as there is less physical “evidence”. Besides, does a slight crush count as cheating or does it had to be full blown all singing all dancing love? Are real world intentions taken into account? For example, if a partner admits their feelings for somebody else but does not intend to sleep with them, does this count as a betrayal? Emotions are tricky to deal with. We humans can much more easily separate and categorise different “types” of sex in order to make sense of our relationships. A husband might describe “making love” to his new wife on his honeymoon in Venice, whilst his best mate might be out trying to “shag a bird” in Magaluf. If an alien was to land on earth in order to try and understand human romantic relationships, he might be forgiven for thinking that these are two completely different acts altogether using completely separate organs and orifices.

Through the crude language that we so often use to describe our more fleeting sexual conquests, we are separating them from our emotions and giving them the same temporality we might assign to the act of relieving ourselves in the toilet. Their bodies and names become fast food, separate from their identities and personal histories. All manner of tragedies and triumphs will be embedded in the flesh that we kiss so readily, however these will lie dormant and meaningless. This sort of sex is, after all, an act of dissociation. Being British, we also feel the need to inject plenty of bawdy Carry On esque humour and silly euphemisms into our casual sex discussion to hide our overall awkwardness. So often when we fall for someone, this all takes on a tone of almost pious reverence. We all know the lad who brags about his various conquests but ferociously upholds his new girlfriend’s good name as if he had just rescued her from a tower. By separating sex into these two basic categories, we are protecting ourselves from the full reality of cheating.                


The question remains however is where the purely sexual part ends and the emotion begins or indeed vice versa. It isn’t all as clear cut as we would all like to think it is and after all if it as then we human beings wouldn’t be the wonderfully complicated creatures that we are. Sometimes you can have sex with your partner of many years based on nothing more than a purely animal in the moment desire to bonk. Lovebirds don’t have to flutter coyly round your bedpost every time and this does not take away from your complete adoration and respect for your partner. Likewise, sex with a person who you have no other connection to can have profound meaning beyond the act itself, even if you never see the person again or have any particular romantic affection towards them.

It seems to me that there are as many forms of cheating as there are bickering couples in the world and everybody seems to have their own personal boundaries. I for one get a little bit antsy when I find out that my boyfriend has carried on watching a Netflix series without me. I’ve known friends who have classed flirting on a night out as cheating and have split up on the basis of a suggestive text. I have also known friends who’ve made shagging allowances for special occasions such as holidays or stag nights. I suppose by drawing up calendars, rules and regulations such as this, this gives us a sense of control and order over our sometimes scrambled and confusing feelings, and by association that of our partners. Jealousy is a funny thing and ideas regarding cheating can be diverse and even contradictory from couple to couple. When entering a serious relationship, the best thing that you can do is to understand your partner by openly discussing what it means to be unfaithful and to keep this dialogue going as you would with a close and trusted friend. None of us can give our bloodied, beating hearts, feelings and all, to another person as if it were a one dimensional cupcake, no matter what Clinton Cards tells us. All we can do is show our love for our partners by practising honesty and integrity in the best way we as individuals know how.           


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