Why cheating in relationships has become far more complicated

Isabel thought she had a relationship with someone she could build a future with - until he cheated on her and ruined everything.

When Newshub asked her if cheating had destroyed the relationship, she said: "To put it plainly, yes. Trust and communication are the basic foundations of any relationship. I think if he had opened up about what had happened as soon as it did, instead of choosing to twist the story and manipulate and gaslight [me], we could have had an open conversation about what led him to cheat."

February 13 marks 'National Cheat Day', also known as 'National Mistress Day' - a day where people are supposedly far more likely to cheat on their significant other.

With Valentine's Day just 24 hours later, if people are more likely to cheat the day before, it can make the day of love unworthy of celebrating.

Determining what is and isn't cheating in your own relationship can be tricky when you haven't set clear boundaries or discussed what is okay and what isn't.

Sex and relationship therapist Serafin Upton told Newshub that a simple definition of cheating is if you have an erotic and romantic connection with someone other than your partner.

"That includes texting someone or messaging someone on Instagram, saying inappropriate things on Instagram, or having a full-blown affair with your colleague or neighbour. Or sharing naked photos with your wife's best friend. That kind of stuff."

Isabel, whose name we have changed for privacy reasons, said her ex-boyfriend physically cheated on her.

"He had sex with someone else. I am also sure in the lead-up to the physical cheating, there was emotional cheating to an extent, such as flirty comments and a 'friendly touch' here and there if he was consciously doing it or not," Isabel said.

When Newshub asked Isabel if she had planned on celebrating Valentine's Day, she said that as they had broken up a few months prior, she could celebrate the day another way.

When Newshub spoke with Upton, she said cheating is far more difficult to navigate than people think and not having clear, established boundaries is often to blame.

Cheating is often a series of events which could lead to something that alters the course of the relationship, she added.

"All these things happen incrementally. We make so many choice points along the way and we choose to kind of get swept up in it."


Lack of communication within a relationship can be one of the main reasons people cheat.

"Cheating often happens because couples have never sat down and had some really hard conversations about what is cheating and what is not," Upton said.

"I think there are so many different avenues we can become erotically involved with another person that I think we can't even keep up with it."

Isabel said her ex-boyfriend failed to sufficiently communicate with her about his infidelity.

"The way it was handled not only ruined the romantic relationship but also the friendship. The hardest part of this was losing a best friend that I thought respected me enough, to be honest with me."

Unhappy Couple having counsel session with marriage counselor, woman explaining situation and gesturing with hands, while man with arms crossed is still closed to communication.
Photo credit: Getty Images

Upton said conversations about what each individual considers to be - or not to be - cheating isn't even "on the radar" in most relationships. 

"I [not that] people don't think they can have these conversations about it. I think they literally don't even think about it at all."

She added that we tend to hold our partners to a higher standard than we would with other people in our lives. 

"We really think they are just the most amazing people who only have eyes for us and would never dream of being inappropriate or crossing boundaries, and then we are shocked when they do," she said. "We expect more from people than we should."

Whether you have cheated or been cheated on, Upton said it will never be an easy road to determining the reason behind the infidelity. 

"People don't ever come clean. People get found out. People virtually never come clean. People who come clean are basically just consumed with guilt," Upton said.

Isabel said her ex only admitted he cheated after they had ended their relationship. She said he told her it was so she could have closure after the breakup, but she thought that reasoning was "bullshit".

"I personally think it was to clear his conscience, or perhaps a bit of both, but it took him three months to tell me - and I was the last one from his side to know."

Why do people cheat? 

There are many possibilities as to why people cheat, but Upton said in her experience as a sex and relationship therapist, people cheat usually for two reasons.

"One is that things are not good at home. They're having conflicts with their partner or… they're just not dealing with their issues, so they go and cheat," she said.

"That's super common because it's easier to go and distract yourself with sex than to actually have some really hard conversations with your partner."

Another reason could be if a partner stops looking after themselves, Upton added. She said if someone falls in love with a person who enjoys a healthy, social life - but stops because they get a partner - it can lead to cheating.

"I am talking specifically about people who are like, 'oh I am married now' or 'I am in a long-term relationship' or 'they love me and they will accept me anyway I am'," she said. "They stop looking after themselves in terms of their health and fitness."

Is looking at pornography cheating? 

Pornography can be wonderful for some couples to enjoy together, however, if you or your partner are watching porn behind each other's backs and are ashamed to do so, it can break the trust in the relationship.

Upton told Newshub the people she works with often use pornography behind their partner's backs, which can be considered a form of betrayal. 

"They've been looking at porn for years and their partners had no idea."

Internet search bar with phrase porn
Photo credit: Getty Images

She said the experience of a partner using porn behind their significant other's back can have the same impact as cheating.

"It's kind of the experience, the emotional experience, being betrayed is the same no matter how the betrayal happens.

"When you talk to people and say, 'well, did you ever have a conversation about pornography?' or 'did you have a conversation about how you're going to navigate social media as it changes to romantic or erotic attractions?' They're like, 'no, we never talked about it'.

"The advice I give is [to] learn how to have hard conversations, decide together what cheating is and what it's not as a couple. Make sure you can be as healthy and as happy as possible."

Isabel told Newshub: "Cheating has absolutely nothing to do with the person who is being cheated on, and everything to do with the person who is cheating.

"I know from personal experience that you cannot make someone love you more, by pouring everything you are and have into them.

"I am proud that I had nothing but good intentions and lots of love to give. And thank god he screwed up - because it showed me exactly what I am not looking for."

Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.