Featured image: In Black Mirror S5E1 two friends become sexually attracted to each other within the walls of a fighting game, discovering alternative sides to whom they are in the real world as ostensibly straight men. There is no physical touching: everything is played out across a virtual-reality environment. This makes you wonder: is their digital affair a form of cheating? (Netflix)

We all know what infidelity is, broadly speaking: it’s the act of cheating on your partner, the person to whom you’ve committed your faith. Wikipedia describes infidelity as ‘a violation of a couple’s emotional and/or sexual exclusivity’. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you must not betray your partner because you love and respect them. But what acts actually count as infidelity?

Is an act classed as cheating by virtue of what you do or what you would like to do?

What if you would like something sexual to happen with a secondary partner but do not follow through with an action? Is that really preferable to doing something on impulse, without thinking about it, say, because you are blind-drunk?

What if those thoughts take place inside the realm of fiction: are you safe?

There are many fascinating aspects to infidelity, the boundaries of which are often left unclear. Sometimes the boundaries are intentionally blurred to avoid difficult questions. In this article I will briefly run through some potential answers.

The importance of not betraying your partner

One person described her husband’s ‘relationship’ with a woman online as an ‘emotional affair’. ‘He doesn't know what he feels for her or why and he says that scares him because he says he would never cheat on me (his definition of cheating is physical) but I already feel cheated on and like my life has spiralled out of control.’ Another person said one of his wife’s online friendships went from innocent gameplay to close, emotional, and out-of-game contact, suggesting a partner’s indiscretions can steadily fall down a slippery slope into a relationship-destroying pattern in the absence of intervention. So much for being a role-playing game … (World of Warcraft)

To betray a partner comes with their sharp and long-lasting pain. Why do people cheat when the consequences are so obviously nasty and destructive? One reason is to experience sexual gratification. Another is to feel validated from the attention received: intimacy fills voids. Infidelity also comes with exhilaration and escapism. These reasons aren’t written to defend the indefensible but to put things into perspective.

Cheating isn’t exactly uncommon. In one study it was reported, for both sexes, that 2 to 4 % of spouses had extramarital sex in the previous 12 months. In another study it was revealed that 25 % of marriages are at some point hit with infidelity, leading to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, the chances of which are currently being exacerbated by the pandemic. And partners can house plenty of insecurities about their other-halves’ behaviour as it is!

Yet, in some sense, these numbers don’t go far enough. While sexual contact is usually always deemed to be a form of cheating and is statistically recorded as such, there are smaller indiscretions which are unaccounted for. Trying to impress someone, a flirtatious smile, sharing a sexualised emoji on social media—where’s the line? When seen in full light the prevalence of infidelity may be much higher.

These acts are subtler forms of infidelity which do not necessarily cross boundaries. Nonetheless, despite the unclear boundaries, when known, these acts may go against the will of a partner, for the partner is expressing some form of emotional or physical availability to a secondary partner.

These questions are left under the carpet of most relationships. They aren’t swept under there by couples: the topic never emerges in the first place!

Caution is understandable, though: not only are we sensitive and irrational creatures who do not handle their own imaginations very well, beginning a discussion about what one is practically allowed to do whilst in a relationship can create issues. Most people, therefore, leave the subject undiscussed. This is probably for the best. It’s easy to see how anger and jealousy and a myriad of other negative emotions can be sparked from dormancy into a fiery explosion of hell when rules are laid out and debated.

Furthermore, people in genuinely happy relationships automatically think nothing of these questions.

Still, it is interesting to consider what forms infidelity can come in. Not least, we might want to clarify, to ourselves, which behaviours of our partners we are comfortable with and which ones we are not.

Setting the boundaries

Mark (David Mitchell; left) contemplates cheating on Dobby with Stephanie (Josephine Butler; right), a ‘lovely older lady' who's also into business, in Peep Show S8E4: ‘What can I get away with before it's sure-fire infidelity? A kiss on the lips? Some people say hello like that. Touch the waist? Another innocent greeting gesture. As long as she doesn't rub my penis. No one says hello like that, other than in prison.’ Watch the two meet here. (All3Media)

One group of researchers calls the grey area between flirting and unfaithfulness ‘micro-cheating’, only beyond which are acts identified with fully fledged cheating. So what pushes an discretion beyond the threshold?

Interestingly, in their study the group found that people considered acts most disloyal when their partners were less honest with the person they were engaging and perhaps flirting with. They also found an association between people’s perceptions of infidelity and the time of day, where night-time interactions are seen as more secretive. So context and intent matters.

Nevertheless, whether an act constitutes infidelity or not depends on the boundaries mutually set by the partners involved in a romantic relationship. These boundaries are usually drawn from the norms of local culture and agreed upon tacitly. Alternatively, the boundaries are made explicitly clear in a kind of negotiation of a ‘romantic contract’: a promise. ‘You can’t stay in touch with your ex.’ ‘You shouldn’t “like” other peoples’ photos.’ ‘Kissing other people is fine. But no more than that.’ (Some relationships are very open.)

Hence the boundaries set are relative to a couple’s relationship—that’s an obvious and superficial answer. What are these boundaries based on?

For some people it’s actual physical contact that is forbidden. For others the desire is more significant. In practice, the boundaries are formed from a combination of both.

When broken down like this the rules of a relationship quickly expose some peculiar ways of thinking one is cheating. For example, does it count as cheating if someone merely possesses an intention without ever following through with that intention? How about if that intention is taken into a different reality . . .

In Her (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly (pictured), Theodore enters an intimate relationship with his operating system, ‘OS1’, who he speaks to via an earpiece. (We’ve written about this film before.) The relevant point here is: if we can fall in love with artificial intelligence (AI), for instance, because AI can be programmed to fulfil our emotional needs better than any human could, then surely romance with technology is a possible and real form of unfaithfulness. (Sony Pictures Releasing)

How would you feel if your partner did any of the following things? (I apologise if you find any of the items on this list lewd or the comments hereafter indecent—sort of.)

  • Your partner finds a fictional character attractive.
  • Your partner ferociously masturbates about this character when you’re out of the house.
  • Your partner watches porn featuring real people who turn your partner on.
  • Your partner uses a sex toy as they watch porn. They’re really into it.
  • Your partner makes a character on World of Warcraft who engages in sexual relations with another person’s character in the game.
  • Your partner enters virtual reality to have steamy ‘sex’, perhaps physically with an android (à la Westworld).

In each case there is a sense in which your partner is not becoming intimate with anyone else, for they are adapting or leaving this reality behind to find gratification in another one: bending the rules. But is this really okay?

To contemplate the scenario seriously let us form a realistic picture of the problem substantively. Take a fictional character: say, Edward Cullen, Lara Croft, Christian Grey, Dolores Abernathy, Howl Jenkins Pendragon, or Turanga Leela. Your partner masturbates about them somewhat regularly. Yes, the character does not really exist and maybe they aren’t even human. Even so, their appeal to your partner extends beyond physical attraction since the character, for example, has a human personality and voice.

Howl Jenkins Pendragon, voiced by Christian Bale, from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). (Toho)

So is your partner’s masturbation a neutral and benign act with respect to the good faith of a relationship? Can you really dismiss it on the basis that there is no real-world harm, except for, perhaps, a tiny increase in unfaithful intention?

See, if cheating must happen in your reality to be considered as such, what does this say about your values and greatest interests? Arbitrarily, you may emphasise what transpires, here, in this reality instead of basing your partner’s infidelity on what goes on in their head. But this just sounds absurd, for you’ve allowed chance to define your relationship through the dice Reality throws every day in your partner’s actions.

That your partner’s cheating requires organisms as well as orgasms to be considered unfaithful; that your reactiveness to other peoples’ gross and sticky fluids strikes you in the heart before your partner’s emotional betrayal; that your partner’s raunchy mental escapades in another world only become treacherous at the physical level—each represents a conveniently simple cut-off point to curtail an overthinking mind. Your partner may have been micro-cheating for a long time before this.

But what’s the alternative? At what point do you broach the topic and redress your anxiety when what bothers you is a fiction?

Instead, if you are to believe that your partner’s violation of your relationship is grounded in what they would like to do—even if those violations are contained within their imagination—the reality of your relationship is about to get very restrictive. Insofar as you can even talk about these things openly with your partner, there are now countless things they cannot do—or, indeed, think about—since their thoughts are under scrutiny, too. With all the concealing of information about to happen, you are now going to bed with a lot more insecurity.