A kiss between two Strictly dance partners has got everyone talking about what counts as infidelity. The psychotherapist and relationship expert Jean-Claude Chalmet explains what the dealbreakers are
When you’re in a relationship, the consensus is that sex and passion with others is not OK. But how about a little flirt with an ex on Facebook, or nurturing an unrequited crush on your personal trainer? I’ve counselled hundreds of couples about infidelity and, beyond the obvious, couples rarely discuss what else they feel counts as cheating. Often a partner says: “I had no idea you’d be upset by an innocent kiss — it meant nothing!”
The problem is that marital discussions as to what constitutes unacceptable behaviour happen after the event, not before — but they should. As I tell all my clients, it’s a simple talk for couples to have, but a difficult one. So is a drunken smooch with a colleague cheating? Is it harmless?
As proven by this week’s Strictly Come Dancingdrama — where dance partners, both in relationships, were photographed kissing passionately — what is and isn’t infidelity can’t always be rationally defined, because it’s about feelings.
As the Good Morning Britain host (and former Strictly contestant) Susanna Reid observed: “We’ve all had a few drinks and had a kiss, haven’t we?” But the only person who can decide what constitutes being unfaithful or not is the aggrieved party. The perpetrator — or onlooker — doesn’t get to be the judge. The only way you can know whether a cheeky text flirtation or close, undisclosed friendship is cheating, therefore, is to talk to your partner — preferably before engaging in any of it.
The one-off drunken snog
Context matters. I’m not suggesting that every three months your beloved should confess to an illicit kiss with impunity, or accuse you of overreacting when you object to their offending behaviour. In that case there’s something rotten in the relationship. But we’re all fallible, and if it’s genuinely a one-off, I’d doubt this would end a marriage.
Honesty after the event is key. The decent action is to confess straight away: “I messed up. You’re going to be angry, and you’ve every right. This happened, it wasn’t my intention, I’m deeply sorry, I’m not looking for anything else, and the next time there’s potential for that kind of situation to arise I’ll remove myself from it.”
The partner would have the right to ask why it happened, and to feel hurt and furious. But if you have a strong relationship this shouldn’t be the end of it. If it is, you didn’t have much of a relationship.
However, lying that your evening was “boring” and being caught out later confirms it as a stone-cold betrayal. For most, that’s very probably a dealbreaker.
The close friendship that you haven’t mentioned
It’s the sexual tension that gives such relationships their frisson of excitement; the fact that, consciously or not, and whether you act on it or not, you want to sleep with them. Therein lies the problem. If you have a very close friendship with someone else, your partner should know about it. In a strong relationship you’d ask if it bothered them and talk about that. If it did, you’d step back. Most people know instinctively if something isn’t appropriate, but they like to pretend innocence.
It’s true that your partner can never provide everything you need, nor should they, but if you need emotional sustenance and intimacy with another person, ask yourself why. If you stay silent about this friendship simply because you feel you can’t discuss it, it means there is a lack of trust. Either way, saying nothing is a red flag. It’s a form of emotional infidelity and a step towards the possibility of a physical affair. All too often in the clinic I hear: “I never thought it would go that far.”
Is that drink really so innocent?
The ‘innocent’ lunch or dinner date
Despite going for dinner or drinks with someone from work three times a week, I’ve heard people say: “I had no idea he was interested.” Until the point they fall into bed together.
When you’re in a relationship, certain actions require risk assessment. Let your moral compass guide you. Lunch is no better that supper — infidelity isn’t defined by the time of day. If you’ve chosen someone to share your life with, don’t share it with someone else. If you discuss intimate things that you wouldn’t discuss with your partner, that’s emotional infidelity. “So easy to talk to,” is what I often hear in my practice.
It’s not as if you have to be po-faced with everyone — flirting isn’t flirting if there are no romantic connotations — but we know when there’s an undercurrent. Do we have the integrity to admit that to ourselves? Test your emotional honesty: how would you feel if your partner walked in?
You’re a flirt
The definition of flirting is “to behave as though sexually attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intentions”. We naturally gel with some people, develop a chemistry with certain colleagues, especially if we’ve worked together for a while. Some relationships become informal and affectionate — it’s called friendship. And particularly with friends it’s natural to joke, and for some people, tactility and teasing is part of that. What a bore life would be if there were no joyful sparks of connection, ever, with anyone bar your spouse. It’s harmless provided both of you understand each other, the situation and boundaries very clearly, and would behave no differently if your partners were present.
Giving someone you’re attracted to your phone number
When people fool themselves — “I’m exchanging numbers for work; their gorgeousness is irrelevant” — it’s usually because they want to fool someone else. Otherwise they would morally equivocate and say to themselves: “Perhaps this isn’t appropriate.” Some people even have the gall to do this in their partner’s presence to give it legitimacy: “Would I really be so stupid as to do this in front of you if it meant anything?”
I hear tales like this in my practice a lot. Are there any circumstances under which it would be acceptable? Sure, if it’s genuine, there’s no underlying motive and your partner is fine with it. But if they object and you claim they’re oversensitive, take a hard look at yourself.
You are a bit frisky with an old flame on Facebook, but they’re married too
Examine your motivation. You’re not doing it for your ex, but to feel good about yourself. And surely this is a relationship that didn’t work. On one side there must be some hurt, because one person finished it. Why pick at a scar? If your partner finds out, they will rightly feel suspicious, and think: “What’s wrong with our relationship?”
This isn’t outright cheating, but it frays the edges of intimacy and risks unravelling any loose thread in your relationship. I’m not suggesting that you blank your former partner in the street, but starting up a pseudo relationship is suspect.
You fantasise about someone else (not just sexually)
A bit of fantasy is not the end of the world, but keep it to yourself and draw a line. However, if you’re persistently thinking of someone else in bed, it’s a bad mental habit and will end up being corrosive to intimacy. Is your partner merely performing the physical act while you dream of someone else? And is your partner so insensitive that they can’t tell?
You find many other people attractive
Our eyes don’t stop working just because we’re in a committed relationship. It’s natural to be attracted to other people — our brains are wired to take particular note of the new and the different. Window shopping doesn’t mean that you have to buy. If you have feasted your eyes and your senses — have fun at home. There’s beauty in the human form and it’s normal to recognise that and feel a pang of desire. That doesn’t mean that you want to rip off their clothes. But if we’re content in our relationship, we consciously choose not to react or pursue those urges — that’s the pact we make with ourselves — it’s called emotional integrity. In a really secure relationship, no one is under threat because of the existence of attractive others. Especially if you are happy to joke about it with your partner.
The text-only relationship
When you start being jumpy about your phone bleeping notifications, you’re changing passwords, or coding people’s names, you know full well that what you’re doing isn’t right. Digital flirtation, may never make it to real life, but it is still deceitful, cheating behaviour, and you know that. Yes, yes, your partner is paranoid/unreasonable/doesn’t understand you — that’s merely a projection of your own guilt.
You seek out the attention of someone you know fancies you
We all like to feel attractive and enjoy feeling desired, but indulging a third party’s interest isn’t harmless. You might tell yourself it doesn’t matter because your partner won’t know, but the point is, you’re doing it. Using someone else to feel good about yourself suggests low self-esteem and a habit of taking attention where you can get it. Maybe there’s a lack of attention in your relationship. Better to work on that, rather than chase someone you don’t really care about.
Of course, it’s not cut-and-dried infidelity, but it’s highly disrespectful, very selfish, not to mention immature. You’re essentially humiliating this third person for your self-gratification. Potentially hurting three people at once — yourself included — is quite a feat.
Drunk ‘sexy’ dancing
As we know, alcohol impairs judgment. While having fun is fine, this can quickly become a scenario in which someone is hurt and humiliated and telling yourself it’s fine because you haven’t gone all the way is not a good enough excuse. Even when your resolve is weakened by booze, you still have a choice. You could walk away. You could ask yourself: “Is a sleazy dance at the office party worth wounding three people, including myself?” How about if your partner saw you, or you saw yourself, would you still act that way? Who are you? Are you the person after the wine or before it?
Playful physical contact
A colleague of mine lay in a male friend’s lap to watch a film at a conference and became aware of something poking into her back . . . you can imagine. She immediately rang her boyfriend to tell him exactly what had happened, to apologise and assure him that it would never happen again. It impressed me. That honesty told me it was a genuine mistake. Her boyfriend wasn’t overjoyed, but he took her at her word. A strong relationship should be able to withstand something like that.
The fact is, sometimes these things happen — you were drunk, or seeking attention, or bored — but if you are the perpetrator of not-quite-appropriate behaviour that could be interpreted by your partner as a form of infidelity, you should tell them. To hear it from someone else is unforgivable. Either way, your partner will have a problem with it, and it would be a worry if they didn’t. But hiding the truth and being outed by someone compounds the offence.
You organise playdates with the hot dad/mum on the school run
It’s natural to notice other people and occasionally think: “Oof, I’d drink their bathwater.” In a truly strong relationship, you might say to your spouse: “Blimey, have you seen so-and-so? I’m planning my next marriage!” It’s a joke, or a fleeting thought that gives you a thrill, but not behaviour that threatens your relationship.
But if you feel yourself edging towards a risky situation, it’s better to remove yourself. A group of parents sitting in the park is fine, you’ve probably got to know each other well, but a one-to-one, even with the children there, is pushing it. Ask yourself: “As an emotionally faithful partner, what is my boundary?”
If the two of you are in the hot dad’s kitchen while your partners are at work, cosily sipping wine while your children are playing with building blocks, it’s an elaborate construction to avoid being honest with yourself. How happy would you be if it were the other way around?
You sometimes use pornography and webcam sites
A common complaint I hear in my practice is that men pretend that they need more sex than women. The truth is that men are not willing to put in the effort to make women feel inclined to have sex with them. Therefore porn is a very easy solution to deal with their urges. Many women wish their men would put as much energy into emotionally satisfying them as they put into selecting porn. It’s a form of neglect and partners do feel deeply betrayed.
That said, porn use can also be subject to unspoken consent in a couple; one partner doesn’t want to be bothered and this is a convenient outlet. It enables intimacy to be avoided or minimised — most people are afraid of intimacy. The truth, though, is that many people use porn. I would say: why watch it on your own? The barometer is simple. Whatever it is — Fifty Shades of Grey or a webcam site — could you watch it together? Could you discuss it with your partner and live out a version of that fantasy together?
You fancy your trainer, and they’re possibly the reason you go to the gym
Wanting to get fit is a genuine motive, so when does a relationship like this become disingenuous? It’s perfectly legitimate, until a line is crossed. And people instinctively know when that is. It might be when you discuss things of an intimate nature that you wouldn’t broach with your partner. The personal trainer might remain professional while you nurse a secret lust. Perhaps they have an amazing body and your spouse doesn’t, but this can soon turn into more than a guilty pleasure. Would you be happy if your spouse was secretly, persistently lusting over their personal trainer/PA/hairdresser/therapist? If your secret motive for training one-on-one is a sexual kick, the indication is that something isn’t right in your relationship, and that’s the real problem.
You have a running or concert ‘buddy’ you spend as much time with as your partner
If I’m something of a couch potato and my wife has a male tennis buddy with the body of a god, I’m likely to feel miffed, unless our emotional and sexual relationship is strong. In good relationships partners should be happy their loved ones have hobbies and interests and friends to enjoy them with. If your intentions are pure, why not? It’s impossible, not to mention unhealthy and suffocating, for a partner to be everything to us.
Interview by Anna Maxted
Jean-Claude Chalmet is founder of The Place, theplaceretreats.com