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What counts as cheating varies, but generally it means when someone breaks the rules of their relationship by engaging in romantic and/or sexual activity with someone else that hasn’t been agreed on with their partner. 

What is cheating?

Cheating is when someone breaks the rules of their romantic/sexual relationship by engaging in sexual or romantic activity with someone else when this hasn’t been agreed on by their partner(s).

What counts as cheating varies; people will have different thoughts about what cheating is, and relationships will have different boundaries and expectations.

Sometimes, people can break rules unknowingly because they have different ideas from their partner(s) about what counts as cheating. This is especially common at the start of a relationship if there’s a lack of communication about whether they want the relationship to be monogamous or not. Other times, people can know they are breaking the rules of the relationship. 

There are many reasons why someone might break the rules of a relationship. These can include: 

  • Feeling bored in their relationship or with their partner 
  • Feeling disconnected from their partner 
  • Wanting to end the relationship but being unsure how to 
  • Feeling insecure and wanting attention, from their partner and/or from someone else 
  • Not thinking about the consequences and getting lost in the moment 
  • Wanting to cheat and not caring about the consequences 
  • Finding it exciting to take risks 

The first four reasons may mean that there needs to be better communication. Perhaps the person has been feeling taken for granted or ignored, and cheating is their way of ‘showing’ this. However, this isn’t a healthy way of dealing with those types of situations; cheating is dishonest, and relationships need trust and honesty to flourish and be healthy. 

I think I’ve been cheated on 

It is normal and understandable to feel angry and upset if you think your partner has cheated on you, but you will probably get a better outcome if you focus on healthy and calm communication.  

Unless you have very good evidence that someone is cheating on you, be very careful of accusing them outright. If you’re wrong, it could damage your relationship.  

Instead, try to have a calm conversation. Try not to shout accusations at your partner. It’s better to ‘own’ the way you feel by saying something like: ‘When you did this, I felt like this.’ 

This is a good time to have a conversation about boundaries around cheating and what trust means to you both, as this could help your partner understand how you feel. Other things to try can include: 

  • Listening to what your partner has to say about the cheating without interrupting. 
  • Staying calm, however angry and hurt you feel, by taking a deep breath and counting to ten. 
  • Writing down how you feel. If you are having an argument, agree to both write down your feelings, then talk about them later when you are both calmer. 

Is it okay to check my partner’s phone?
When people suspect their partner is cheating on them, they might try to check their messages to find proof. While it might feel helpful to find out, going behind someone’s back in this way is breaking their trust and privacy, and can become just as damaging to your relationship as the cheating you suspect is going on. 

I know I’ve been cheated on

Seek support

Finding out can be a big shock. Talk to your close friends and let them support you. You can also talk to someone at Brook, or contact a counsellor at Relate.

Talk to your partner

Although talking about the cheating may feel painful, it’s important you can ask questions and assess exactly what has happened. Talk in private and find a space and time that you won’t be interrupted. 

Focus on the facts

You might have questions, such as how long they have been cheating, but it’s better to avoid asking comparison questions such as ‘were they better in bed than me?’ Even if you feel these are important questions to ask, it’s advisable to focus on the facts first. For many people, the most urgent question is ‘why?, but sometimes a partner won’t be able to tell you this immediately, for instance if they are still working it out for themselves. 

Avoid insults

It may seem tempting to insult at your partner or the person they cheated on you with but this often gets in the way of properly understanding what’s happened, and you might say something you later regret.

It can also feel easier to place the blame with the person your partner cheated with, when actually it is your partner who has broken the agreement that you had.  

Don’t blame yourself

You should resist blaming yourself. While you were both responsible for your relationship, you can never be responsible for someone else’s choices – especially cheating. If your partner blames you for their behaviour, this is manipulative and unfair.

Find out about abuse in relationships.

Take time to think about what you want to happen next 

If your partner promises to end the cheating and re-commit to your relationship, take your time in making any decisions about your future together. Only after talking and understanding the reasons for the cheating, will you be able to know whether you’re able to forgive them breaking your trust. Perhaps all you can commit to is being willing to work with them to try to understand why this has happened. Rebuilding trust takes time; it won’t be an instant decision or feeling. 

There are many reasons that cheating happens and it can be in happy relationships as well as those which aren’t working. Listen to what your partner tells you rather than focusing on what you have always believed about cheating. There are no rules about what should happen next; you should do what works best for you, which might mean ending the relationship, or finding a way to rebuild trust and keep it going. 

I’ve cheated 

If you have cheated on your partner(s), then it can be helpful to try and understand why you did it, and also how you feel about what you have done. This can help you decide what you want to do next. You may feel any of the following: 

  • Shame 
  • Guilt 
  • Denial 
  • Defensiveness 
  • Anxiety 
  • Relief 
  • Excitement 

Should I tell my partner?

There’s no right answer to this question, and not even relationship counsellors agree. Some say honesty is crucial and it’s always best to tell the truth. How much worse would it be if your partner found out from someone else? 

Other counsellors believe it’s important to ask yourself why you are telling them you’ve cheated. Is it because you want to be forgiven? Or do you just want to stop feeling guilty about it? How would you feel if your partner cheated on you – would you want to know? 

If you do decide to tell your partner, be prepared for lots of questions. Whether your relationship can survive depends on how you have cheated, and whether your partner feels they can trust you again.  

It takes time to build up trust again and to forgive. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting the cheating, but there is the potential to keep your relationship going. 

However, if your cheating is a sign that the relationship isn’t working, then perhaps it’s time to move on. 

I’ve cheated more than once
Wanting to cheat and getting a kick out of the risks involved could mean that your past experiences have led you to have issues with trust. Did a previous partner cheat on you? Or perhaps you’ve been let you down by someone else?

Perhaps you don’t want to have only one partner? Non-monogamous relationships are becoming more popular, as people decide they want to have a different relationship structure than traditional monogamy. Our society still presents monogamy as compulsory, but there are lots of different types of non-monogamous relationship structures that are just as valid and fulfilling. Find out more about non-monogamous relationships.

Rebuilding trust 

Trust is a key element of any close relationship and helps us feel safe and secure. When trust is broken, it takes time to build it up again. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the cheating, but if you want the relationship to continue, it is possible to move forward if you work on it together. 

Rebuilding trust relies on two things: effective communication, and behavioural changes. It is important to communicate with each other how you are feeling, and what you want from each other in your relationship. You or your partner will need to commit to respecting each other’s boundaries and feelings going forward. This then requires you/your partner to act on those commitments.  

To build trust in a relationship, it helps to: 

  • Be honest, with yourself and your partner 
  • Be reliable and consistent 
  • Agree on boundaries and rules in your relationship 
  • Believe what each other says 
  • Be realistic about the promises you make – it doesn’t benefit either of you to make promises you can’t keep 

Rebuilding trust requires the same steps. If you or your partner has cheated, there will probably be some anxiety that it will happen again. Rebuilding trust will require regular affirmation of the commitment to change, and behaviour to match.  

If you do want to continue with your relationship, this will take time and hard work. While that healing is happening, there may be feelings of jealousy that come up; this is very normal, but it is important not to let those feelings take over. Read more about trust and jealousy.

However, it may not be possible to rebuild trust and repair your relationship, even if you both want to, and at a certain point you may have to start thinking about breaking up. Read more about break ups.

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