Mad woman in bed with man looking at him sleepingTo talk with most people, they know what “cheating” means. But do they? Is their meaning shared by their partner or others? Have they ever really discussed what it means? Or do they assume their meaning is widely shared by others?

In my couples counseling and sex therapy practice I constantly hear “she cheated on me” or “if he ever cheats, I would divorce him!” But when I ask direct questions, it is typical for two people in a relationship to be confused and to differ about what “cheating” really is. It is like a Rorschach inkblot: “If you have to ask…” Yes, we do need to ask and clarify our expectations.

To some, it is cheating if you look at porn. But was there a clear agreement not to look at porn? Is this part of a person’s privacy, or is it keeping a torrid secret that would be a deal breaker? Every couple should discuss where the line is between privacy and secrecy. The line is not the same in every marriage, and the line can change over time.

Does cheating only apply to intercourse with others? Or is it cheating to kiss or hug someone else?

I find that many—probably most—couples never discuss the meaning. They often assume they know what it is, but their partner may disagree. It is dangerous to assume anything about sex, love and intimacy. It is safer to spell out agreements that are crystal clear, and change agreements when appropriate.

Finger pointing and endless blame occur when two people are not in synch about what is expected, tolerated and desired in a relationship. Miscommunication is frequently part of the problem, but sometimes a couple simply disagree about what they want, expect and what would be a deal breaker.

I deal with flings, affairs and with non-monogamous agreements. I encourage couples to spell out their agreements and guidelines so they can avoid conflict and hurt feelings. People change their minds. They reevaluate what marriage means. They take a second look at the many meanings and motives for sex.

It boils down to: is a relationship the common denominator, or is the individual the most basic level of analysis? A marriage or other intimate relationship cannot be all of one’s life, but in America we often expect one relationship to meet all of our needs. Such an expectation often over-taxes a marriage, and it crumbles from too many expectations.

It is often agreed upon that having friends is OK, but some do not want their partner to have friends of their own. Some say friends are OK, but not friends with benefits. These agreements are sometimes changed after one or both have sexual dalliances with others. Each person and each couple need to define what they mean by marriage and what they view as a breach of contract.

Lloyds of London cannot insure love, marriage or sex. There is always some risk when you love someone. You risk losing them or being rejected by them. There is no way to guarantee any of this.

Trust is important. Trust can be weakened or broken when a clear agreement is not adhered to. But trust can be regained with lots of effort in a therapy relationship, and with the healing of time. We really do not live in a monogamous society, but we say we do. Why make agreements that are not comfortable to keep? Why not reevaluate agreements over time? None of this is simple, and the attempt to simplify it all usually leads to problems.

Life and marriage define our journey. It is time to add humor so we do not take ourselves too seriously. Open communication and empathy for our loved ones goes a long way toward avoiding a litany of arguments and anger over all of this. In my therapy, I use a lot of humor to add a balanced perspective to sex, love and having fun.