The definition of infidelity depends on who you're asking and their circumstances.

How to Define Infidelity in Marriage

by Kathryn Rateliff Barr

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy reports that 25 percent of husbands and 15 percent of wives admit to sexual infidelity, and even more admit to emotional affairs and infidelity that stop short of intercourse. The definition of infidelity varies from couple to couple; some definitions include emotional and mental aspects and others permit physical relations outside the marriage if both partners know and agree to an open relationship.

Sexual Activities

For most people, sexual activities outside the marriage constitute infidelity, report a 2013 survey of 1,000 people by the Huffington Post and YouGov and a 2013 study published in “Evolutionary Psychology.” Sexual activities many people consider cheating include sexual intercourse, oral sex, showering together, kissing on the lips, emailing nude pictures and sexting. Female respondents tended to rank these activities as cheating more often than men did.

Emotional Bonding

Emotional affairs are relationships where the couple might or might not meet face to face, but the partners form a deep attachment stronger than the emotional attachment in their marriages. The Huffington Post/YouGov poll reports that 70 percent of women and 50 percent of men believe this kind of relationship constitutes infidelity. Writing for, psychiatrist Gail Saltz explains that an emotional affair may not involve sexual intimacy, but does include secrecy, deception and a breach of trust, which can be harder to deal with than your partner having sex with someone else. Flirting, sharing secrets, talking to the new partner about problems in the marriage, lunches out, texting and chatting online are common behaviors that lead to this type of infidelity, notes the Mayo Clinic. This kind of relationship can lead to sexual infidelity, but it doesn’t have to go that far to damage a marriage, and Saltz advises that the only way to recover the marriage is to end the affair.

Online Affairs

There are many ways to conduct an online affair, from interacting in chat rooms to joining dating sites and posing as single or available to emailing and sending sexual pictures to a partner. Some people take the next step and meet face to face, but others conduct the affair only in their minds. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy says that online affairs can be emotional affairs, and those where the couple moves from online to a physical relationship are the most disruptive to a marriage.

Open Marriages

Some couples feel that sex with someone outside the marriage isn’t cheating if both parties know and agree to allow the connection -- no secrecy or deceit. Sometimes known as an open marriage, these marriages may also include bigamy. The key seems to be that the partners in the marriage both consent to the relationships, don't hide it and agree to love each other fully. Marriage and family psychotherapist Dossie Easton and sex educator Janet W. Hardy, authors of “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures,” suggest that an open marriage can be the answer for some couples. In a January 2012 “USA Today” article, marriage historian Stephanie Coontz theorizes that open marriages can work as long as both parties freely agree to the arrangement before any extramarital connections occur, and points out that this type of relationship has a long history in many cultures.

About the Author

Rev. Kathryn Rateliff Barr has taught birth, parenting, vaccinations and alternative medicine classes since 1994. She is a pastoral family counselor and has parented birth, step, adopted and foster children. She holds bachelor's degrees in English and history from Centenary College of Louisiana. Studies include midwifery, naturopathy and other alternative therapies.

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