Article By Hannah Kerns
~ April 2022 ~
Ah, the universal question: Is sexting cheating? It’s complicated.
Though the question might be universal, the answer is anything but. In a world of blurry boundaries where situationships abound, what distinguishes cheating from flirting or friendship is totally dependent on how each person views their relationship — and even then, it can be murky.
In every partnership, people will have certain expectations of their significant other. Best case scenario: You discussed these expectations at length and know exactly where you stand with one another. More likely scenario: You assumed they had the same expectations as you and that they should be held to that unspoken standard. No surprise, this is typically where issues start to arise. It’s easy to jump to conclusions.
“The essence of cheating is betraying your partner’s trust,” Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, LCPC, Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, and co-founder of The Marriage Restoration Project, previously told Bustle. “This could manifest itself in a full-blown physical affair, an emotional affair, or an online interaction.”
That said, the real question is whether or not you are disrespecting your partner by violating their boundaries. Of course, if you never discussed those boundaries, it’s hard to make those distinctions retroactively. But it’s not impossible.
So, if you find yourself wondering if sexting is cheating in the context of your relationship, here are some things to consider.
Cheating Is An Emotional Betrayal
When it comes to cheating, the method is not the crux of the issue — so there’s no reason to downplay sexting just because it’s virtual. What truly matters is an emotional betrayal of trust. According to Slatkin, “Fidelity means loyalty. Being loyal to your [significant other] means not shifting your emotional focus elsewhere.”
With that in mind, an emotional affair, regardless of how it takes place, would be the definition of cheating. But again, it’s not always that straightforward. First of all, loyalty can be hard to define. What some may peg as inappropriate, others may be fine with. Second, this emotional piece relies entirely on the specifics of your relationship. What hurts you may not hurt your partner, and vice versa. That’s why having vulnerable conversations and setting boundaries early on is important.
Sexting Is Cheating If It Breaks Boundaries
In the absence of a clear, one-size-fits-all answer, experts recommend looking at the relationship as a whole. “I think it depends on your relationship. Are you a monogamous, committed couple?” Sarah Watson, licensed counselor and sex therapist, previously explained to Elite Daily. “If so, have you discussed your boundaries with sexting, talking to others, [and] feelings related to intimate conversations with others?”
That’s really what it comes down to: If you agreed from the get-go that all virtual activities (porn, OnlyFans, and, yes, sexting) are fine, then it really isn’t a matter of cheating. Your hurt feelings still matter, though. If this situation caused you pain or jealousy, that might be a sign that you’re ready to create a new set of boundaries with your partner.
On the other hand, if you made it clear that sexting was off-limits, then it absolutely qualifies as cheating. By ignoring your set boundaries, your partner has disrespected you and the relationship. Whether or not something physical happened, it counts as a major betrayal of trust — and it’s not something you should sweep under the rug.
Referring back to your boundaries sounds easy enough, but what if you never thought to set them? Or you set a few but never discussed sexting? That’s where things get messy. Fortunately, there are still ways to figure out this sitch.
Was The Sexting Kept A Secret?
Let’s be real, most people haven’t drawn up a list of boundaries in their relationship — and now, it might be a little late for that. In the absence of a full-blown conversation about boundaries, consider how the sexting came to light — and whether or not your partner hid it from you (or vice versa).
If the sexting was kept a secret, or if it involved prioritizing the ~sextual~ relationship over the real one, that signals a deeper problem and a worse betrayal. People typically don’t try to hide things they don’t feel guilty about. Chances are if they were trying to keep it quiet, they knew it was something that would hurt you.
So if you don’t have a boundary rule book to go off of, a good rule of thumb is to check in with yourself and see if the sexting felt like a secret (whether it was you or your partner who was doing it). Nicole Richardson, LPC, LMFT, previously told Bustle, “My general litmus test for couples is to ‘behave in my absence as you would in my presence.’”
If you and your SO know that sexting someone else would damage your relationship, and you (or they) still decide to do it, it may be time to reevaluate that relationship.
How Do You Move Forward?
In this situation, there’s a real possibility that one partner might be too hurt to move forward, and that’s valid. But if you do want to continue to see one another, a long and vulnerable conversation should be in your near future.
Even if you don’t define sexting as cheating, an incident like this is symptomatic of something amiss in your relationship (a lack of clear boundaries, for example). So if you want to move forward, the root of the problem needs to be addressed.
“Talk to your partner about what [they] wanted to get from the sext exchange,” sex therapist Stefani Threadgill previously told Elite Daily. “In my clinical practice, I often hear what I call the three A’s — needs for admiration, attention and appreciation. We all want to feel desired.”
Once you understand where you both are coming from, you’ll have a better idea of how to move on — together or apart.
There will never be one answer to the “Is sexting cheating?” question, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without a clear-cut answer, you have to decide for yourself what you will and what you will not accept from your partner. Just remember, it all comes back to trust, boundaries, and intentions.
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, LCPC, Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, and co-founder of The Marriage Restoration Project
Sarah Watson, licensed counselor and sex therapist
Nicole Richardson, LPC, LMFT
Stefani Threadgill, sex therapist