Infidelity Meaning and Types
From time to time I will have clients ask me if they think what their wife or husband did is considered infidelity. Do you wonder what infidelity is or how to define it? Exploring the definition and the types of infidelity will help you figure out the answers to your questions when it comes to things happening in your relationship. There are several words that people may use regarding infidelity, but do they all mean the same thing? Some of those terms are adultery, fornication, cheating, and affair. Do all of these words mean the same thing?
To help us understand what is similar and different about these terms, we must also look at the types of infidelity. By understanding the meaning of infidelity and the different types, we will be better able to tell the difference and identify what is going on in your marriage if this type of issue arises. Let’s first define infidelity.
Definition of Infidelity
I like to give a formal definition and then provide a simpler way of explaining infidelity. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines infidelity in the following way.
a. the act or fact of having a romantic or sexual relationship with someone other than one’s husband, wife, or partner
b. unfaithfulness to a moral obligation: disloyal
Based on the above definition, we can understand that infidelity can involve a sexual relationship with someone who is not your spouse or significant other. However, this definition takes it a little further and uses the word “or” to show that infidelity may not involve a sexual encounter. It may only involve romantic engagements. Further, it seems to add a vague application to being disloyal and unfaithful to some moral obligation but does not specify what that obligation is.
Due to this lack of clarity, many people wonder if their behavior actually is considered infidelity.
What do they mean by moral obligation?
A moral obligation is a requirement or seeming commitment that arises from what is seen as right or wrong. Essentially, it’s when the will behind our motivation to do what’s right. And when someone goes against what is deemed right, according to the definition above, you are being disloyal and unfaithful to whatever is the right thing to do.
Dictionary.com says that infidelity is marital disloyalty; adultery.
CollinsDictionary.com describes infidelity as unfaithfulness or disloyalty to another; especially, sexual unfaithfulness of a husband or wife; adultery.
Synonyms or other words that people use instead of the word infidelity.
Many people will use the words affair, adultery, fornication, cheating, and unfaithful to refer to infidelity. These terms seem to be used interchangeably at times. But are they the same? I would consider some of them different, but not totally different. Based on the definition given above, these terms seem to refer to possible types, levels, or subtle nuances of infidelity. In fact, Merriam-Webster says that adultery is a synonym of infidelity.
Definition of Affair
A romantic or passionate attachment typically of limited duration.
The word affair can mean a lot of things, but when the definition above specifically refers to relationships.
Definition of Adultery
Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than that person’s current spouse or partner.
This definition seems to be very similar to the first part of the definition we shared above for infidelity.
Definition of Unfaithful
a. not adhering to vows, allegiance, or duty
b. not faithful to marriage vows
c. inaccurate or untrustworthy
I included all of the parts of this definition because I think they all apply in their own way. As you can see, unfaithful can mean when a spouse is not holding to their marriage vows. However, it does not specify to what degree or how. Thus the other parts of the definition help show us that someone can be unfaithful when they are inaccurate or untrustworthy in their behaviors when it comes to the duties of being married.
Definition of Fornication
Consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other.
This definition can apply to people who aren’t married or in a relationship at all but are having consensual sex.
Definition of Cheating
a. to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud
b. to practice fraud or trickery
c. to violate rules dishonestly
d. to be sexually unfaithful
Cheating is also a term that can be considered sexually unfaithful. Yet, this definition seems to add in trickery, fraud, and dishonesty. In the case of our definition of infidelity, where someone may be doing something morally wrong with someone other than their spouse, they would most likely be hiding what they are doing.
How do all these definitions tie together?
Each of these definitions can provide a little bit different take on infidelity. In the case of cheating, we add dishonesty. With unfaithfulness, we see a choice to act against the obligation they have as a spouse. When it comes to an affair, we still see the relational side of things that is not very specific to sexual or other ways to have a relationship with a person who is not your spouse.
Adultery is very specific about there being a sexual partner other than one’s spouse and thus could be a type of infidelity. Finally, fornication is not specifically referring to someone who is in a relationship or marriage but could be referring to anyone who chooses to have a sexual encounter with someone outside of marriage. It’s kind of a catch-all.
Overall, I see that all these different terms provide us with a broad sense of what infidelity is and bring us to needing to indicate types of infidelity to help us be able to identify if something is infidelity or not. So we will explore different types of infidelity below.
A Simplified Meaning of Infidelity
Let me give you an easy way to think of infidelity. For our simple meaning of infidelity, we will say that infidelity is when someone chooses to do something that is against the desires of their spouse or significant other and if known or found out could hurt them, whether sexual or not.
I remember in the book, Marriage on the Rock, by Pastor Jimmy Evans, he discussed a concept called legitimate jealousy. He described how God created marriage to be a covenant between spouses where they would become essentially one unit. Thus, anytime one of the spouses would do something the other person didn’t approve of without talking about it or coming to a compromise, the betrayed spouse had a right to feel jealous and hurt because they were not acting as one unit. Essentially, the husband or wife who acted against the unity of the marriage gave away something that was rightfully their partner’s.
When it comes to infidelity, this seems to be what happens. An offending spouse gives away their time, money, love, intimacy, or something else that is rightfully their partners, without at the very least having a conversation with the partner and getting consent.
Types of Infidelity
Many people have written about the different types of affairs or infidelity. I am not trying to dispute any of them. I just want to make sure they are understood, and at the very least, point out that anytime a spouse violates their marriage vows, no matter how big or small, they need to take responsibility for it and make it right. I understand people are people and they make mistakes. Sometimes we are not mature enough. Many times, we are stressed and act impulsively because we want to feel better or believe our needs aren’t getting met. At the end of the day, there are healthier ways to resolve life’s tough issues. With that said, let’s look at the different types of infidelity.
Sexual infidelity is exactly what it sounds like. A spouse has a sexual encounter with someone they are not married to. This can be physical or online. We will break those down later but for now, anything sexual with someone you are not married to is sexual infidelity. You vowed to your spouse that they would be the only one you experience the enjoyment of sexual fulfillment with. When you go outside of that vow sexually without permission, you have committed sexual infidelity.
This can be broken down into different forms. Pornography use, online chat rooms that become sexual, sexting, and intercourse or a physical sexual encounter with someone who is not your spouse is sexual infidelity. This would even include touching intimate areas of a person’s body that is not your spouse.
This type of infidelity may not include sexual forms, but could. It also might include just holding hands, snuggling, kissing, back rubs, hugging, or any other sort of touching. I want to include that for some of these to be physical infidelity, your spouse would be disapproving of them if she or he knew it was happening.
We do include sexual infidelity in with physical infidelity if their things are physical. I know that is obvious, but I just want to be clear.
This form of infidelity is tricky. Some people call it an emotional affair. The idea is that you have a relationship where you share thoughts, feelings, and conversations with someone who is not your spouse and become emotionally attached to that person. Sometimes you may not even know it is happening.
Many times these start just because you need someone to talk to and your spouse is not available, physically or emotionally. Unfortunately, you may have a legitimate reason for talking to someone about what is going on, but it is still not okay to do this with someone who is not your spouse without approval. How many times have you had a conversation with someone you knew your spouse would not want you talking to, or approve of you sharing with them what you are sharing?
The longer you continue to share with someone emotionally your struggles or about your life, the more likely you will start enjoying their attention and their willingness to listen. At that point, you are endangered of having an emotional affair because you may become so emotionally attached and begin liking them more than your spouse. You may even start feeling excited to see that person more than your spouse. Don’t trick yourself. Pay attention and set appropriate boundaries around all your relationships.
Object infidelity is when you put more of your time and energy into an object or thing that takes away quality time and energy from your spouse that they need from you. Again, this is very subtle. You may not even know what you are doing. Sometimes it may come in the form of an addiction. How many of you track how much time you are on your phone?
This type of infidelity can include any object. We are constantly seeking attention and excitement. Whatever draws your attention away from your spouse can open the door to object infidelity. Take inventory of the different objects in your life and what you focus on day in and day out. Is anything in your life taking an unreasonable amount of attention off your spouse?
This type of infidelity is interesting and very common. It basically is all the little ways you cheat. Have you ever taken time to look at an ex’s profile? Did your wife know about it? Obviously, this could get nit-picky. Yet, do you ever wonder why you do it? You might be asking if it is even wrong.
If your spouse knew, would she or he approve? That’s the question. Are you taking away attention, time, energy, or knowledge that they deserve? Didn’t you make a vow to them on your wedding day? At the very least, do they know? Other forms this type of infidelity can take are: flirting, texting just to see what response you will get, sexual comments, checking someone out, and more. Again, take inventory of yourself to see if you fall into this category.
We talked about this type of infidelity already. I believe this one can also include sexual infidelity or emotional/relational infidelity. However, it’s all done through texting, emails, video chat, chat rooms, pornography and other online platforms. Anything you do that your spouse would feel violated by through virtual means can be considered online infidelity.
Time infidelity is anything you give your time to that takes away from what your spouse needs. Are you working too much? Going golfing or hunting 4 to 5 days a week and leaving your wife at home to feed and take care of the kids? Are you staying in the shop tinkering because you would rather not face the tension in the house?
Anything you do consistently to not spend the quality time needed to have a healthy, enjoyable relationship is most likely time or hobby infidelity. It may be understandable if you are working a lot because you need the money. However, it also may mean you need to be more intentional about planning to make sure you spend time with your wife, budget well, and find new ways to increase your income instead of working your current job.
The last one we will mention is financial infidelity. This is when you spend money on something that your spouse would not approve of, especially if ya’ll are already struggling financially. When you get married, you become one unit. Your money is their money. Learning to communicate and compromise on spending money is very important.
You can’t just act like you are still single. Just because you think you know better what to do with your money, doesn’t mean you just go do what you believe is right. You will have to have a conversation, otherwise it would be seen as dishonest, unloving, and inconsiderate. Thus, your spouse will feel hurt and betrayed a la infidelity.
Reasons People are Unfaithful
People can be unfaithful for many reasons. I am not sure we can even cover them all here. Let’s try to cover some of the reasons people commit affairs and help you understand them.
I believe this reason is rare. Sometimes people feel “obligated” to do things because of their position at work or an association. They may be bullied into it, or pressured into it. For example, some people will sleep with their boss because they feel like if they don’t they will lose their job.
Sometimes peer pressure comes into play, especially depending on who you hang around. I have had spouses that went on trips with friends or family who were not good influences and had affairs because others were doing it, or because they felt like they would be laughed at or made fun of.
Sometimes spouses are so fed up with the marriage, that they have an affair just to cause the marriage to implode. They go have sex with someone so their marriage will be over by default. This is rare, but happens. Usually, the marriage has become so toxic, that the spouse rarely has feelings for the other spouse and doesn’t know what else to do. Obviously, they could just go file for divorce, but they choose this method because they are done anyway and don’t feel like it matters anymore.
It’s usually not to hurt the other person. I have had a few couples come into my office who say they really thought their spouse was done or didn’t love them anymore, so they didn’t think their spouse would care.
Sometimes affairs “just happen.” You become really good friends with someone and you start up something. That sometimes becomes a friend with benefits and it carries on. The boundaries were never as healthy as they needed to be and the door was left open. Usually, these start as emotional infidelity.
Infidelity can start due to forming romantic feelings for someone else. These usually start with emotional infidelity, but if they go on for a while, they will evolve into romance and then possibly physical. Many spouses, again, are struggling to have feelings for their partner and start opening up to someone else who gives them the attention they need. It can feel more exciting because the marriage has become cold and mundane.
Marriages can get to the point where one of the spouses just wants to escape every now and then. They are feeling the itch or things are mundane. So they “go on vacation” or try to get excitement elsewhere. They do escape emotionally and mentally for a little bit, but it’s never for long.
Fallen Out of Love
Many couples come to me and say they have “fallen out of love.” They use this as an excuse sometimes to go outside the marriage. To see if there is someone else who they were meant for. They start to wonder if they were never soul mates, so they fantasize about what it would be like to be in love again. At that point, they may go seeking it, even subconsciously. Remember the idea that one spouse said he didn’t think his wife really loved him anymore so he didn’t think she would really care what he did.
Addiction is rampant in our country and all over the world. It has destroyed countless marriages and lives. It’s a form of object infidelity if a person is married. They put more time, energy, money, and thought into their addiction than anything else. It’s a form of impulse that’s covering up the real issues of pain, trauma, and stress in the life of a spouse. Hopefully, you can see how this issue can easily lead to infidelity.
We discussed attention earlier, but it is definitely one of the reasons people have affairs. It can be subtle. If we are not getting attention or our marriage is slow or unexciting, any amount of attention a co-worker, friend, or acquaintance shows us can feel really good. The more this happens, and the less our marriage fulfills us, the more likely we will lean towards infidelity. That’s why we need to slam that door shut and reconnect with our spouse no matter what it takes!
Some people have an affair just because the opportunity is there. I have told clients that most anyone would have an affair if the right pieces lined up. I think if the right person, timing, experience, and a couple of other factors were in place, it would make it very hard for most people to say no. For many, it wouldn’t be hard at all. Addiction can fall under this category of reasons. Attention can also fall under this category. The lack of boundaries and a healthy understanding of your role and vows as a spouse will leave the door open for an opportunity for infidelity to grab you and pull you away into darkness.
Finally, some spouses commit adultery for revenge. Maybe their spouse had an affair. So they are mad, hurt, and angry. Why not get them back by doing the same thing? Bad idea! I have had these couples in my office and it just creates more mess. Yet, it is a reason that usually starts with a spouse feeling hurt and betrayed by their partner’s form of infidelity.
Effect of Infidelity
Infidelity of any type for any reason can cause hurt, distrust, and a break in the relationship. Some people experience trauma reactions. Some experience concerns about whether they really know their spouse. When I see people who have had an affair or infidelity of some sort, it takes a long time to process, heal, and resolve. It’s usually hard to do this alone. I would encourage any couple who is going through this right now to seek a neutral 3rd party to help you as you communicate and try to get your proverbial feet back on the relationship.
Infidelity is a broad topic. We have only scratched the surface with this post. Hopefully, you now see that it is easy to fall into. I also hope you now see that there are more ways than just sexually to deeply hurt your spouse. I am not saying you can ever be perfect, but the more we know and understand about how our behaviors can affect others, the more likely we can choose the right behavior. Continue to study these and your own life. Then search for healthy ways to avoid these. You may want to read my post on boundaries.
If you desire help beyond this point, please contact us so we can help you take your next steps. Don’t wait for things to get worse.
Blessings to you! I hope this has been helpful. If you have questions or need help, please call me (For Coaching: 706-955-0230, For Counseling: 706-916-6740) and set up an appointment or check out some of my other BLOG POSTS.
Brandon Coussens, LMFTBrandon Coussens, LMFT | Marriage Counseling and Sex Therapy
Brandon Coussens is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of Legacy Marriage Resources, LLC based in Augusta, Georgia. He specializes in marriage counseling and sex therapy. You can schedule a counseling appointment with him through Legacy Marriage Resources. He also offers Christian Coaching, Marriage Coaching, Financial Coaching, and Life Coaching to those who live outside the state of Georgia. To learn more about him, go to his Bio page.