What constitutes cheating on a significant other? Sex? Just a smooch? How about emotional misdeeds, like amorous texts and emails?
For those who think they can get away with flirtatious texting or other kinds of emotional infidelity, take note: A new study has shown that most of us take that emotional cheating even more seriously than physical cheating.
Surveying over 63,000 Americans, researchers out of Chapman University asked what was more upsetting: a partner who steps out sexually or a partner who steps out emotionally. The majority of respondents said the latter.
Heterosexual women, along with gay, lesbian and bisexual participants, agreed the idea of a partner falling in love with someone else, even while remaining physically faithful, was more troubling. Heterosexual men, on the other hand, were the lone respondents who viewed cheating as a physical act: Fifty-four percent of heterosexual men reported being more upset by sexual infidelity, compared to 35% of heterosexual women. (Which, lead researcher David Frederick told Mic, totally fit his predictions.)
The findings are stark validation for victims of cheating, and a clarion call to would-be philanderers: Emotional cheating does serious damage, and that playful office romance or string of flirty texts can't easily be written off as "no big deal."
What makes emotional cheating so much worse? Despite the rise of texting, Facebook and other platforms that make it easier than ever, emotional infidelity is hardly a new concept for therapists. "Sexual indiscretions involve giving your body to someone else. Emotional affairs are more about giving your heart — and sometimes soul — to an individual outside the relationship," Elizabeth Lombardo, a Chicago-based psychologist and author, says. "And that is often harder to handle."
Ashley, a 30-year-old Tennessee resident who has been the victim of both infidelities, told Mic, "I'm very much in the camp that emotional fidelity is far more important than physical fidelity. I've always been in this camp, ever since I was a teenager, and now as a 30-year-old married woman, I still strongly feel this way."
Laura Lieff, a New Yorker and the president of personal coaching company Accentuating Service, agrees. "Physical infidelity is indeed very hurtful," she notes. "However, the relationship is in more danger when emotional infidelity is taking place, as it means that something is seriously lacking."
Why do straight guys have the wrong idea? They might be able to blame science, says Frederick, but it depends on which researchers you ask. Many biologists say evolution can influence men's priorities. "Men face a problem that women never face: paternal uncertainty," Frederick said. (Cue the white-knuckle Maury Povich moments like this.)
But those in the psychology realm disagree. "The social-cognitive folks will argue more generally [that] when people detect a threat to their relationship or a threat to their self-esteem, that evokes jealousy," Frederick said.
No more excuses, guys. Emotional cheating may be on the rise, but that doesn't mean it's OK. "I have definitely seen an increase in emotional infidelity perpetuated through electronic communication," notes Lori Schade, a marriage therapist in Salt Lake City. "Smartphones create an environment ripe for emotional infidelity." The growing debate on "Is sexting cheating?" lays that reality bare.
Studies reveal that many of us have a back-up paramour — or maybe two — with whom we chat on Facebook. Perhaps it's an insurance policy if our current relationship doesn't pan out, or just to get some titillation on the side of an otherwise stable, happy relationship.
But emotional infidelity can often turn into physical infidelity. And even if it doesn't: Emotional cheating is worse. To all the men (and women) out there who might justify their emotional infidelity as "harmless" texts or "silly" Snapchats: It's a hollow excuse. Think before you sext.