When I was five-years-old and at a birthday party my best friend ripped off more wrapping paper than allowed in pass-the-parcel and won the prize. The memory of my molten outrage at his cheating is still vivid.
We are hard-wired to detect injustice - and that surge of outrage and pain is always so much worse when the cheater was someone you had trusted. Little wonder that cheating in a relationship brings couples to the counselling room with faces ashen with rage, pain or guilt.
Words like "betrayal"," broken trust", "ripped off" swirl like noxious gas and threaten to suck the oxygen out of any hopes for the future.
In her analysis of numerous contemporary surveys,
journalist, Michelle Taglia, suggests that those most likely to cheat are: tall men, blonde women, guys who work in IT, Twitter users and the French, - with Wednesday afternoons noted as the prime time for cheaters. In other words you can't actually predict much about infidelity - except it is as old as time.
On a more serious note, cheaters can be self-absorbed, narcissistic and callous individuals who sacrifice their partners to a tsunami of pain and confusion. Yet I have also worked with many clients who are good people and who are deeply shocked at finding themselves in a messy and dangerous situation they hadn't bargained on. They are often consumed with panic, sleeplessness and guilt - and are very confused.
What is considered cheating?
The compelling subject of movies, books, music and poetry depict cheating as a falling in love both physically and emotionally - there are other versions too. Cheating can be about physical craving with little or no emotional content.
Emotional cheating - without sexual intimacy - is recognised as a destructive and insidious affair. Some studies suggest women find this type of cheating by their partners more threatening and destructive than a physical fling. Beginning with an innocent enough friendship, it develops into intimate conversations and burgeoning emotional closeness - of the type normally reserved for ones mate. Setting up those regular coffee dates are absolutely about disingenuous intent, if one person is looking to hook up with the recipient.
Unlike the old "lipstick on his collar" cues, cyber cheating is hard to detect and includes internet porn, online dating sites and flirting on social networking sites. Cybersex via webcams and instant messaging - with passwords and technology as the lions at the gate are all in this mix - along with text message cheating - also known as 'chexting' or 'sexting'.
Being cheated on is betrayal of trust - the knowledge that the rules were broken. It hurts a lot. Your ignorance was factored in, and whilst you were responding to your partner's preoccupied behaviour with your own irritability and defensive feelings, half-an-hour later someone else is whispering comforting sweet sexy nothings to him. Not fair.
Each to his or her own - if open relationships work for you, then it is no one else's business. Cherishing emotional freedom and creativity is a core value in our society. However the Swinging 60s led to trouble in 70's coupling in that post hippy and pre yuppies stage between the Pill and Aids.
The stakes were raised, and consequences had to be faced. In my work I see so many adult offspring of those halcyon days of free love - still struggling in their 30s and 40s with the legacy of parental emotional chaos in which they grew up.
If it feels like infidelity - despite what you partner says - then it is. Because it is a betrayal of the expectations you have of your partner.
This is why defining the rules and laying out the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not, is key to removing the ambiguity and dissembling that is the fuel that cheating thrives on.
What can you do?
• Talk honestly and openly with your partner
• Do it today - find out what you both believe defines cheating
• If it's difficult to discuss - then share an article about different modes of cheating and discuss whether or not you see things the same way
• Do it when you are in a good space - not when the issue blows up
And if it has happened?
• Be careful not to rush out and talk to a lot of people in your network
• Professional help is a valuable resource
• Don't assume there are rigid rules for dealing with cheating
• Getting some research-based understanding of the psychology of cheating can help - a lot.
Cheating does not have to mean the end of your relationship - but that is the subject for another column.