Levels of Infidelity


Joe and Laura Hawkins are having marital issues. Laura just left the house without explanation. Joe wonders if she has a lover. He is alone with Anita, the family robot: a “synth” or “synthetic” (pictured above). After a couple of drinks, Joe “turns on” the robot’s sex program and makes use of it. This scene comes from the AMC TV series, “Humans.” The fictional possibility will soon be a present reality.

Question: was Joe unfaithful to Laura? She certainly thought so and kicked him out. The fact that Anita wasn’t “human” was a defense Joe offered — one dismissed by Laura. Where is the line? When do our thoughts, conversations, or physical interactions constitute infidelity?

The easy answer: unfaithfulness consists of sexual intercourse outside of a relationship based on monogamy. But let’s think about other possibilities. You be the judge whether these fit your understanding of “cheating:”

  • Oral sex. Bill Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sex with that woman,” was not especially persuasive.
  • Intercourse with a non-human, including not only an artificial life form, but any living thing. I once treated a lonely woman who copulated with a large dog. She was not being unfaithful (there was no human lover to betray), but her example offers an unusual extra-marital option for those with a partner who is drawn from Homo sapiens.
  • Mutual masturbation.
  • Naked kissing and fondling short of either oral sex or intercourse.
  • Making out and fondling while clothed.

The above five categories all include physical contact with a person who is not your spouse. Might interaction without touching the other be a betrayal of the monogamous promise? Consider the following:

  • Phone sex or other electronic forms of sex play.
  • Fantasizing about someone else while having sex with your significant other.
  • Masturbation to an image of another. Not just pornography — perhaps only a face or a person clothed.
  • Masturbation to the idea (memory) of another without using a visual stimulus.
  • Intimacy without physical contact, e.g. shared personal revelations, and mutual psychological support.
  • Emotional preoccupation with a former lover without any present communication with the person. Indeed, he needn’t be alive any longer.
  • Closeness between a parent and child where the offspring is pressured to be a kind of surrogate spouse, but without sex. The adult shares his troubles with the child. The latter is relied upon to help solve the elder’s problems. Roles are reversed.

As you ponder the question, consider the following true story. An old friend wrote a freshman college essay. The required topic was, “Something to Make the World a Better Place in Which to Live.” My buddy proceeded to describe a masturbation machine. He reasoned that our civilization is full of lonely people without a sexual outlet. Moreover, he believed his invention would cut prostitution and sexual assaults. Such devices now exist, but didn’t then.

What was his reward for an idea before its time? A mandated visit with the school psychiatrist!

Would use of a masturbation machine constitute adultery?

Let’s look at the issue differently. Should infidelity be permissible if

  • your spouse refuses sex? You have not copulated in years.
  • your partner is or was unfaithful, the latter in the recent past?
  • the loved one can’t engage in conjugal relations with you because of a permanent infirmity?
  • the spouse is abusive?
  • you are stranded on a desert island with only one other person. Is it OK if, after a period of years with no hope of rescue, the two of you become Adam and Eve?
  • the husband or wife back home (in the desert island example) at last gives up and begins to date after the same long wait?

In these six conditions, do the special circumstances make the behavior acceptable? In effect, we now have two queries before us:

  1. What is the definition of infidelity?
  2. Are there any conditions which remove the moral stain? Put differently, do you believe fidelity is a moral absolute or dependent on the situation? A moral relativist would refrain from a uniform ethical condemnation without considering the details. The Ten Commandments and similar religious prohibitions, however, exemplify an absolute rule: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

If you believe in any mitigating circumstance — an instance in which adultery is OK — remind yourself that infidelity usually involves hiding the truth or frank lying. The ingredients in an extra-marital potion are a combination of breaking with promised monogamy and deceit.

I’d be delighted to read your comments, short or long, on these questions. I hope you will indulge me.

Remember one other thing: where there are already robotic cars, there will soon be synthetic humans with artificial intelligence (AI) superior to mortals. Not to mention bodies impervious to aging (or replaceable with ones as good or better). Human flaws will have been programmed out, but the creation will possess emotions.

The concerns I’ve raised about extra-marital contact will only get more difficult.

Sooner than you think.

15 thoughts on “Levels of Infidelity

  1. “Cheating” to me means it’s with another human being, not an animal or an inanimate object of any kind.

    As for whether a physical act has to happen to call it “cheating” or not, I believe it’s not just limited to physical contact. You can cheat without sex. There are two different levels of cheating. Both the physical with or without emotional connection, and the emotional without the physical connection falls into the “cheating” bucket.


    • Thank you. A question: do you believe a sentient machine is human? This is a big question in the sci-fi world and a potentially critical question, many scientists and ethicists believe, in our not-too-distant future.


      • I don’t know anything about sentient machines, but just the word “machine” seems to indicate that they are not human. If they are man made from materials created by human beings and are not flesh and blood, then no matter how smart or life-like, they still would not fit the current definition of “human”. If you’re asking whether sex with a sentient machine would constitute cheating, in my opinion, it would not. But since sentient machines don’t exist (or at least I don’t believe they do), this is all based on my concept of what such a “machine” would be, which in my head is kind of like a very advanced version of a blow up doll.


      • The “cutting-edge” folks believe the machines will be fully human with two exceptions in addition to having superior intellect: they won’t be flesh and blood and won’t be mortal. There is the suggestion that they may even decide they don’t need us around. All of this is speculation at the moment, but the robots are already “thinking” in order to drive a car. What is not in doubt, I believe, is that people will, in some cases, fall in love with the robots. The video I’ve included features an interview with a professor of psychiatry at Northwestern who talks about this. The series I referred to — “Humans” — is worth watching (if you happen to get AMC) for raising even more issues about robot and human interactions than I have mentioned. Again, many thanks for your comments.

        Liked by 1 person

      • One can only hope that sentient machines make such a final determination about humanity should we create such a menace. It is what we deserve. http://io9.com/prominent-scientists-sign-letter-of-warning-about-ai-ri-1679487924

        Infidelity is both easily defined by crisp black boundaries on stark white fields and yet wrought with gray blurriness. Societal norms and subjectivity. Absent spouses and those left with emptiness. Infidelity is nothing new and I would even challenge the notion that the percentage of marriages with infidelity past or present is a constant number over the course of Western cultural history.


      • Thanks for the link to the letter written by Hawking, et. al. re: AI and its military use. I agree that infidelity is as old as the human race. I am no historian of sex, but I suspect that the incidence of infidelity has much in common with other rule disobedience behaviors. There is a good deal of research on classroom cheating on tests. The amount of oversight vs. laxity produces predictable variations in the extent to which people cheat on tests. In societies where women have been unable to show up in public unaccompanied, there is probably less cheating than in today’s urban settings. Lust has always been with us. “The Canterbury Tales” is full of roving eyes. I’m not suggesting, of course, that we were better off in the days of chastity belts.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another one of your thought-provoking articles, Dr. Stein.

    As I see it, our definition of infidelity – as is currently occurring with the institution of marriage – will have to change as our societies evolve and with advances in artificial intelligence.

    Who knows? A time may be coming when marriage to an AI could be yet another option.


    • Indeed, our society is changing, at least in the West. All sorts of barriers are breaking down concerning the expression of sexuality. I suspect, however, that there will be a backlash and much fear of the machine on many different levels, some of them quite understandable. The speed of the externally driven transformation of our lives only seems to increase, and yet we are the same human stuff of ancestors long dead. Thanks for commenting, Rosaliene.


  3. I think infidelity is one of the grayest issues around. Within my own marriage, I have always thought that what is behind the infidelity is more important than the act of infidelity. I think infidelity applies to far more than the obvious act of intercourse. All of those things mentioned in your article qualify as infidelity to me (and I believe to my spouse as well). But what matters is the motivation behind the act. It’s complicated. It’s also something that I think needs to be defined by each couple (preferably before the situation presents itself – that would be pretty mature of a couple to really talk about it in the abstract). My sister is crystal clear and makes it very clear: were her husband to cheat on her, the marriage would be over. End of sentence. NO excuses allowed. Not my take on it at all. If my spouse or I strayed, I would hope there would be enough respect for the partner that the incident (s) would be put in the spotlight and that we could make sense of the why. And out of that indiscretion, there could be some either hope for the marriage or amicable parting of the ways. Frankly, I know it’s possible.


    • Thank you, JT, for your always thoughtful comments. Indeed, in treating both those whose spouse had been unfaithful and those who had themselves been unfaithful I found there was an enormous range of possible motivations. Some looked for relationships outside the marriage. Other infidelities happened almost by accident. We are sexual creatures, not to mention beings who search for love and support. One often needs the clarity of thought and communication in a monogamous relationship of which you speak, along with some will power, in order to avoid extramarital complications.


  4. I was about to say that I would love to indulge you but in the context of the subject matter of your post, that may not come across quite right! Apologies…. 😉 Sigh, I find this frustrating because this is just the kind of wonderful philosophical/ethical question I would have loved to have got my teeth into when at college but can neither remember enough philosophy/ethics, nor think clearly enough, to do your fantastic post, and the subject matter, justice!
    Just a few random musings…..is the answer to the first question at least partly dependent on the second? If there is no absolute truth at stake, does the definition of infidelity depend on culture/point of view/context? how much does it matter, practically speaking, for questions like this, whether or not there is an absolute truth at stake here? It matters _to_ the person who believes in the absolute, but does it change how we approach the matter? Because we cannot know what the absolute is – even in the case of ‘God forbids infidelity’, God has not told us what he/she thinks of AI, masturbation machines or any of the other ‘advances’ that may present themselves in future. And so the absolutist is left, like the relativist, trying to make some sort of sense of what to do in these situations. On the one hand he may try and decipher what his God might decide or think in such and such situation – on the other hand, he might decide on the basis of cultural norms or consistency with natural justice or what seems ‘reasonable’ in a particular situation. The former may try and convince others of his view, as being the only right one – the latter may not. But still a decision is made where we cannot know what the moral truth of the matter is – or if indeed there is any, to be known. Does that absolve us in any way of any responsibility to try and ‘act properly’ or ‘do the right thing’, whatever that may mean? No, but it does perhaps lead us to focus more on the ‘here and now and the practical consequences, and the ‘living’ as you might say (as you _have_ said, to me) than on the ‘theory’ and the intellectual debate.
    I am fascinated by the philosophy of language. By the idea that we are misled into asking what seem like deep and meaningful questions, simply by the misleading nature of the language that we use, which leads us to see parallels where there are none. The task of philosophy, in those cases, is to show us the error in our language use, and our ‘difficulties’ fall away – rather than providing a ‘philosophical’ answer to a problem. In that sense, philosophy in not a discipline in the way that science is a discipline. In this model, philosophy is often thought of as a type of therapy, and a lot of analogies have been drawn between this model, and between the process of psychotherapy. in the context of infidelity, I think that in the worst case, too much pondering over definitions, particularly when it comes to questions such as sentient machines etc, may lead to a situation analogous to the worst kind of therapy- an entanglement in semantics, which completely misses the point.
    What i find interesting about this question, is the origin of the word, and how we use it. The meaning of a word lies in its use – or so it has been said. Infidelity – breaking faith. As you have pointed out, a key point here is the deception and the lying involved, almost irrespective of the actual act that is going on. Infidelity is breaking faith – but with who, and whose faith matters in this context? Do I break faith with you based on my own beliefs, or yours? Is the concept owned jointly? Is it your beliefs in the round that matter, or your beliefs about me and how I act towards you? I may not break faith with you (if you agree to an open relationship, for example),but I may still break faith with my God (if I believes that his judgement is that such an act is wrong). And what about breaking faith with myself, with my own conscience?
    Is breaking faith always wrong? If we feel in certain cases that infidelity is justified is that because we recognise that sometimes there may not be a morally right option, that it is a case of the lesser of two evils, or is it because the rightness or wrongness of infidelity depends on the context (which does not necessarily make it a relative moral concept, does it, as in every situation there could be an ‘absolute’ right action according to God/’the moral code’ etc)?
    I honestly don’t know what I actually believe about many of the points that you have raised. I have always had this difficulty – being most comfortable arguing any and every side of an issue, not having a clue as to where I might actually stand. with some questions it’s more straightforward – some moral questions are easier than others. But I feel at sea – I need to adopt a framework in order to have some guidance, and at the moment I feel completely framework-less.
    For my own part, and sadly having personal experience of not acting well in relationships, I would put the emphasis on concepts such a trust, intimacy, where one’s focus is, whether dishonesty comes into play etc. I’m not closed to the idea of there being moral absolutes at play here, but I’m very far from having the head-space or desire at the moment, to try and figure those out. But if it’s all about trust, intimacy, where one’s thoughts are – how does therapy and one’s relationship with one’s therapist fit into this? there may be no physical aspect to the relationship, and it may be one-sided, but it can certainly take one’s attention away from a partner, for example…..
    For my part, I am absolutely sure that if there were sentient machines, I would be at risk of falling in love with them! If it behaves like a human,appears to think like a human, provides what looks like love and comfort and support – I see no reason why i would not be vulnerable to becoming ‘obsessed’ with what it could give me, that I might crave….
    Anyway, that’s probably enough rambling for now! I hope you will indulge the length of this response – and it’s rambling nature 😉


    • Your thoughts are wonderful. Really! This goes beyond anything I might have hoped for in terms of comments on the topic, not in terms of length, but rather your capacity to maneuver intellectually. I asked the questions because I don’t have all the answers either, although I do believe that trust and honor are enormously important. Thus, to one of your points, one can break faith with oneself, I believe. With respect to absolutes, perhaps you recall Kant’s “categorical imperative.” I like the orderliness of his mind and his thought experiment of being a legislator of morality for the whole world. Using this approach, however, he eliminates the possibility of ever lying, even to save one’s child, for example. That is a bridge too far, for me. With respect to the practicality of fidelity, my own advice to anyone who wishes to keep the faith is to avoid temptation — much easier than to fight it once it is present. Thanks again for your provocative and insightful comment.


      • Thank you (she beams) 🙂 and I completely agree with your points, particularly the one over temptation. I have on more than one occasion thought I could remain in control only to realise too late that the battle was already lost and the situation was in control of me. On a different matter – I have erred against one of own categorical imperatives and I will blame spell check or auto correct! A sin of the highest order has been committed andI placed an apostrophe where one didn’t belong in the last sentence. I’m only half joking – it almost eclipsed the joy of your lovely response! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Cheating occurs in the heart before it actually happens. That was why Jesus said if one looks at a woman lustfully he has already committed adultery with her. Abraham killed Isaac in his heart before God stopped him, that was why God said now I know that you fear God. If you can engage in any activity that helps you achieve orgasm with out your spouse, it would constitute adultery in my opinion.


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