When does an innocent text turn into cheating? We ask the experts...

You or your partner could be guilty of interacting inappropriately without even realising it

Woman texting on her phone, sitting in front of a lake
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is texting cheating in a relationship? In 'real-life', most couples have clear boundaries about what is and what isn't considered cheating. When it comes to texting, WhatsApping and DM-ing on social media, however, the boundaries may not be so defined.

If you suspect that your partner is seeing someone else, you'll probably be looking out for the tell-tale signs of cheating. While these have traditionally been unexplained absences and excuses like going to the gym all the time or needing to 'work late', it's now harder to identify the signs that the person you're with is getting involved with someone else.

As with everything else to do with relationships, it all depends on your own boundaries as a couple. But if you've never had that conversation, this is what the experts have to say about crossing the line online...

Is texting cheating in a relationship?

"Context is everything when it comes to texting," Jessica Leoni, sex and relationship expert for the extra-marital dating site IllicitEncounters.com, says. "Are you texting flirtatious messages because you're a natural flirt and enjoy having banter with friends of the opposite sex? If so, carry on texting and flirting. Life is too short and this really is a bit of harmless fun. Your partner probably won't enjoy reading your messages. But they know you're a flirt and they also know that you have strict rules and won't cross the line."

Emma Davey, relationship expert and founder of MyTraumaTherapy, says that as well as context, whether you're having to lie to your partner or the other person will be the decider on whether or not you're cheating. "If you are in a relationship with someone else and you're having to lie to someone to say that you're not in a relationship, you're hiding your phone, or turning your notifications off, you're doing that intentionally and you're lying to the person you're with.

"If you can't be honest about the person you're talking to, then you are technically lying to your partner and you're doing it for a reason. If you can't be honest, it's because you know you're doing something wrong."

Person texting on the phone at a table

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But as well as sending messages back and forth, whether that be texting, WhatsApping or DM-ing on Instagram, social media in general is a "hotbed for affairs". As Jessica says, "At IllicitEncounters.com, 15% of our male members and 13% of our female members have slept with an old friend who they have re-engaged with via social media - particularly Facebook. That boy that you snogged at the school disco 20 year ago - well, he is divorced now, he has aged well and, like you, he is very keen to take things further now that you're both grown up."

When does texting cross the line and become cheating?

Despite the blurry boundaries of online messaging, Jessica says, "there is a very simple rule when a flirty text crosses the line into texting cheating". This is when "the flirt is clearly intimating that they want to take things further, such as meeting, swapping sexy pictures, masturbating to mutual dirty talk (lots of people do this, believe me), by phone, FaceTime or Skype. The basic rule is: flirt by all means, but don't take action." This is when texting crosses the line and become cheating.

There are a couple of other habits that could mean your partner is cheating on you or you're crossing the line. One of them to do with texting is the time that messages are sent. "Usually, the later the texts, the more sinister the intent," Jessica says. "All the late night banter is probably the prelude to a booty call."

For Emma, the line is crossed "as soon as you realise you're getting emotionally involved and looking forward to their messages. You're becoming dependent on that person's message to make you feel better. That's when you've become emotionally involved in that person, as you’re still putting emotions into those messages, whether you’re meaning to or not. "

But she warns people on both ends of these messages that texting warps the reality of a situation - and the person. "When you're messaging someone, you're actually creating this image within your mind. You're not actually seeing the person in real life. So when you're writing to them and you're getting responses back, [the person] can be whoever they want to be at that particular time.

Man walking along the street smiling and text with colourful wall background

Credit: Getty

"You are creating this image and you can start falling in love with this person emotionally. It's the visionary side of things of what they're building up in their minds. They start thinking, 'Wow, this person is so amazing, what they're writing is so amazing. It's so connecting."

What is considered flirting in a text?

Via text, someone can misconstrue almost anything if the context is misunderstood. However, Jessica says, "If you use texts to turn friendship into something intimate, show more respect to your partner. Texting is just as bad as kissing if it’s a strategy to get the recipient into bed. In that case, putting a kiss (an ‘x’) at the end of a message really is a deep betrayal.”

Is flirting cheating in a relationship?

Ultimately, this is up to the people within the relationship to decide. Some couples may see flirting as just a bit of harmless fun. Others see it as insulting and a serious betrayal to the relationship. If you're having to ask the question, "am I cheating by messaging this person?", then perhaps it's time to take another look how you're texting - and your relationship itself.

Emma explains, "If a person is having to seek validation and emotional connection from other people, they are never going to be able to sustain a happy, faithful relationship."

Couple sitting on a park bench with a dog after texting

Credit: Getty

People seeking validation outside their relationships has become especially prominent in the last year, Emma tells GoodtoKnow. "Everyone is looking to out-do each other, compete against each other. It’s always that competition of 'I need to loved by everyone, told how wonderful I am'. What I’m finding is people would rather get 100 likes than a relationship with one person. More so in the younger generations." 

This could be, in part, due to the significant challenges posed by lockdown. Most of us were extremely isolated, but also spent more time than ever before on social media. A review by The British Psychological Society has found that the challenges of lockdown have been "substantial" and, even though many of the restrictions have now lifted, still have the "potential for increased isolation and personal and sexual disconnection through prolonged periods of separation."

This, our expert explains, can lead to people looking for validation outside of the relationship. It's just one of the many ways that lockdown has ruined relationships, as it was harder for couples living apart (and together in some cases) to maintain a healthy, fulfilling relationship.

Naturally though, not all ambiguous text messaging leads to cheating. Also, the majority of people in happy and healthy relationships don't want to cheat on their partners. So if you suspect someone is messaging you and the reason is not entirely innocent, and you want to stop it, there are some ways you can proactively go about it.

"If you're attached and the other person has got the wrong end of the stick, just be straight with them. Tell them honestly that you're taken and you would rather not cross that line," Jessica says. "Most people will respect the fact that you're clearly setting boundaries. If they ignore that advice, there's no need to block them - that will just antagonise them. Just ignore their messages."

How to tell if your partner is cheating via texting

“There are lots of obvious signs that your partner has just started cheating,” says Jessica. These include:

  • Changing their pin on their phone.
  • Being very careful about their phone ever leaving their side (including always charging it next to them at night).
  • They make little changes in their routine so they can spend more time messaging their lover.
  • They may be a little bit more off-hand with you, such as not so affectionate and even a little short-tempered. It’s a myth that cheaters are nicer to their regular partners because they feel guilty about their cheating.

If you’ve caught someone texting cheating, can you trust them again?

Ultimately, it's up to the couple to decide. But for many people, Jessica says, it's a deal breaker because of the breach of trust.

"Why do I want to stay with a liar?" She asks, "Anyone sending inappropriate message will be leading a double life and trying to hide things from you. If you’re not ready to walk out on the relationship, give them a final warning. I’d also ask for proof that that they have cut off contact with the person they have been messaging."

Faye M Smith
Senior Health and Lifestyle Writer

Faye M Smith is a Senior Health And Lifestyle writer working across Woman & Home, Feel Good You, Woman’s Own and Woman magazine.  Having gained an NCTJ postgraduate diploma, Faye has worked for 15 years in journalism, covering a range of lifestyle topics for companies including the BBC, Press Association, News UK and Hachette.