For most people in monogamous relationships, the rule of no sex with anyone else is clearly understood. But lots of rules are less tacit, such as the ones regarding flirting or wandering eyes. Here, the lines are blurry, and easily crossed — sometimes resulting in damage to a relationship. More often than not, the adherence to these implicit agreements can define where you stand within your relationship.
In our recent TODAY poll , readers confessed which relationship crimes they considered to be “crossing the line.” According to our findings, some relationship sins — such as drooling over Natalie Portman or flirting with a cute waiter — are touchy subjects, but they are not deal-breakers. However, once these behaviors crossed over into the overtly sexual territory — such as cyber-flirting behind a partner’s back or being too affectionate with members of the opposite sex — the majority of survey respondents stated they would be concerned.
Why is this? For one thing, most of us are rational about our partners’ sexuality and desires. We know that it isn’t a crime to be attracted to hot celebrities, and we don’t become blind just because we are in a committed relationship. That behavior doesn’t threaten the relationship, particularly since the reality of us ever meeting Dr. McDreamy or Angelina Jolie is slim to none.
However, the real line seems to be drawn at behaviors which begin to constitute sexual advances, such as buying someone other than your partner a drink, or dancing inappropriately with someone other than your spouse. These actions are often warning bells.
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The bottom line? When you cross these lines, you are seeking attention and attraction outside of the relationship, whether you realize it or not. You might not be “cheating” on your spouse per se, but you are likely cheating them out of the sense of safety, trust and intimacy that they — and the relationship — require to thrive.
By the time most of us have embarked on our first serious relationship, we understand without being told that certain behaviors are hurtful to our partners. We know that lingering too long with the cute bartender hurts our spouse’s feelings. We know that ogling our partners’ attractive friends is rude and upsetting. There is a basic kind of respect that is expected in a loving sexual relationship that most of us understand.
So what does it mean when your partner doesn’t “get” this and routinely crosses those lines? Does it mean he or she can’t be trusted or is predisposed to cheating? Not necessarily, but at the very least it indicates a lack of both sensitivity and consideration for your feelings — which can be a red flag for his or her future behavior. If your partner doesn’t understand how to respect you now, what makes it likely they will several years down the line?
If you are wondering if you have “crossed the line” in your relationship, a good rule of thumb is this: You should not be speaking, acting or doing anything with a potential sexual partner that you wouldn’t do in front of your own partner. If you would be ashamed or embarrassed to get “caught,” don’t do it. And if your spouse is the one crossing the line, speak up and tell them what your boundaries are.
If you have already asserted your boundaries but your partner continues to cross the line, it might be time for you to decide whether you want to stay in a relationship in which your feelings are not considered.
Laura Berman, LCSW, Ph.D., is the director of the Berman Center, a specialized health care facility in Chicago that's dedicated to helping women repair their sex lives and find relief from menopausal symptoms. Dr. Berman is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
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