TikTok's "Plane Cheater" Begs the Question: Why Cheat in Public?

"If this man is your husband flying @United Airlines, flight 2140, from Houston to New York, he's probably going to be staying with Katy tonight," a TikTok creator wrote on June 24.

In the viral post, which has since been deleted, @carolinerened covertly recorded what she believed to be the beginning of an affair. The video shows the poster rubbing her eye while a man "wearing his wedding ring" closely chats with a fellow passenger in the background. The poster describes the purported "meet-cute" saying the travelers met at the airport bar and the man allegedly "convinced her to change her seat so she could sit next to him and they could drink."

Is this a cheat-cute? In one clip, the accused man exposes his stomach, appearing to show "Katy" something on his back. Is this more evidence of flirting? Perhaps. Perhaps Katy is a friendly dermatologist checking for cancerous moles. Or maybe she's a tattoo artist, consulting him on how to cover up the name of an old lover. Whatever the truth, @carolinerened is convinced it's infidelity. In the last line of her caption, she makes a demand: "Do your thing TikTok, #findthewife #cheatinghusbands."

TikTok did its thing. The comments formed quickly. Some users praised the poster, likening her to an FBI agent. Others recounted their own horror stories and wished their cheating partners were caught on camera. Some saw the film as an invasion of privacy and asked the TikToker to mind her own business. The resounding question, however, seemed to be: Why would you start an affair on an airplane?

Affairs in public are nothing new. In the early 2000s drama "The Sopranos", we watched as Tony Soprano and his crew took their "goomahs" out to a busy restaurant. Tony and his friends had one clear advantage that the plane guy did not, however: they cheated before 90 percent of Americans owned smartphones. In fact, "The Sopranos" series finale aired before the iPhone was available for purchase.

Now, affairs feel more public than ever. In 2023, social media was consumed by reality TV's salacious Scandoval. Long before the tour was ruined, Justin Timberlake was caught seemingly canoodling with someone who wasn't his wife. Khloé Kardashian's ex Tristan Thompson has made a habit of cheating in public.

In her TED Talk, "Rethinking Infidelity . . . A Talk For Anyone Who Has Ever Loved," psychotherapist Esther Perel states a key element of an affair is that it is a "secretive relationship." But a secret fling on a crowded airplane feels like a contradiction. So, if you're going to cheat, why do it in a public place?

Experts Featured in This Article

Jarryd Boyd is a certified life and relationships coach.

Elisabeth Crain, PsyD, is a psychotherapist specializing in family and couples counseling, inner child work, and other mental health challenges.

One reason for public infidelity is the assumed expectation of privacy. Relationship coach Jarryd Boyd thinks that's the case. "Sometimes people feel invisible in public and in crowds," Boyd tells PS. "We often don't think anyone is paying attention to us. So in situations like this, you don't expect someone to be recording you."

But just because you feel entitled to privacy, are you actually? On this topic, lawyer Jennifer Ellis told The Verge in 2018, "When you are in public, it is legal to record someone," because you "do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy." There's still debate about whether a plane is a public space, but for transportation, like the subway, Jennifer said, "There's no reasonable expectation of privacy."

Perhaps then, there's no expectation of privacy on a commercial airplane. The United Airlines website states: "Taking photos and videos are allowed on your flight, but your recordings can't interfere with crewmembers work and safety."

Science has something to say. In a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy in 2020, researchers discovered that those "feeling an absence of intimacy or affection for a partner" were more likely to cheat in public. Those who cheated because of this "lack of love" went on more public dates, and they were also more likely to engage in public displays of affection. On the other hand, some participants cheated out of anger; the study found that "some individuals are motivated to use their affair as a means to hurt their primary partners."

Could we then interpret cheating in public as a form of punishment? "Quite possibly," Elisabeth Crain, PsyD, tells PS. "I think it's a very subconscious, reactive thing if you're doing it in public and there's not a whole lot of foresight or thought going into it."

Dr. Crain and Boyd have similar thoughts on the viral TikTok in question: If they were cheating, it was spontaneous, which might also account for the wedding ring. Dr. Crain refers to it as "happenstance," while Boyd says, "Sometimes you just do hurtful things without fully thinking it through. So it's not always about boldness or arrogance as much as it is just a complete mishandling."

"It's a very subconscious, reactive thing if you're doing it in public."

That said, when it comes to observing strangers, "we have to be careful with assumptions," Boyd warns. "Couples are discussing and redefining their relationship boundaries." Those boundaries may include monogamy or polyamory. As Boyd puts it, they may not consider "flirting to be boundary-crossing." Dr. Crain reminds us that if someone does cheat, it's "not a one-size-fits-all." She adds, "Cheating is a very interesting phenomenon that you see in relationships and people's reasons vary."

If there's any judgment to make here, it's that flying is a shared, oftentimes uncomfortable experience. Time seems to stand still on a plane. The WiFi is not great. The air is either too hot or too cold. There are smells. You never know who your seatmates might be. They could be monogamous or polyamorous. They could be chronically online or fast asleep. Personally, we prefer to be the latter.

Amy Sand is a graduate of the creative writing program at Stephens College in Columbia, MO. There, she had the pleasure of writing for a radio drama and leading the literary magazine as the editor in chief. Since then, Amy has worked as a content editor, written for Edible Omaha and AltOhio, written a spec script that made it to the second round at the Austin Film Festival, and performed stand-up.