The term cheating is one that elicits cringes of fear, gasps of horror. What comes to mind when you hear it? Most likely you imagine that a partner in a committed relationship had sexual intercourse with someone outside of their relationship. But cheating can look like many things to many people. To some it may indeed refer to sexual intercourse only. To others it could be anything from an emotional attachment to another, fantasies of other partners, a kiss. Rather than use the term cheating here, something that makes me think more of copying someone else’s answers on a test and less about who you share your body or heart with and when, I am going to use the term infidelity. I define infidelity as any action that violates an implicit or explicit agreement between two people, thereby undermining the relationship. The action may be physical or emotional in nature. Dishonesty is often but certainly not always part of an infidelity.
As a relationship and sex therapist, infidelity is not a new or foreign topic to me. It is in fact one of the most common causes of couples seeking counseling; Infidelity; whether considered, presumed, or committed. To most couples, infidelity signifies a crisis, and they come in flooded with emotion and fairly deregulated. The infidelity sits in the room like another person or an object that was propelled into the scene like a bomb, ravaging lives. Life becomes polarized into before’s and after’s. Some can repair the damage done, turn an infidelity into an opportunity for growth and reconnection. And some can’t, the loss of trust being irreparable for one, the continued anger and blame intolerable for the other. My work is to help couples determine which they will be from a place of awareness and intention.
I tend to be pretty proactive and pre-emptive in my work. I am a sex therapist in part to help people prevent such betrayals from taking place in the first place. So for the purpose of this piece, I am going to take a bit of time to talk about what I believe leads to infidelity and then later talk briefly about damage repair after the fact and what I see in my work when sitting with couples going through this often torturous time.
But first a disclaimer: I am an LPC, a licensed counselor, with a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Portland is a very sex-positive city with a visible and strong female presence. The majority of my clients are women ages twenty through forty, and most of them have done a lot of thinking and talking about their sexuality before coming to see me. So I’m working with a pretty savvy group here. Among this group, there is a fairly equal mix of those for whom a committed and monogamous long-term relationship is a goal, and those for whom it is not. More and more individuals and couples here are trying out open relationships because the concept of sexual fidelity doesn’t jive with their world view. Some of the couples I work with who sought counseling due to an infidelity did so because they were trying to maintain a monogamous relationship based on their partner’s needs (or ultimatums) to do so but couldn’t. Certainly though, it is just as common for monogamy to have been a clearly stated (and not only assumed) mutually agreed upon desire and choice.
So what leads to affairs? Here is what I see, reasons that are either emotional, physical, or practical.
Probably the most commonly cited cause of infidelity is a sense of emotional disconnection from a partner. The person committing the infidelity will often describe having felt unappreciated, lonely, and sad. These emotions can often lead to the secondary feelings of anger and resentment. Emotional roots can lead to affairs both emotional and physical in nature. An emotional affair may start off looking like a friendship, but over time the level of intimacy increases and more personal information, especially that relating to dissatisfaction and unhappiness in their primary relationship, can become an integral part of the dynamic. The “friend” begins to take on the role as the partner, becoming a substitute in thoughts, plans, and fantasies.
In some cases a partner who has engaged in an infidelity will cite sexual dissatisfaction as being the reason they strayed. In these cases sex may be not as often as they would like or as fulfilling as they would like; either because they are not receiving pleasure or reaching climax, or because it lacks a certain chemistry or passion. In the latter, people are often comparing their present-day sex to their just-starting-out sex, when sex felt more liberated, wild and exciting, and they can misconstrue “honeymoon-phase” sex as sexual chemistry. Because they miss the high of sex with a new partner and have not put effort into redefining how sex can still play a fun and satisfying part in their current relationship, they seek it elsewhere. Seeking sex outside of the relationship can also be compared to seeking alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling; virtually any substance or behavior that provides a “quick fix,” a distraction from everyday life, something that makes you feel anticipation, intoxication, even fear of being caught doing something “bad”. It can also be difficult for some people who have sex with someone they have deep intimacy and connection with. The idea of “dirty” or playful sex with the same person you share so much of your life with can be a hard concept to reconcile. For some, built into their belief system of “hot” sex is the idea that the person you are having sex with doesn’t truly know you nor do you know them, allowing a certain freedom and separation from your real life.
One thing I have observed in my practice is that there has been a shift in thinking, especially for younger generations, about the practicality and benefits of monogamy. More and more people are choosing lifestyles and relationships that are non-monogamous. But there is not yet a road map for how to have successful open relationships. For instance, the primary factors that delineate an open relationship from an infidelity are mutual agreement and honesty. Open relationships tend to be defined by boundaries and rules, and the violation of such can result in deep feelings of hurt and betrayal. Unfortunately, many couples who ideologically believe in polyamory make a lot of mistakes in its application.
Here are six things I believe everyone can do in order to minimize the risk of infidelity:
Do The Work It Takes To Know Yourself As A Sexual Person.
Read books, take a workshop, talk to a counselor. Study your sexuality as you would any other subject you were trying to master. Increase your own awareness about what you like and don’t like; what you fantasize about; how you like to be touched and where; what you would like to try.
Communicate To Your Partner Who You Are Sexually.
Don’t assume that they know! Have an honest conversation at a time when you both feel relaxed and close. If a tool would facilitate the conversation or if you need some structure around it, take a questionnaire together and compare answers.
Ask Questions And Listen To Who They Are As A Sexual Person.
Don’t assume that you know! Unless you have asked them and they feel safe in answering, you probably don’t know all of it. Keep in mind, it may be difficult for your partner to share their sexual desires and fantasies with you if they are not used to talking about sex or if they are fearful that their answers will hurt or offend you. Make sure that when you do ask, you are ready for whatever the answers may be. Do your best to be encouraging and supportive.
Keep An Open Mind And Heart. Be Willing To Try New Things Together.
Try not to judge! In the realm of sexuality, almost anything goes (I say “almost” because the one caveat is that “anything” must be consensual). People’s sexual desires and expressions are hugely varied, and you should avoid making assumptions about what they mean as it is unique to each individual. Many people fantasize about things they are actually not interested in trying in real life or are only willing to try within the safety of their relationship.
Instead Of Distracting Yourself And Avoiding The Problem, Try To Remain Present And Engaged.
Affairs are distractions, and people distract themselves when they are bored or unhappy. An affair is a “quick fix” with a long-term consequence, even if not discovered. Do due diligence in your personal work. You owe it to yourself and to your partner.
Be Honest: Honest With Yourself And Honest With Your Partner.
Honesty early on (before an affair) about your concerns can create an opening for a new level of intimacy. It can be hard to talk about the fact that you are unhappy with the sex in your relationship or that you are finding yourself attracted to another person. Too many couples avoid the topic of sex, especially when it has been a long period of time since partners have had sex because the subject feels too tense and overwhelming. Honesty after an affair will demonstrate accountability and remorse. Many partners who “discover” an affair say that the discovery and the deception were the worst part.
So what happens when an infidelity has taken place? The bottom line is that some couples are able to make it through an affair and some aren’t. Those who do make it through tend to possess two qualities: a genuine commitment to the relationship and a willingness to show remorse and accountability on the part of the person who has acted outside of the implicit and explicit relationship agreements. Also necessary is a willingness to forgive (this may take some time) by the person who feels betrayed. For the person who had the affair, a first stance when faced with the discovery of the truth and the potential loss of their relationship may be defensiveness or blame, masking their true feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. This partner MUST acknowledge that it was their choice and their choice alone to have an affair, and that nothing, including a lack of sex or disconnection from their partner, justifies their betrayal. This partner can expect to be in for some rough times ahead. A betrayed partner will most likely want details; many details, ALL details, and be terrified of new information being discovered, leaving them in a locked place of terror, anger, and hurt. I believe that it is best to honor their request for information as it is the first step to rebuilding trust. They will also tend to question all aspects of what they believed to be true for the relationship, looking back over time with a view now clouded by the idea that what they believed to be truth in one area of their relationship was not truth, and so surely there are other areas in which similarly they were living a lie. Perhaps that even the whole relationship and who their partner presented themselves as being is a lie.
A couples counselor will be helpful in navigating these very difficult conversations. Both partners can also benefit from individual therapy to have a space that they can share their feelings without filter. Books such as After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD, can also help couples navigate this trespass and gain comfort from hearing the stories of those who have been through a similar ordeal, as well as knowledge about what their partner may be feeling. Ultimately, it is rarely the act of sex outside of a relationship that makes or breaks a couple’s ability to survive an infidelity. It is the meaning we attach to the act and the way we proceed with the information once it has been made known.