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Infidelity – What Really Happens and What to do About It


I am often invited to professional and social events that host men and women who talk about their careers and their relationships. More often than not, a few people will be engaged in a dialogue about their relationship and its perceived trajectory, as well as whether they believe things will “work out” or not. In some cases there are other conversations about whether or not someone would accept or “put up” with questionable acts that may be classified by some as cheating.

I rarely join in these conversations because I try not to get involved in people’s personal problems at social events since that is what I do professionally, but I am frequently asked to offer my opinion and weigh in on these sensitive discussions. I must confess that since I am not “on the clock” I may offer an opinion that is totally skewed from what I believe the people around me want to hear because just like them, I deserve to have a nice time when I am not working. On the other hand, when I can tell that the initial conversation has taken on a more serious tone, I will usually put on my “professional hat” and share.

What is Infidelity?

Infidelity happens when two parties have made an explicit (e.g., “We are going to be emotionally and sexually monogamous,” or “We are together,”) or implicit (e.g., “We kissed, had sex, shared secrets, and spent time with each other’s family, but the relationship status was not discussed.”) agreement not to engage in the same behaviors or emotional interactions with other people. When the agreement is severed by one or both parties, any transaction with another person is expected to be disclosed or maintained as a secret (contingent upon one’s value system regarding truth, honesty, disclosure, etc.). Infidelity is individually constructed and relative to the person.

In other words, there are many perspectives about what cheating is and is not, what infidelity means to a relationship, and whether or not it is a “deal breaker.” So, for example, you may believe that a person cheats when he or she engages in oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone else but feel that “sexting” an ex-partner is nothing more than playful flirting. Another example might be sharing secrets or engaging in intimate behaviors with someone other than your primary partner and rationalizing the experience as “not cheating” because you never had sex with the other person.

Yet another example might be having sexual intimacy with someone other than your partner but believing that since the feelings you have for the other person are not as strong as those you have for your primary partner, the act is not actually cheating. A final example might be having a romantic interlude with someone else and not disclosing it to your partner. If confronted about it, then it is cheating; if you are not confronted by your spouse, then it is okay. It is, of course, important to understand that if you and your partner have not talked about your actions and consented to those actions beforehand, then it is cheating.

Forms of Infidelity

As mentioned above, cheating comes in many forms and is relative to each party. When I speak with my clients and students about infidelity, I share with them that I consider infidelity to be a deflection of intimacy in which individuals choose not to address issues that exist in their relationship. For example, imagine getting into an argument with your partner about whose turn it is clean out the garage. Both of you argue for hours until you decide to retreat to another part of the house. You invest countless hours (or even days) playing video games, surfing the internet, spending intimate time with someone else, consuming alcohol or drugs, gambling, or eating, and you still have not resolved the issue of cleaning out the garage.

With any of the above activities you physically, emotionally, and intimately “check out” because you choose not to deal with the issue or have not developed a communication skill set that allows you to address what is really going on between the two of you. These activities serve as deflections in that they may keep you and your partner from sharing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with one another and being as close as you may want to be. It is frequently – and incorrectly – assumed that cheating has to be done with another person, but it is evident that emotional detachments can occur from excessive consumption of alcohol, drugs, video games, internet surfing, eating, pornography, shopping, etc. These other behaviors can be just as insidious and traumatic as being sexually intimate with another person.

The presenting issue for clients in my private practice may be infidelity, but underneath that it is often eventually discovered that the couple may not have agreed upon money, sex, parenting, interaction with former partners, chores, or their relationship status. Subsuming those issues may be feelings of fear, anxiety, abandonment, or depression. The cheater may have chosen to be with someone else because it was “easier” than addressing his or her personal or relational challenges.

The Unfaithful

When some people are unfaithful, it may be because they are unsettled or unsure about how to deal with their feelings about being in a committed relationship. Earlier, I asserted that relationships have explicit and implicit agreements that provide behavioral, emotional, and intimate expectations for both parties and that when some people are unable or choose to not have meaningful dialogue about their relational positioning, they cheat. Understanding the relative and fluid context of cheating, the unfaithful person may engage sexually (e.g., in real life or virtually) with another person (e.g., acquaintance or stranger) or develop an unrevealed emotional attachment to someone other than his or her primary partner.

During this time, the cheater may experience a range of feelings for the other partner including relief, guilt, confusion, safety, anxiety, or love. At the same time, sentiments towards the spouse or primary partner may include anger, frustration, confusion, ambivalence, and even love. Becoming intimate with another person only complicates matters because the person who he or she is spending time with cannot effectively resolve any issue that exists between the unfaithful person and his or her primary partner. Inasmuch, the other person cannot resolve any emotional issue that exists within the individual engaging in infidelity.

In other words, the cheater may be confused, anxious, or harbor resentment about his or her current relationship, and while the other partner may be able distract the cheater temporarily, he or she cannot resolve the emotional chaos that exists within. Upon disclosure or discovery, the person who cheated may also experience a mixture of feelings including shame, confusion, anxiety, depression, rage, euphoria, sexual arousal, or resentment. For many people who are unfaithful, the cauldron of emotion can be difficult to untangle without professional support.

Enduring the Trauma

When spouses find out (by discovery or disclosure) that their partner’s behavior has negatively moved beyond the initial relational expectations, it can be devastating. Most people who want a healthy relationship do not anticipate their partner betraying them and when it happens, it can be confusing, unsettling, and oftentimes traumatic. Paradoxically, while some spouses may be enraged, bitter, or resentful towards his or her partner’s behavior, they may also be stirred, triggered, and sometimes even aroused after hearing about the intimate experiences of the cheater.

The snafu of emotions and sexually intimate behavior may emanate from a heightened recognition and awareness of individual vulnerability on the part of both parties. Spouses may find themselves angry at one moment and possibly amorous a few minutes or hours later as they try to construct meaning from the betrayal and manage themselves emotionally.

Some partners may fear abandonment, further betrayal, or the possibility of cheating themselves. Other partners may sever the relationship altogether and find themselves emotionally unavailable to anyone else in the future. Professional support is encouraged for spouses in that it can help unweave complex feelings and help partners develop a behavioral and emotional plan to manage their trauma.

The Other Person

Sometimes the other person knows nothing about the relationship status of his or her lover because deception was involved. When the other relationship is disclosed or discovered, the other person may experience the same feelings as the primary partner and struggle to create meaning out of the intimate interaction. Some people may not care if his or her partner is in a relationship with someone else and will be able to set emotional boundaries for themselves and not become too emotionally invested or entangled.

Matters can become quite complex when all parties (spouse, cheater, and the other person) come together and confront one another regarding actual and perceived behaviors, interpretations of those behaviors, and everyone’s affective response. Again, feelings of betrayal, confusion, resentment, anger, frustration, and fear may become heightened during the confrontation and leave all parties without any sense of clarity or direction.

What to Do

Confronting all of the personal and relational issues and untangling all of the behavioral and emotional complexities for all parties can be tough even for a skilled therapist. Below are a few suggestions that I have offered to my clients and students in the past about how to reduce the possibility of infidelity and how to handle it if it occurs:

1.Spend time talking with your partner about your relationship status and the emotional, sexual, and intimate expectations at the beginning and throughout the relationship. Accept and understand that people change over time as do their interpretations of the relationship.

2. Have a constructive in-depth discussion about honesty, disclosure, forgiveness, and relationship history, and talk about what worked and did not work for you.

3. Be patient and understanding when you and your primary partner talk about previous relationships that were traumatic or unfulfilling and develop solutions that will help to ensure that you will not make the same mistakes. Be willing to listen to one another if trauma exists in your current relationship.

4. If you have unresolved issues from a previous relationship or in your current relationship, talk with a professional to get help and support.

Source by James Wadley


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