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I was 26 the first time I faced infidelity. I had a suspicion that something was off, so I did the classic phone search move and found sexts and naked photos of a woman. I remember sobbing uncontrollably.
At the time, the only plan my mind could put together was to end the relationship. My friends encouraged me to leave, and soon I became the innocent victim who was cheated on by a bad guy.
I have to say in retrospect that my reaction was hypocritical. While I hadn’t physically cheated on my partner, I did spend many days daydreaming of about a male friend, whom I knew I fancied. I texted this friend a lot. It turns out that I was an unhappy partner as well. Would you say that I cheated too? Some would.
The following is a collection of research and interviews with experts on the topic of infidelity and how to deal with it when it happens in your relationship.
What Qualifies as Infidelity?
Is sexting or watching porn cheating? Or does it take a physical act? How about getting emotionally involved with someone at work or with an old friend?
Infidelity thresholds are personal and depend on your upbringing, your values, and your agreement with your partner. I found celebrated therapist, author, and speaker Esther Perel’s definition to be encompassing. Perel says there are three common threads for infidelity:
- Sexual alchemy, or when her patients say things like, “It makes me feel alive.” In her TED Talk, Perel explains, “[A]lchemy being the key word, because the erotic frisson is such that the kiss that you only imagine giving can be as powerful and as enchanting as hours of actual lovemaking.”
- A level of emotional involvement with at least one other person.
Having said that, the emotional reaction of the person who has been cheated on is universal: a feeling of betrayal.
Betrayal is one of the most painful human experiences—it uproots what you perceive as truth and reality, which could bring up old wounds and heartbreaks. It breaks trust, the glue of any partnership.
Whether you have been cheated on, have cheated on someone, or both, infidelity remains one of the biggest taboos in our society.
Why Is Infidelity a Taboo?
In a 2013 Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans surveyed said that having an affair is one of the most immoral things you can do.
Perel says estimates of infidelity range from 26 to 75 percent.
In their book Sex at Dawn, psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá argue that sexual monogamy is not natural:
No group-living nonhuman primate is monogamous, and adultery has been documented in every human culture studied — including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it’s hard to see how monogamy comes “naturally” to our species.
Perel argues that, historically:
[P]re-modern marriage had a clear mandate based on well-defined gender roles and division of labor. As long as each person did what she or he was supposed to do, it was a good marriage. “He works hard. He doesn’t drink. He provides for us.” “She’s a good woman. She’s given me many children. She knows her place.” In this context, monogamy represents a system of control, exerted primarily over women, to ensure patrimony and lineage. The consequences for straying only applied to women, and they were dire. Men, on the other hand, were entitled, even expected, to roam.
However, with marriages and relationships becoming more centered around love and romance, and more women gaining their independence both financially and legally, we seem to have spent not enough time understanding infidelity in this new context. Instead, we became more extreme in how we view it.
When we shame a topic, just like when we shame a person, we limit its ability to evolve, grow, and transform.
As scholar and writer, Brenee Brown, says:
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
If we were to remove the shame, we might get real answers.
Why Do We Cheat?
Does cheating on someone make us a bad person? That’s a simplistic question that often returns a yes. But if dig deeper, we will find that infidelity comes from typically human places such as fear and desire.
“It is not always our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become…We are looking for another self,” says Perel.
Here are the main reasons people cheat:
1. Fear of Intimacy
The Northwestern University School of Psychotherapy published a paper connecting infidelity with avoidance tendency. Avoidance normally happens when an individual suffered abandonment in childhood and now fears intimacy by staying away from it.
The scenario of a man preferring to sleep with other women than his partner illustrates a crucial yet heretofore understudied factor that gives rise to infidelity: the quality of an individual’s attachment bond.
Incidentally, it could be our fear of intimacy that drives us to seek intimate relationships outside our partnership.
2. Seeking Passion and Lust
Seeking what we cannot always find in a secure, long-term relationship is normal. Arguably, the desire for safety and the desire for passion are at odds—they both affect different parts of the brain. Perel asks: If novelty is the key to hot sex, doesn’t monogamy kill it?
In some cases, infidelity ends up begging the question of if you should open the relationship.
Eli Finkel, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, advises:
[E]mbarking upon an agreed “non-monogamous” relationship if couples no longer feel sexually attracted to each other or living apart could also revive some of the mystique of courtship and relieve monotony.
3. Unreasonable Expectations
When we expect our partner to be our intellectual equal, lover, best friend, and co-parent, we are setting the bar too high for any human, and they are likely to fail us. When we feel that our partner could not bring us the best sex of our lives after five years together, we might look elsewhere.
We have never been more inclined to stray, and not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel we are entitled to pursue our desires…Because this is the culture where I deserve to be happy. —Esther Perel
Our culture is leaning toward more individualism, which leads to more one-sided decision-making. But when you take the community into account, you are more likely to think twice about straying.
5. Unfulfilled Needs
Unfulfilled longings are personal desires that are not met in a relationship. Sometimes unmet childhood needs turn into unattainable adult desires: a constant sense of belonging, safety, endless attention and care. Not having a safe space and the communication skills to express needs in a relationship can drive a couple apart. Eventually this erodes intimacy, and you start to look for someone else.
What to Do If Your Partnership Is Faced with Infidelity?
I spoke with two experts for answers to this question. Colin Stack-Troost is a psychotherapist whose supervisor is Dossie Eason, co-author of The Ethical Slut. Lily Sloane is a therapist, thought leader, and host and creator of the podcast A Therapist Walks into a Bar. She also mined Esther Perel’s research to offer concrete steps you can take if you are dealing with infidelity.
The first thing Sloane, Perel, and most therapists agree on is that a marriage or partnership can survive infidelity. But the first step for the person who cheated is to ask themselves honestly why they did it.
Did they cheat because they want out of the relationship?
Sloane has seen individuals who have trouble ending relationships, so they go elsewhere until they are caught.
If your answer is yes to wanting out, then Sloane recommends coming clean to your partner and working toward ending the relationship.
If your answer is no, then amends can be made. But it won’t be easy.
Since a relationship is a dynamic, often both parties have contributed to the situation.
Sloane says, “In order for the partner who has been betrayed to do the work and understand what they did wrong, they have to be seen and heard and understood in their hurt.”
In Esther Perel’s podcast, “Where Should We Begin?,” she records live counseling sessions with couples dealing with infidelity. The person who has strayed keeps repeating that he is a horrible person for cheating. Finally, Perel steps in and asks if he could look and see the pain of his partner, instead of continuing to see only his pain.
Victimizing and self-blaming are not the way to redeem yourself. Instead, it is giving time and space to your partner to express all the anger and grief and listening with patience.
In Perel’s words:
You want to hold vigil for your partner…You become responsible to bringing up the infidelity and make sure this is forgotten. My patient Jenna had an affair at the couple’s summerhouse, and now every time she travels to the country house, she checks in with her partner and reassures him.
Now that you are making space for your partner and rebuilding trust, what’s next?
Stack-Troost says, “In movies or TV dramas, it is completely the fault of the person who was unfaithful. I would argue that they are the one who betrayed the trust, but they are not the only one responsible for the state of the relationship.”
Stack-Troost asks both people to reflect on what has changed between them in the past months or years. Has there been a loss? A job change? A baby? Now is the time to bring up everything that has gone unspoken as well as the grievances.
What needs are not being met? For example, a client mentioned that he was not enjoying sex with his partner and felt it was transactional, but he never brought it up.
In the Ethical Slut, Easton writes that it is about working with your partner to create the relationship that you want, which most likely will look very different from the models we see around us, including our parents and the media.
Are you in the relationship you want? For both partners, this is an opportunity to ask, without outside expectations, how you would design your relationship.
If you have been betrayed and cannot find space to forgive after a significant amount of time, the general consensus is to exit.
Perel argues that continuously policing and blaming your partner will eventually destroy both the relationship and any possibility to rekindle it.
She recommends instead of asking detective-like questions, ask investigative questions. Rather than scavenging for sordid details, it would be more enlightening to ask questions that probe the meaning of the affair. For example: What needs were not met for you? Why did you do it? What were you thinking when you decided to go for it? What did it mean to you?
Perel conducted follow-up interviews with several of her clients and found three types of situations after couple’s counseling: those who were stuck in the past, those who survived but never truly reconnected, and those who reinvented their relationship and came out strong (aka the explorers).
In the “stuck in the past” case, the betrayed partner turns himself into a detective and never forgives the partner, making them feel continuously guilty and shamed. About this outcome, Perel says, “In fact, it’s likely that the pair would have had the same miserable interactions had there been no infidelity.”
For both parties, it is important to remember that many people have experienced infidelity, so you are not alone. While you might feel shame, remember that shame feeds on isolation. Its antidote is sharing—but not necessarily with just anyone.
For example, our friends and family are biased and not skilled at providing emotional support or understanding the nuances of a situation. This is where seeing a therapist or counselor—for yourself to start with and eventually for both you and your partner—is key.
What a therapist can do, says Sloane, is hold space for you to feel your pain, including the confusion and lack of clarity, and, most important, not push you one way or another.
However, the therapist will push you to leave if you are in an abusive relationship.
Sloane says, “I tell my patients that most of us in the West today will have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. For those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person. An affair may spell the end of a first marriage, as well as the beginning of a new one.”
If you truly want the relationship to work, you might have to summon the courage to rethink a lot of what you held as true. It will take time, space, an open mind, a lot of courage, and, likely, a couple’s counselor. But it is possible. And if the relationship comes to an end, remember that it’s impossible that infidelity was the only reason. When it came to my long-term relationship, I now know that the cheating was a symptom of us drifting apart, and eventually neither of us wanted to continue, so, alas, we separated.
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- Anything by Esther Perel. You can start with her TED Talk.
- The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures, Dossey Easton and Janet W. Hardy.
- Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.
- More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Practical Polyamory, Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert.
- The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity, Tammy Nelson.
- “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?,” Susan Dominus, New York Times, May 11, 2017.
- “The Marriage Hack,” Eli Finkel, TED Talk.
- The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss.
- Tips for finding a couple’s therapist.