What would you do if your partner had an affair?
In a new relationship, everything is perfect and exciting and smells good. You are full of passion and hope. You just can’t get enough of each other. You hang on every word, every glance, and check your messages twenty times a minute to see if he called.
Eventually, those gooey, romantic, butterflies-in-my-stomach feelings start to fade as real life butts in and distracts from the relationship. Work, money, kids, laundry, in-laws, etc… they all get in the way of sustaining that initial bliss. And let’s face it, we just can’t love anyone at that intense level every day for the next 150 years.
Love that is to endure and flourish needs more than passion. It needs patience, flexibility, trust, reliability, perseverance, humor and a deeper commitment. These are the things that maintain relationships through those inevitable life-hits-you-in-the-face moments.
All relationships take hits. Sometimes the hits come from the outside. From life itself. Other times, the hits come from the inside—when we hurt each other. Renowned relationship therapist, Hedy Schleifer, refers to these internal hits as “energy leaks,” or things we do that detract from or cause damage to our most intimate relationships. Energy leaks are considered to be anything that has couples turning away from each other instead of turning toward each other.
Minor energy leaks might include things like:
• too much television or computer use
• focusing completely on the children
• turning to friends for intimate conversations
• hobbies or sports that take up all our free time
• working too much for long periods of time
These are everyday things that exist—and are perfectly normal—in all of our lives, but that in excess, could pollute the space where our relationship thrives. If not attended to, those energy leaks have the potential to form a critical crack in the foundation of the relationship.
Then there are the major and catastrophic energy leaks. These have a more serious and immediate impact on relationships. Major energy leaks include things like addiction, secrets, mental illness, or affairs. Most major energy leaks have a chance for recovery. They also have the ability to become catastrophic, and ultimately irreparable.
Given a hypothetical, most people would agree that the most damaging thing their partner could do in the relationship is to cheat. That puts infidelity at the top of the list as a major energy leak.
And at it’s worst, infidelity is absolutely catastrophic.
Relationships begin with passion and love, but they are sustained with trust and commitment. Infidelity inflicts a deep wound into that sacred connection. A lot can be forgiven in relationships. Even infidelity doesn’t have to be catastrophic. But it always creates a serious crack in the foundation.
What is infidelity?
The proper definition goes like this: “unfaithfulness; disloyalty. A breach of trust or a disloyal act; transgression.” The word is derived from the Latin, infidēlitās, which means unfaithful.
Notice the definition does not indicate that infidelity is “having sex with someone else.” When we hear that someone cheated, that’s what we often assume—that they had sex with someone else. And we have even heard debates about what constitutes “sex.” But the real wound of infidelity is about secrecy and betrayal. It is about creating an atmosphere where trust cannot survive.
So yes, sex definitely qualifies as infidelity. And any physical sexual activity (including oral sex, touching, kissing, intimate hugging) can be considered physical infidelity.
There is also emotional infidelity. This might include things like:
• Flirting or engaging in sex talk with someone other than your partner—in person, on the phone (think sexting!), or online
• Lying to make it seem that you are single to someone else
• Purchasing intimate gifts for someone other than your partner
• Engaging in private and meaningful “talk” relationships with another person (including online chats, emails, phone conversations, coffee dates, “just drinks,” etc.)
• Turning to pornography for gratification
It is important to note that what might be hurtful and damaging to one relationship may be perfectly acceptable to another. So think of it this way: Infidelity includes anything that you would feel uncomfortable sharing with your partner.
That gets you thinking, doesn’t it?
What kind of person cheats?
People cheat for different reasons. For our purposes, we’ll discuss two of the most common types.
The most common Cheater—I like to refer to as Type I—is the person who has been in a committed relationship that probably began as a happy and fulfilling one. This person had every intention of being and staying committed. But somewhere along the way, the relationship became neglected. For now, we aren’t concerned why. That’s a different discussion. Just think of those minor energy leaks grown out of proportion and left untended. The relationship has slowly developed distance that now seems insurmountable. Often couples in this stage describe themselves as having “grown apart.” Instead of facing the relationship problems directly, this person might take advantage of an opportunity to feel connected to someone new.
Another type of Cheater—I like to refer to as Type II—is someone who is a more chronic cheater. This is a person struggling with issues that have little to do with what is or is not working in the relationship. The novelty of “new” love produces the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical that gives us that feeling of being “high” when we’re falling in love. It can be quite addictive. Once the initial pleasure of the new relationship subsides, Type II Cheaters crave that missing “high.” This includes those who qualify as sex or love addicts. It also might include someone with narcissistic qualities who have a strong need to feel admired and adored. Once that newness fades and the relationship takes on a realistic tone, these folks are going to find a way to feed their addictions.
Can a relationship recover from infidelity?
Contrary to popular belief, infidelity is not necessarily a predictor of divorce or separation. Research published by relationship expert, John Gottman of the Gottman Institute in Seattle states that the “major cause of divorce (nearly 80% of the time) is that people become emotionally distant and drift apart.” Of course, that drifting apart can be exactly what leads to infidelity.
If you discover that there has been infidelity (Type I) in your relationship, you and your partner will need to do some serious soul-searching. In her book, After the Affair, Janis Abrahms Spring describes three stages of healing that apply to both partners:
1. Normalizing feelings.
2. Deciding whether to recommit to or quit the relationship. And provided the decision is to work toward recovery, then begin to
3. Rebuild the relationship
The process of recovering from infidelity is always difficult. Trust, once breached, is a challenge to regain. Questions will have to be answered by both partners from a very introspective position:
• What was going on in the relationship that created the opportunity for infidelity?
• What was going on that made it unsafe to discuss or explore the problems that had developed?
• Can I accept responsibility for my part in the problem that created this unsafe space?
• Am I willing to do what it takes to make my partner feel safe again?
The Type I Cheater is a bit of a chicken. Instead of taking a risk and showing up at dinner one night with a big “Hey, this isn’t working for me!” this Cheater drops a bomb on the relationship that forces the problems to the forefront in a rather dramatic way. Never mind that the problems are now multiplied by the infidelity itself.
It is easy to blame the Cheater. And honestly, the Cheater needs to accept that blame. Infidelity is no way to solve relationship dissatisfaction. But both partners must be willing to recognize their own part in the breakdown of connection that led to infidelity in the first place. Otherwise, there will be no recovery.
As for Type II Cheaters, this is quite a different type of problem. Here, the reparation is in the hands of the Cheater. The infidelity is not due to something that went wrong in the relationship. This type of infidelity is about addiction and needs to be treated as such. Without treatment, there is no reason for a partner to believe it won’t happen again. And probably again and again.
Can relationships avoid the threat of infidelity?
Couples don’t often talk about their expectations regarding fidelity. Most of us have assumptions about the way we are expected to behave in a relationship, so we rarely think to have that conversation with our partners. And this is one of those conversations that is best had at the beginning of a relationship.
But it is never too late.
Imagine for a moment, planting a vegetable garden. You choose the plants with care. You prepare the soil in a spot with the perfect amount of sun exposure. Then, you tenderly embed each plant with just enough space for full growth potential. You feed it, you water it, then stand back to enjoy your work.
Then you walk away. You don’t return the next day, or any day after that to tend it. To water it. To feed it. To pluck out the weeds. To keep the bugs and critters away. What will that garden look like in a month? In a year? In ten years?
Like the garden, the best way to defend against infidelity in your relationship is to care for it every day. Discuss your expectations. Do daily check-ins with your partner. Create the safe space in your relationship where you both can express your concerns and your needs. Where you are both able to talk, listen, and be heard with open heart and mind.
Build that strong foundation and tend to it every day.
Bobbi is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Sherman Oaks, California. She focuses primarily on couples and individuals with particular emphasis on developing personal relationships with deeper connections and overcoming obstacles to living a whole life.
Bobbi is a founding member of The Conversation Group (conversationgroupla.com) and The Relationship Café, both of which promote a series of workshops, groups and psychoeducational presentations through live events and social media that open paths to clarity, insight, healing and growth in individuals and relationships helping to motivate movement toward living a whole life.