Common myths about infidelity:
- It only happens in unhealthy relationships.
- If a man strays it is the woman’s fault.
- Couples who are unhappy will cheat.
- He did not give her enough attention.
- It only happens in heterosexual relationships.
- It is always men who cheat.
- An affair is the end of a relationship.
- He did not love her and this is why he cheated.
- A person who stays in a relationship after an affair is weak.
Psychologist Esther Perel suggests that the definition of infidelity is elastic and nowadays it encompasses many behaviours which did not exist in the past. In other words, the word infidelity has been expanded over the course of many years as our industrialized society has evolved and so has our social norms. For example, the definition of infidelity has expanded from more than examples of casual sex with the neighbour’s wife. Today, there are online chatrooms, people sending naked photos, watching pornography, or even talking to someone without a partner’s knowledge can be categorized under infidelity. Perel argues that at the heart of infidelity is the need for secrecy, so if you had a coffee with a co-worker on whom you had a crush and you are not willing to share this with your partner because “she is going to overreact” then there might be chances that this behaviour is classified as infidelity.
As indicated, infidelity takes many shapes and forms in today’s technologically advanced world. A partner with whom we shared our deepest hopes and desires and the one we promised to stay until death do us part can now be easily replaced by a swipe or click of a button on our phone. On the other hand, our partner might feel overwhelmed with the fear of knowing that he/she can be easily replaced with an alternative which in itself can be a haunting thought even in absence of infidelity. Some people are suspicious of their partner’s activities with other people despite lack of evidence for their disloyalty. It is often social media which reminds and validates us that we are still desired, appreciated, and wanted by other people. So, if we can entertain the thought of “I could date this person, let me check his profile” or “let me add my Ex just to see what he is up to?” so can our partner and such feelings of instability and insecurity can lead to many dysfunctional behaviours including becoming overly intrusive in our partner’s daily life and the desire to have more control over them.
However, there are situations when people do engage in an affair and the betrayed partner feels devastated, worried, and angry and in some cases, they might even develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. If you are the partner of someone who cheated on you, you know the feelings of groundlessness beneath your feet and a sense of loss or the death of something; maybe love, both within and outside of you. There is deep confusion, denial, depression, and anger around the aftermath of an affair. You might be questioning your entire life history, your values, or even your own self-worth as an individual. It is normal under these circumstances to not only feel the loss of the love we invested in someone for so many years but the loss of self, our self-concept, and our worthiness in general.
Why partners cheat?
There are many reasons to why someone cheats but the most common reaction the betrayed person might have is “Was it because of me?” As mentioned earlier, it is quite common to have our self-concept and self-worth shaken by a partner’s affair and consequently have the thoughts of self-doubt by asking ourselves over and over whether we are the reason behind their action. Nevertheless, the truth is that there are multiple reasons to why someone starts an affair and the explanation can vary between simple boredom to curiosity to unsatisfied life and relationships. There is yet to be found a single answer to why a partner strays outside of a relationship because human behaviour is too complex to draw a cause-and-effect answer. Perel states that sometimes when a person cheats it has less to do with their partner but more to do with them and that they are not turning away from their partner but from themselves. In other words, people sometimes become dissatisfied with what they have become and in order to leave the boring and routine-driven self they go and find more thrilling and alive self in affairs. In that moment they rarely think about their partner and in fact very few think the act is to harm their partner but rather it is the desire for finding their own lost or new-found self which is more attractive than the consequences of their actions.
Is cheating common and universal?
Yes. Many people cheat and according to the authors of Coping with Infidelity: A Life Effectiveness Guide, it is estimated that 60% of men and 40% women will have an affair in their life time. Despite the biological explanation of why men cheat more than women, Perel argues that sociologically men had better status and privileges in society than women and therefore they had the “license” to cheat. As the gender gap is closing, the behaviour has become more common among both sexes. As briefly mentioned, the word infidelity has become more complex and multi- layered and actions that did not count as infidelity in the past are now part of the same label and meanwhile, new categories such as emotional cheating has been emerging among couples as well. Therefore, the broad definition has added new rules and norms to couple relationships and some of which are only unique to the couple themselves. For example, a husband may say that he only talked in an innocent flirting manner with an online woman and that he had no intentions of leaving his wife and start a new relationship. His wife may reply, “But that’s what I mean when I say it hurts. Imagine if I would have done the same to you, wouldn’t it have hurt you?” Sometimes it is hard to empathize with someone we hurt especially under circumstances when we believe our act has nothing to do with infidelity and we become more defensive when the act introduces us to another version of self whom we longed for a number of years. So, if we are not sorry for meeting the other self within us how can we be sorry for our partner’s suffering? It is a tricky answer. Some researchers suggest that people are often not regretful of having an affair but they regret hurting their partner as they did not imagine the consequences.
How people cheat?
Accessibility is the key reason behind many modern affairs. On our most vulnerable day such as getting fired from a job, being diagnosed with an illness, or being extremely stressed at work we are more prone to having an affair. An alternative mate is a click away, with your phone in privacy of your own bedroom and of course even while sleeping right next to your partner. For example, on the day when your partner had a c-section and both of you felt tired, exhausted, and sleepless, it was just an innocent act of a mental exit when you decided to start talking to a beautiful stranger online in order to distract and destress yourself not knowing that the beautiful stranger is one of the alternatives which you could have instead of the grumpy, tired, and sick woman in the other room. It can be saddening and heartbreaking to know that relationships nowadays are easily replaceable and that there are many alternatives out there that were not accessible decades ago but now they can be easily found and that they can compete with you from every corner of the globe.
Can relationships be repaired after an affair?
The authors of Coping with Infidelity: A life Effectiveness Guide suggest that after an affair has been found out, 34% of the relationships will end which means the rest of them will survive. Perel mentions that staying after an affair is the new shame in society because often friends and family pressure or convince the betrayed partner to end the relationship and when they choose to stay they are often shamed for their choice. However, an affair is not necessarily the end or death of a relationship and on the contrary it can be a reset button for the relationship to strive again and to re-establish itself by re-visiting couple’s goals, re-evaluating their shared hopes and dreams, and meanwhile setting new rules and boundaries around infidelity and exploring the personal definition of the term.
Going through the experience of infidelity can be a difficult process for both partners. If you and your partner are affected by this, book your appointment with your therapist today.
Khobi Attai, MA, specializes the areas of abuse and domestic violence, as well as a variety of other subjects. For more information on Khobi and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.