Infidelity’s a word that creates anxiety and shame for many. We all create a narrative surrounding this very word. We tell ourselves stories about those who are unfaithful, the partners that choose to stay, and the ones who decide is best to exit. Cheating comes up so much in my practice with individuals and couples because it has affected us all in one way or another. Maybe we witnessed our mother be unfaithful to our father, maybe we cheated on our partner, or maybe we suspect our partner is cheating on us.
What is an affair?
Cheating occurs when one partner violates the expectation that the other will be “faithful” at all times, including in times of great distress. There’s a betrayal of trust that redefines the relationship as insecure and maintains the relationship in distress because the infidelity is continually used as a standard for the dependability of the offending partner. It’s important to early on agreeing on a definition of what constitutes cheating and honor that unique definition. Our goal should be to help our partners feel secure within our relationship, within reason. An emotional affair happens when you confide on someone else aside from your partner. You share with them what you don’t share with your partner. They know intimate things about you and you go to them for emotional support. A physical affair is just sexual. We have sexual attraction and engage in just sex. The other person is not providing me with emotional support, we are not spending quality time together outside of the bedroom, and I have no emotional connection with them. When the two combine, in my opinion, you have a whole other relationship.
A lot of you are asking: which is more difficult to recover from? This depends from person to person, and I believe they can both be challenging. It all depends on what meaning you give to sex and intimacy. I’d say the hardest by far, would be overcoming a full-blown relationship. New research done by trauma & relationship researchers, like Dr. Sue Johnson tells us that infidelity can be a traumatic experience that can cause PTSD like symptoms for the injured partner. The injured partner’s way of seeing themselves and the world changes and leaves them feeling existentially vulnerable. They might struggle with nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive memories, hypervigilance, and numbness.
Affairs & the digital age?
Defining infidelity has become more complex because of social media and technology. There is more that needs to be considered than just sexual intercourse. Again, this is why creating a collaborative definition that fits your relationship from early on is so important.
Many times couples come in great distress and pain because a betrayal has occurred, yet they have a hard time labeling it as infidelity. They are stuck with the traditional old-school definition and might feel guilty for their emotional reactions to their situation.
When helping couples or individuals in relationships or dating define cheating, we discuss texting an ex, following your former friends with benefit on IG, and keeping your Bumble profile active. Social media and smartphones play a huge role in relationships and not addressing it is a disservice to your relationship.
Back in the day, cheating was much more black and white.
Is cheating a learned behavior?
Many factors can influence someone, but family and cultural norms are probably two of the most powerful influencers. If we grew up in a family where cheating happened often and it was tolerated or pushed under the rug, we will likely adopt similar behaviors in our adult relationships. We might expect to cheat or be cheated on. This is one of the reasons why cheating does not have much to do with being in love. You can love someone and if you were raised to believe that cheating is “okay,” you will likely cheat while loving your partner.
Is cheating just about wanting to have sex?
90% (this percentage is not backed by research) of the time is about a lot more than just sex. Oftentimes, people feel insecure within the relationship. They don’t know what a healthy connection with another human being should feel like and how to maintain it. People often hold negative beliefs about themselves and relationships like, “I am not loveable” “I don’t deserve to be happy” “I am not good enough” and “relationships don’t last” “men are dogs” “the spark will eventually burnout.” They create narratives around these beliefs that help them justify cheating. A lot of times cheating can be a protective factor, if I think I am not lovable, I likely fear that my partner will one day wake up and realize they are not truly in love with me and leave, I likely fear abandonment and loneliness. So if I meet someone who seems interested in me, I might pursue that, to leave before I’m left (it hurts less) or have a plan B should I be left. My point is that 90% of the time the cheater is also hurting. Hurt people, hurt people.
I cheated, how do I stop feeling like a bad person?
Understanding what led you to cheat, usually many factors are involved. If you are aware, you have the power to do something about it, and therefore prevent it from happening again in this or other relationships. Be brutally honest with yourself when answering the questions listed below.
Were you making negative comparisons and idealizing others?
Were you choosing to not connect with your partner?
Were you keeping your thoughts and feelings from your partner?
Were you afraid of abandonment?
Were you trying to get your partner’s attention?
Was this part of an exit plan?
Were you repeating a generational pattern?
Can I affair-proof my relationship?
There’s nothing you can do to be assured that infidelity will not happen in your relationship. If you are in a relationship, you are at risk. Dr. Tatkin coined the term Couple Bubble, which is an agreement to put the relationship before anything and anyone else. This is a pact between the partners that creates a sense of emotional and commitment safety.
To create the couple bubble in your relationship both partners need to be in all the way. Expecting your partner to first prove themselves creates insecurity because it sends the message that they are inadequate. We all have or should have dealbreakers and this is healthy and understandable, yet you can continue the relationship hoping that they will miraculously disappear. On the other hand, if you’ve been dating and no dealbreakers have come up it’s because maybe they aren’t any. We need to come to terms with this too. Some people ARE emotionally stable and capable of having a healthy relationship with others.
The couple bubble is designed to protect you both and has to be maintained daily by both. The upkeep includes making your partner feel safe and secure within the relationship based on their definition of these terms, not yours. You cannot allow yourself to become ambivalent about the relationship. Hold the other person accountable for the maintenance of the bubble. It takes two to tango and it requires that you both take responsibility. Use the safe space the couple bubble creates to be transparent and vulnerable with one another. This space is meant to be your primary source of support and comfort during distressing times.
If they cheated on me, do I have to end the relationship?
Absolutely not, if every married couple divorced due to affairs the divorce rate would be much higher. Affairs are pivotal and either is the catalyst for rebuilding and creating a healthier and more fulfilling relationship or end in divorce or worst yet, couples remain together but filled with resentment and bitterness. If both partners are invested, you can heal your relationship from an affair, probably not without professional help. That’s my own bias as relationship therapist AND I still think that to truly make it to the other side you need a trained professional involved.
Society can often send the message that you are weak and have low self-esteem if you give your partner a second chance. There’s no golden rule if you think your relationship is worth working it out, go for it. If you don’t, then that’s okay too. You have to do what is best for you and your relationship, if you believe there’s hope for it. You and your partner are the experts on your relationship, not your mother-in-law, your best friend, the coach you follow on IG, your Rabbi, or even the couples therapist you go to. A couples expert like myself will walk you through the healing journey, teach you strategies, and help you create a better relationship. You both still remain the experts.
How can I build trust back?
Trust takes a really really long time to be rebuilt and I would say that in most cases you will never trust them in the same way you did before, there might always be a bit of a scar. That by no means indicates that your relationship can’t thrive, but having realistic expectations is important. I think you might need to check their phone for a while and you might also need them to check-in every so often for a while. All this will demonstrate to you, that they care about your pain, that they want you to feel safe, and that the affair is done with. This can’t go on forever, that’s why seeking professional help is important. As you begin to heal and see efforts form the other partner, you should begin to feel more comfortable with letting go of the surveillance. There’s no timeline and it depends a lot on the cheating partner’s attitude and willingness.
Practice self-compassion through this process and remind yourself that you are recovering from relational trauma.
Let's Talk About It: Infidelity with Genesis Games, LMHC and Whitney Goodman, LMFT
Today I am interviewing @themiamitherapist Genesis Games, LMHC about infidelity. We talk about why cheating happens and how to heal from it. This conversation is super honest and looks at infidelity from both sides.