Infidelity—unfaithfulness in a marriage or committed relationship—can severely strain a relationship and the individuals involved. One partner’s affair can leave the other person feeling devastated, alone, betrayed, jealous, confused, and aggrieved. Sometimes, an affair ends a relationship, and other times couples are able to repair the relationship on their own or with the help of a therapist, often making the relationship stronger as a result.
Studies show that although adults in the United States (other than those in polyamorous or open relationships) generally expect sexual monogamy in their relationships, up to 20% will engage in extramarital sex at some point. Affairs happen for myriad reasons, but one main reason appears to be relationship dissatisfaction. In general, a successful relationship requires feelings of stability and security, physical and emotional intimacy, and companionship. When any one of these is deficient, one or both partners are likely to feel dissatisfied, and dissatisfaction in a relationship can increase the likelihood of infidelity.
Adultery does not always occur as a result of relationship dissatisfaction, though. Sometimes a partner may enter an affair based on personal dissatisfaction or for the personal gratification of obtaining an ego boost, a new sexual experience, or shared emotional intimacy.
Some of the reasons a person may engage in infidelity include:
- Low self-esteem
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- Primary relationship dissatisfaction
- As an exit strategy to end the primary relationship
- A lack of emotional intimacy in the primary relationship
- Sex addiction
- Avoidance of personal or relationship problems
Statistically, men are almost 80% more likely than women to have engaged in adultery, and living in a larger city increases the odds that an incidence of infidelity will occur by almost 50%. Infidelity is also more common among the young, with twice as many cases of infidelity reported among those aged 18–30 as those over the age of 50.
Some researchers point out that sexual monogamy is not common in the animal world but is instead a construct of human beings that tends to conflict with the biological desire for multiple sexual partners. Despite this fact, a large number of people continue to aspire to such ideals, and many cultures throughout the world demand sexual fidelity by harshly punishing those who stray.
Several different types of infidelity can occur in a relationship.
- An object affair can be described as the neglect of a relationship for the sake of pursuing an outside interest. This pursuit may reach a point of near-obsession.
- In a sexual affair, one partner may have sexual intercourse outside the relationship, but he or she generally experiences no emotional attachment to the other person. Studies show that men have a more difficult time forgiving a sexual affair than women do: women appear to be more likely to forgive extramarital intimacy when emotions are not involved.
- A cyber affair, or infidelity committed through sexts and chats, may remain entirely online and never reach the point of sexual intimacy. This type of affair might also include the viewing of pornography, which some people consider to be a form of infidelity.
- An emotional affair occurs when one partner becomes emotionally attached to another person, generally of the gender to whom one is attracted. In an emotional affair, a person might spend hours chatting online or talking on the phone to someone other than his or her partner. An emotional affair can have a negative effect on a relationship because a person engaged in emotional infidelity often discusses relationship problems with the object of his or her attachment, rather than with his or her partner. Sexual intercourse is usually not part of an emotional affair.
- An affair might also combine sexual and emotional intimacy. This is generally considered to be a secondary relationship, and most would view this as infidelity.
What one person considers infidelity may not be considered infidelity by others. For example, a person might not consider his or her partner’s viewing of pornography to be cheating, while another person might consider it to be infidelity and experience feelings of inadequacy as a result of the disclosure.
Some view infidelity as sexual intercourse outside the relationship and therefore may not consider emotional affairs to be cheating. However, this type of infidelity may be more detrimental to a relationship than physical infidelity, as an emotional affair might indicate that the partner committing the infidelity is no longer invested in the relationship. It can be helpful for partners in a relationship to discuss their views and expectations around monogamy and relationships outside of the primary relationship early in their relationship to avoid future disagreements or transgressions.
The manner in which couples recover from infidelity will depend in large part on their cultural background and their personal or religious values surrounding infidelity. Many couples pursue therapy to determine whether or not to continue the relationship after an affair and to process their feelings surrounding the incident.
A therapist can serve as a supportive listener as each partner expresses his or her emotions regarding the infidelity and can help the couple determine their needs and future goals for the relationship, whether they choose to maintain or end it. If the couple wishes to maintain the relationship, a therapist can assist them by helping each partner discover his or her level of commitment to the relationship, teaching the partners skills for repairing trust, and guiding the couple through the process of healing.
A therapist can also help clarify the true nature of the relationship by encouraging an open evaluation of the relationship’s strengths and weaknesses. If unhealthy patterns exist, such as codependency, emotional abuse, or repeated affairs, the therapist may call these into question. In addition, therapy can help those people who feel they are to blame for the infidelity of their partners to work through those feelings and obtain new perspectives.
When a couple decides to end the relationship, a therapist can still be of assistance to both parties. The partner who was betrayed may find it beneficial to discuss his or her feelings of inadequacy, betrayal, and anger, and a therapist can also assist in helping him or her cope with the trauma of the loss of a partner. The partner who committed the infidelity may feel regret and wish to understand what caused him or her to pursue an affair. If the individual had an affair after realizing the relationship was not satisfying, for example, a therapist can help him or her determine ways to communicate feelings of dissatisfaction more effectively so that he or she does not repeat the behavior.
Recovery, should a couple choose to maintain a relationship after infidelity, can be a lengthy process. Although there are no steadfast rules for determining how quickly or whether a couple will recover from an affair, experts agree that healing can often occur within two years, though some couples may take longer to fully recover, while others can repair their relationship sooner. Again, there is no concrete timeline for recovery, and the length of time recovery takes is often directly related to what happens immediately after the affair is discovered.
Other factors that influence the recovery process include each partner's communication skills, tolerance for conflict, capacity for honesty, acceptance of personal responsibility, and attachment style. Just as each relationship is distinct from another, the process of recovering from infidelity will vary from one couple to another. Recovery typically progresses through the following phases:
- Trauma Phase: Following discovery, the betrayed partner may experience shock and significant emotional trauma as a result of finding out about the affair. He or she may feel angry, vengeful, and hopeless. This phase is often a roller coaster of emotions, ranging from loss and grief to rage and frustration, and can be accompanied by bouts of tears or conflict. Both partners struggle with thinking clearly during this phase, and both may experience physical symptoms such as loss of appetite and weight loss.
- Issues Clarification: It is during this time that couples begin to examine what led to the affair. Although there is still a great deal of emotional instability, partners want to understand why the affair happened. The sooner couples can begin this process, the sooner they can reap the rewards of closure. Enlisting the help of a therapist may be helpful during this time, which may be psychologically stressful to one or both partners.
- Addressing the Problem: This is when the real work begins. As emotions become more manageable, spouses can tackle the difficult task of working on the issues that led to the affair. There will be highs and lows as guilt and anger become mixed with longing for the relationship as it once was, but couples who persevere through this phase will often be able to finally address the issues that are at the root of much of their discontent.
Next, couples can embrace the new relationship they have created. After working with a therapist, couples will likely have stronger, more genuine bonds. It may still be difficult for the betrayed partner to trust the other, and both partners may still experience difficulty understanding why the affair happened and accepting that the previous life they knew has been changed forever. But by practicing techniques learned in therapy, couples can continue to develop an open, honest, and new relationship, free of the encumbrances of the affair.
When a partner engages in repeated affairs, several issues are called into question. Were there issues leading to the first affair that were never addressed? How was the first affair handled? Was the offender genuinely remorseful? Did he or she take responsibility for his or her actions? Did the other spouse acknowledge his or her jealousy, dependency, anger, or even denial? Any of these unresolved issues can contribute to the recurrence of infidelity. Hilary Silver, LCSW has observed in her practice that repeated affairs tend to occur as a result of love or sex addiction and that "The behavior is a compulsion rather than a statement about the state of the relationship."
Partners experiencing multiple infidelities must explore both the pre- and post-affair factors, identifying any behaviors, communication, and emotions exhibited, and each partner’s role in the relationship before and after. Partners should be honest with their feelings of hurt, guilt, and shame. In order to protect the relationship from future infidelities, the foundation must be solid after the affair, not riddled with doubt and insecurity.
- Deciding to reveal an affair: Amara, 27, seeks therapy because she is feeling very guilty for cheating on her partner. She recently ended the affair, but she has not yet revealed her infidelity to her partner and is terrified of doing so, as she does not want this relationship to end and does not want to hurt her partner’s feelings. Amara feels she “ought” to tell her partner but is not sure that doing so is the best course. The therapist helps Amara clarify and evaluate what her motivations for telling or not telling might be and the possible consequences of each path. Once Amara has decided that her commitment to honesty requires her to tell her partner, the therapist helps her prepare for this task and to manage her anxiety afterwards. Couple’s work with a different therapist is recommended to help the pair recover further.
- Determining whether or not to separate: Don and Felicia, in their 40s, enter couple’s counseling after Don reveals he has a mistress, whom he is unsure he is ready to stop seeing. Felicia is angry and depressed, feeling she should leave the marriage but she’s “still in love with Don.” The therapist forms an agreement with the couple that they will decide whether to continue the marriage or dissolve it within one month. Don breaks off his affair, but is still very ambivalent. The therapist helps the couple uncover long-standing problems with intimacy in their marriage, and Don admits to other, previous affairs. Don and Felicia are both recommended for simultaneous, separate individual therapy – Don, to work on his compulsions, and Felicia to work through feelings of inadequacy and anger. After several months, Felicia decides she needs a trial separation, and Don admits he is still having an affair; however, they continue therapy together. Don finally ends his affair, and one year later, the couple reunites and begins picking up the pieces with help from the therapist.
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- Harrison, S. (n.d.). 4 Types Of Infidelity & How Affairs Help Marriage. Retrieved from http://www.yourtango.com/20099874/4-types-of-infidelity-how-affairs-help-marriage.
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- Whisman, Mark A. and Snyder, Douglas K. (2007). Sexual Infidelity in a National Survey of American Women: Differences in Prevalence and Correlates as a Function of Method of Assessment. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(2), 147-154. Retrieved from http://www.public.iastate.edu/~ccutrona/psych592a/articles/Sexual%20infidelity%20in%20women.pdf.