When you are faced with infidelity and cheating in your marriage or relationship this is a traumatizing and destabilizing event that you may start to question everything. The purpose of this article is to help you to better be able to understand the behavioral choices of a person who decides to betray the relationship through an emotional or sexual affair.
Please note, I specifically say betray the relationship, not the person. When someone decides to have an affair, they do not conceptualize this as something they are doing to their partner, if they did they would make different choices. Instead, they often think about the affair in terms of how it helps them, the behavior or choice is about to be betrayer. Choosing to step outside the relationship is not directly about the marital partner as much as it is about the betrayer trying to meet his/her needs. They do not conceptualize this as doing it to their partner, hence one of the reasons they keep it a secret. This is a fine line, but an important one tied to how marriage works.
A protective factor against infidelity is building a strong marriage that is mutually satisfying. When people do not have a strong marriage framework to run their marriage, this is one of the factors that contributes to a break down the marriage and one person to cope with not getting their needs met may choose to have an affair. A poor framework doesn’t CAUSE an affair, but rather it contributes to people choosing to go outside their marriage because people do not have a good forum to discuss and negotiate differences.
It is important to note that nothing CAUSES someone to have an affair. Affairs are choices that people make. They often have other choices such as confronting their partner, seeking individual counselling, trying to get their partner into couples counselling, talk to friends, try and get family to help the marriage or another choice is have an affair. There are many choices, but the betrayer instead chooses an affair, because to them, it seems like the best option for the them.
Affairs often involve sexual activities, whether virtually or in person. Sex and the meaning people give it is often strongly influenced by the cultural, religioun and family messages you got when you were growing up. Many of the beliefs about sex get set when we are quite young, often around the age of 16. Even in marriage counselling, two married partners give sex and sex acts different means. So the meaning you give the affair sex and the meaning your partner gives it may be very different. There is no 1 universal meaning to sex. An affair highlights this differences and makes it harder to solve the issue with standing in the way.
In thinking about infidelity you need to examine your own beliefs about sex. What kind of people do you think cheat? Do you think they are pathological, some kind of personality disorder, unhappy people? What are your beliefs about infidelity? If you experienced this when you were a child, it will greatly affect how you interpret, process and deal with your current experience of infidelity. Getting individual counselling to deal with the shock and trauma may be critical to your mental health and the possibility to save your relationship if that is what you want. Part of what makes talking about infidelity so difficult is that there is no 1 universal meaning and probably you and your partner disagree about the meaning of their behavior. Trying to get your partner to adopt your views will be difficult at best, especially after the fact.
One thing that may be helpful is if you look at the messages you got about sex and your beliefs about sex and the meaning you give it. Often when working with couples and individuals I find they have varying beliefs about intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, hand jobs,masturbation, prostitution, sex and love, sex without love, sex for making babies, sex for pleasure, sex for stress release, sex for boredom. It may be helpful, if you can, see what your partner's views are. Often affairs finally get couples talking about sex in ways they never did prior to the affair unfortunately.
There are lots of reasons people choose to have sex or not have sex. If you struggled to deal with sexual issues in your relationship, you may have to examine if the inability to discuss sex contributed to your partner’s unhappiness. This is definitely not to say it caused the affair, but could it have contributed to an unhappy state in the marriage with the betraying partner perceiving grim prospects for resolution. When people lose hope they may choose desperate measures to solve their personal pain.
So often after an affair is discovered, the injured party wants to know “why.” I can’t think of a more unhelpful question to try and get answered. This type of discussion around why are nonproductive and just end up leaving people hurt and frustrated. The reason being is that “Why” questions are an excuse making expedition that no matter what the betrayer tells you, the reason will never be good enough to explain or justify what they chose to do.
The “why” discussions often go like this:
Betrayed: Why did you do this?
Betrayer: I don’t know, I just wasn’t happy and I didn’t mean to hurt you
Betrayed: But why? I wasn’t happy either, but I didn’t do this. How could you do this?
Betrayed: I don’t know, I didn’t mean to do it, and I didn’t mean to hurt you, I didn’t intend for this to happen. It just happened.
This will go on and just get uglier and uglier. The reality is that there is no good answer to “WHY” the person did what s/he did that will make you go “Oh! Oh okay, now I get it and you know that makes total sense why you choose to cheat and have sex and a relationship outside of our marriage, totally get it!”
That is never going to happen. To keep chasing why will not help you or your partner or your relationship move to the place it needs to be in order to start exploring and rebuilding it.
Instead a better question to ask is “What is the purpose to develop a relationship that was sexual and emotional and was not with me? What needs were you trying to meet that you could not get them met in the relationship. How did you view me that you thought you couldn’t come to me to discuss your unhappiness in the relationship.”
Understanding the purpose and what needs the person was trying to fulfill through infidelity is a more effective way to see what wasn’t working in the relationship for your partner. But before you ask, you need to be sure you really want the answers. If you feel because you are hurt and don’t need to accept any view from your partner, this may be part of what contributed to the affair and may keep you stuck and unable to heal the relationship. Being in a relationship means hearing things that may be difficult so that together a couple can face them an solve them. If you find it hard hearing things that you don't agree with or don't like, you may need to examine how this affects problem solving in your relationship. If your partner perceives s/he cannot come to you with difficult issues, this can contribute to a break down in the relationship.
Take caution before you go ahead and ask your partner for purpose. These are not easy questions for the betrayer to answer for a variety of reasons that I’ll list below:
· The person may not have put the mental effort into thinking about their own purpose for choosing to have an affair. That is part of the reason why they keep it secret, it is not just a secret from you, it is also from themselves. Let’s face it, what are the kinds of names people generally call people who are married that have sex and relationships outside their marriage? They are not nice names, like home-wrecker, whore and so on. In fact the betrayer may have used these names for other people and now to have to own up to their behavior and choices of what they did. Turning those terms onto themselves is not an easy process and they often realize how complex betrayal is. Many people who commit infidelity do not identify with those terms, intention or behaviors and it is a hard and long process to reconcile their behavior and choices and to own them.
· The person may be afraid to tell you the real reason because it is probably painful to you and perhaps the betrayer fears there is no fix or solution. Perhaps, in the past when they’ve tried to discuss it, it didn’t go well. Often relationship are not in a good place prior to finding out about the infidelity. The things that are not working in the relationship may be very difficult for the couple to talk about or they don’t know how to deal with them and so they both collude together to avoid talking about them. Common issues that couples face difficulties talking about are:
o Loss of desire, i.e. may be a partner has gained weight, or isn’t taking care of themselves or lower hygiene
o They do not find their partner mentally stimulating
o Resentment stemming from unresolved issues around how to parent, finances, in-laws or a person’s career or lack of career
o Sex that has stopped without it being agreed to
o Medical issues that make couple life including sex difficult but no one knows how to talk about it or address it
o Ineffective framework for resolving conflict resulting in past issues being constantly brought up almost as a weapon
· Discussing the aforementioned issues are not easy, and they are not an excuse to cheat, but in finding out the purpose you need to see infidelity or betrayal as a choice, not something pathological or defective in the person.. Not having a need met in a relationship doesn’t justify cheating, but usually it is the best solution the person has been able to come up with to keep doing the marriage and get their needs met. Usually couples have a history of not resolving differences and so if you were not able to do it before infidelity, doing it post infidelity isn’t any easier and this is why getting professional help is important.
· The person may not be able to tell you “purpose” because they are in denial themselves. People committing betrayals build big walls to seal of their behaviors in order to function. They may lose contact with what they are choosing in order to keep choosing it and instead focus on their feelings. Often people focus on their intentions instead of their behaviors during betrayals using lots of justifications and rationalizations. Generally when people commit betrayals of emotional or sexual infidelity their INTENTION is to not hurt their partner, hence the secretiveness- they don’t intend for the consequences of their choices/behaviors. The intention is cut off from the behavior, because the behavior is HURTFUL even if the intention was good. This is very hard for the betrayer to reconcile and even more difficult for the betrayer to have to listen to, because it sounds likes excuses, non-sense and rationalizations. The betrayer didn’t intend the consequences of their choices, what they struggle to own is that their choice and purposeful behavior were very intentional and conscious. Here again is where the betrayer may need to do personal work with a trained mental health professional in order to figure out what is going on and to see if they can own their behavior.
Beliefs about Monogamy
Monogamy is actually a choice that people have to make, it doesn’t just happen. Not everyone understands what is involved in making this choice and it may not be for everyone to choose. One thing to look at are yours and your partner’s view and beliefs on monogamy. How did you think it worked? Did you discuss what constituted infidelity and monogamy in great detail for your relationship. Too many people assume that what constitute mongamy or cheating are so obvious...but this assumption is wrong often blows up marriages because people are aruging after the fact what constitutes cheating. You need to have these conversations before not a contract break.
Monogamy doesn’t exist among primates, our closest relative. Primates are primary polygamous. Many tribal people and highly collectivist cultural in the Amazon, Asia and Africa engage in community sexual relationships and child rearing and polygamy. So the creation of monogamy is an invention of groups of people (cultures) as their preferred way to child rear, manage relationships and wealth. So its import to understand that monogamy is not a universal way for humans to be, it is a choice.
Many people do not realize monogamy is a choice and then when a partner is not sexually faithful they risk pathologizing their behavior as deviant or sex addiction. Neither of these ways of dealing with sexual infidelity is helpful. Currently there is no official recognized status of sex addiction. Sex addiction is more a pop cultural term than a recognized diagnosis. Having sexual affairs is not pathological or deviant, instead it’s a purposeful behavior and choice to solving a problem the betrayer felt that this was the best solution. Some individuals find solace in labeling their cheating partner as a sex addict and there by their role as a the partner of a sex addict. But this isn't an effective way to conceptualize cheating or fix it.
To be in a long term 20, 30, 40 years plus monogamous relationship requires a lot from the two people committing to this type of relationship. Some people who decide to have sexual affairs do not realize what they are signing up for or the amount of effort and creativity that will be required of them to keep up their desire and interest in having sex with the same person.
Some people mistakenly believe that desire and attraction happen to them, rather than its something than can control. In a relationship each person is responsible for maintain their desire and interest in their partner, not the other way around. This requires a lot of creativity and skills that most people are not aware of how to do. So people who choose to cheat on their relationship may not know this or know how to solve these issues around desire and interest. They are very difficult conversations for people in relationships to have and therefore many people choose not to have them and may choose an affair instead.
Problems in the Relationships
When a person in a relationship perceives they cannot get a particular need met in the relationship and they lose hope to ever being able to fix it, they may choose infidelity as a way to keep the marriage but get their need met. Again not getting your needs met doesn’t justify this choice,as you have others.
One important thing to note is that most affairs occur because of how the betrayer feels in the presence of the infidelity person. Sometimes it is strictly about sex, but a lot of times sex is a by-product for feeling understood, appreciated, interesting, feminine, masculine and so on. People have affairs to feel a way that is important to them that they perceive or believe they are not feeling in the relationship.
For many people they are confronting the fact that they are getting older and that they will not live forever and struggle with the meaning of life and their purposefulness. Existential reasons are common issues for many people and plays out in different ways in affairs:
· Intrapsychic Conflicts: this may be around the meaning of life, purpose of my life, consequences of my choices I’ve made in my life that I don't like and I wonder what it would be like to choose something else, but I don't want the consequences of trying out new things
· People struggle with the desire for intimacy vs. the desire for autonomy
· People long for the desire to be known but at the same tiime fear being known. Marriage requires deep intimacy which can be very unsettle and even frightening. The impersonal and fantasy relationship can be appealing in this way
· The fear of risk-taking vs. the necessity of risk-taking.
· The desire for sexual novelty vs. the desire for sexual predictability
· The desire to be attractive to others vs. the knowledge of one’s declining attractiveness
At a conscious or unconscious level people choose infidelity whether emotional or sexual to work through some of these issues. The important thing to remember is that what is true for you may not be true for your partner, and that what makes one person’s struggle another person’s non-issue. These differences in how we perceive the world, our individual needs and wants can make having discussions around infidelity difficulty.
In trying to understand the purpose of your partner's choice to have an affair it is important that it may never make sense to you. You cannot use your own values, needs and wants as a comparision to evaluate your partner's choice. Just because you would never chose it doesn't make that true for others. This is a painful reality to have to confront and deal with.
If you and your partner are struggling to deal with infidelity, working with a trained mental health professional with a strong grounding in systems, human relationships, sexuality and betrayal can help you run through the tasks of infidelity.
These tasks include but are not limited to:
· Do we both agree that a contract is broken, do we even have a unified contract on what is infidelity, monogamy and cheating
· How do we deal with both parties hurt and pain
· Is there anything in this relationship worth saving? If there is, is there 1 version that we both want to do. If there is not 1 version, there is no need to reconcile and a couple can move on to ending the relationship counselling
Call us to learn more how we can help you at 90307239 and please read our other articles on infidelity and cheating.