What is Infidelity and Why is it so Damaging?
Its difficult to find reliable statistics on the prevalence of infidelity and betrayal trauma in American culture. And who really cares about statistics, anyway? One thing is evident in my line of work: Nearly every client I see in my practice has been affected by infidelity in some way. They have lost marriages due to infidelity, are in crisis because of its discovery, they have perpetrated infidelity, or they are affected by close friends or family who have experienced it. Suffice to say, its everywhere and, therefore, it should be a part of our discussion when we speak of relationships, marriage, and commitment.
The general definition of infidelity is “being unfaithful to a spouse or partner.” However, I find clients take great liberties in interpreting that definition. Therefore, I like to be more specific. Three conditions usually exist for infidelity and betrayal trauma to occur:
First, there has to be a commitment and assumption between partners that each will remain monogamous, that neither partner will seek external sources to meet his/her intimate needs (i.e. marital vows and discussions about monogamy).
Second, a committed partner chooses to put more time, energy, emotional, and/or sexual output into another person or entity. Basically, the partner emotionally and/or physically turns away from their partner to meet needs usually only met by committed, intimate partners.
Third, the aforementioned behaviors are done in secrecy, unbeknownst to the other partner.
In other words, infidelity does not begin when one’s sexual “parts” are inserted into another’s body part(s). It begins when you decide to turn away from your partner to secretly (and usually manipulatively) get your most intimate needs met in lieu of turning toward your partner, being forthright about your behaviors, and/or sharing your intimate thoughts and needs with another instead.
Infidelity can include several different scenarios, some more obvious than others:
Deep, emotional talks and flirtations with your co-worker that you would never engage in if your spouse (or anyone else) was present.
Engaging in any drug, alcohol, or process addiction (How is addiction infidelity? Its secret, it takes most of your time and energy, and if you’re in active addiction it will be difficult to be “present” in your marriage and with your partner)
“Friendships” where the majority of your time is spent talking poorly about your partner in a way that would be very hurtful if he/she knew what was being said, going places and doing things with your “friends” that you decide to keep secret from your spouse, etc.
Engaging in any of the following behaviors in secrecy from your committed partner (vs. openly, consensually, and without shame or guilt): obsessive or compulsive porn viewing or fantasizing about another person or thing, scanning websites such as Ashley Madison and Seeking Arrangements, sex or sexual contact with someone, or any intimate, emotional attachment with someone to whom you’re sexually attracted.
Bottom line: Infidelity is about turning away from your partner vs. turning toward him/her, regardless of the reasons why. The damage caused by infidelity is less about WHAT the partner has been doing outside the committed relationship and more about why/how it happened along with the lying, sneaking around, and manipulating that occurs in order to execute and sustain those behaviors.
Important note: Before I explain HOW infidelity damages the parties involved, I want to emphasize that while the act of unfaithfulness is extremely devastating and damaging, it does not have to be the single, defining facet of an entire relationship. People are married for many years, go through many challenges and milestones together only to let the "final year" of one partner's infidelity define their entire courtship, marriage, and ultimate separation. While sometimes the severity of the violation requires one (or both partners) to end the relationship, there are also many partnerships that are able to transcend the betrayal, learn from it, and grow closer. However, determining the viability of a partnership is nearly IMPOSSIBLE while one of the partners is turned outward, engaged in an affair (or addiction). The same is true for determining the viability of a relationship spawned from an extramarital affair. Therefore, the most obvious damage done by going outside one's primary relationship is that it paralyzes any potential growth or progress you or your primary relationship could make. Whatever issues that existed before the affair will only worsen until both partners choose to turn toward each other, explore where and why it all went wrong, and work toward reparations. However, that can only happen if there’s a mutual desire to work on the relationship.
How Lying and Infidelity Impacts the Committed Partner:
In my article on The Trauma of Experiencing Betrayal, I enumerate the various ways betrayal is traumatizing to the committed partner. However, most research shows the majority of the trauma caused by infidelity manifests from the lies, manipulation, gaslighting, and act of telling a committed partner that you are not engaging in behaviors when he/she "knows" or "feels" like you are engaging in questionable activities. Humans are instinctive and intuitive creatures. It’s a survival skill. We know/feel when things are "off", when our partner is not “present” in the marriage, when he/she is getting his/her needs met elsewhere. When one’s warning bells chime because he/she senses something is “off”, he/she goes into overdrive searching for answers, asking questions, getting angry or resentful but not fully understanding why, or falls into despair without having a tangible reason for the despair. It is in these moments where one intuitively knows the truth of the partner’s emotional and/or physical withdrawal. The committed partner eventually will seek validation of his/her intuition and “truth” by speaking to the unfaithful partner (Where were you when you didn’t answer my call? Were you really working late last night? Who’s blocked phone calls keep coming to your cell phone?). Unfortunately, it is in these moments where the unfaithful partner decides to lie, dismisses what the partner's intuition is telling him/her, often constructs a different reality for that partner, and sometimes adds on a very shaming “You’re crazy, you need help” in order to really throw the suspicious partner off the scent.
These acts of lying and manipulating are better known as GASLIGHTING. To the inquiring partner, this is crazy-making and extremely traumatic (which is often why partners who discover infidelity appear emotionally disregulated and confused). The perpetrator of the gaslighting barely realizes he/she is doing it, as they are in survival mode trying to cover their tracks and keep his/her multiple lives intact. In order to better understand this concept, I would encourage you to read my article on Betrayal Trauma.
How Lying and Infidelity Impacts the Unfaithful Partner:
Have you heard the old adage, “You have to love yourself before you can love another?” I’m going to argue that its hard to actually LIKE yourself when you've been actively lying to those you care about, are living two different lives, breaking commitments and promises, and are secretly pouring your emotions and energy into someone/something other than your primary relationship (realizing that its discovery would be devastating to the partner and family). Yes, infidelity is intense in many good and bad ways. While the feelings toward your affair partner can be very real, a level of intensity also comes from the “newness” of that partner, the secrecy of the relationship, and the potential for getting caught. Yes, it can make you feel “alive” again. There are many reasons why one finds him/herself going outside the primary relationship and none of the reasons ever seem to be “because I enjoy hurting the people I care about.” The “why’s” of infidelity often come from deep wounds and unmet needs. It is very complex, which is why I’ve dedicated a separate article on that topic. Regardless of why it happens, as long as you’re lying and turning away from your partner, you will never experience real intimacy or healthy exchanges with your primary partner (Which is sometimes an unconscious goal). He/she will feel your distance, continue to inquire why, and continue to emotionally act out because he/she can’t quite put their finger on what is going on but he/she KNOWS something is just not right. It’s an exhausting, toxic cycle that only becomes more harmful with time (and more lying, gaslighting, and manipulating). Plus, as I mentioned previously, when your partner is in that "hypervigilant" state and you are in your "survival mode" state, neither of you are at your best and able to accurately evaluate the viability of your marriage.
Whatever you chose to do regarding your marriage or your affair partner, it is important that the lies stop and you live in a way that allows you to like yourself and feel “integrated” with your thoughts, feelings, and values again. There are many different ways to interpret that so I would encourage you to read this article to clarify. I would also encourage you to read an article on Sexual Integrity written by my mentor, Rob Weiss.
How The Affair Partner is Negatively Impacted:
American culture often villainizes the affair partner. After all, the affair partner has made a conscious decision to pursue a relationship with a married person, with all its improprieties and consequences. Nonetheless, the affair partner is a person negatively impacted by this relationship triad. Oftentimes the impetus for pursuing the affair stems from deep wounds, insecurities, and unmet needs. While the feelings exchanged by affair partners can be very real, due to the nature of the affair’s secrecy, the breaking of trust to pursue the relationship, the “cost” of choosing the affair partner versus the family, and the social stigma that comes with that choice, a relationship that began as an affair is often more stressful and potentially adversarial than “typical” relationships. Also, due to the aforementioned circumstances, the affair partner may also experience a form of betrayal trauma, trust issues, and resentments. While neither the affair partner or the unfaithful partner tend to express regret over the affair itself, there is often regret over the shame from the behavior along with the harm it caused. The shame can follow someone around for a long time and amplify his/her existing wounds, insecurities, and unmet needs.
So What is the Antidote to the Trauma of Lying and Betrayal?
The Truth….With all its pain, guilt, and potential consequences. I realize the consequences of honesty about one's infidelity can be quite catastrophic. I also realize doing things in secrecy can make one's life very intense and passionate (in both good and bad ways) so one may be hesitant to let that intensity go. Nonetheless, leading two different lives while compartmentalizing thoughts and feelings in order to protect your mental and emotional state is exhausting. After all, the most important person in one's life already knows the truth about your unhealthy and damaging choices: You. You are your greatest judge and source of criticism. You know what you’re doing and all the pain it can potentially cause, otherwise you wouldn’t be going to great lengths to hide your affair and avoid making a concrete decision with regards to staying or leaving. Trust me, as bad as honesty may sound to you right now, its better than a life of lying and manipulating (for all parties involved). Many therapists in the CSAT community find that a partner is more likely to leave an unfaithful partner for the lies he/she tells rather than the bad choices and behaviors in which he/she has engaged.
My second article on Infidelity may help those currently in an extra marital affair weigh their options and explore perspectives that he/she may have not otherwise considered.
This article is not meant to condemn or shame anyone who has gone outside his/her marriage. It obviously happens more often than our general population is willing to admit and should, therefore, be a part of our mainstream discussions on marriage and monogamy. While betrayal is traumatizing, it does not have to define us or our relationship. There are partnerships that are destroyed due to the severity of betrayal. There are other partnerships that are able to transcend the betrayal, learn from it, and grow stronger as a consequence. There are ways to remain in the marriage or leave the marriage with a greater sense of integrity and healing than one may realize. I would challenge you to explore your options. If you are currently engaged in an affair, I would encourage you to TALK ABOUT IT with someone other than your affair partner (preferably a trained professional with experience in infidelity). Explore how infidelity happens (from all facets), why it happens, and how all parties can recover from its damaging consequences, regardless of the outcomes of the relationships.
My article on how infidelity happens
Here's another great article on the subject of infidelity by Esther Perel.