Why do we cheat? Why do apparently happy people cheat? What exactly do we mean when we say “infidelity”? Is it a hookup, a love story, paid sex, a chat room, or a massage with a happy finish? Why do we think that men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy, but women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy? And is an affair always the end of a relationship? I get these and lots of other questions just like them. For the past few years, I have worked with couples that have had their relationship devastated by infidelity. That one simple act of misbehavior can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, and their very identity. And yet it is so common that it’s rare to find someone untouched by it.
It’s our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.”
Adultery has existed since the first marriage was consummated, and so too the strict rules against it. In fact, infidelity has a persistence that marriage probably envies. Did you ever notice that infidelity is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible?
First for doing it:
· “Thou shall not commit adultery”
Second for just thinking about it:
· “Thou shall not covet thy neighbors wife”
Today, how do we reconcile a thing universally forbidden, and yet so frequently indulged?
Throughout the ages men have pretty much been given a license to cheat. There were very few consequences. This license has been supported by a host of biological and evolutionary theories that justify the male need to wander; leaving society with a double standard as old as adultery itself. But who really sees what’s going on under the sheets? When it comes to sex, the pressure from society is for men to boast and exaggerate, while the pressure for women is to hide, minimize, and deny. That shouldn’t be to terribly surprising when you consider that there are still about eight or nine countries where women are executed for adultery, and one or two where a woman can be killed for adultery, after being raped.
Monogamy always meant one person for life. But today, for some people, monogamy means one person at a time. Many of you probably have said, “I have always been monogamous in my relationships.” Our parents married, and had sex for the first time. Now, we marry, and we stop having sex with other people. Historically, monogamy really had nothing to do with love. Society insisted on a women’s fidelity in order to know whose children those brats are, and who gets the villa and all the slaves when I die.
Everyone always asks what percentages of people cheat? I’ve been asked that question since I started coaching. But you need a fixed definition to find an answer, and the definition of infidelity keeps on changing and expanding: sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps, posting erotic photos on websites. See a problem? With no collectively agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes infidelity, estimates vary widely, from 26 percent to 75 percent of people. When you add to that the fact that we are often walking contradictions, (95 percent (or more) of us will say that it is terribly wrong for our partner to lie about having an affair, but just about the same amount of us will say that that’s exactly what we would do if we were having one) go figure.
In order to do my work, I make up my own definition of an affair. I bring together the three key elements of an affair: a secretive relationship (the core component of an affair), an emotional connection, ranging from very low to high, and a sexual component. The sexual component is the key here, because the erotic excitement or emotion is such that a kiss that you only imagine giving can be as powerful and erotic as hours of actual lovemaking.
It’s never been easier to be unfaithful, and it’s never been more difficult to keep it a secret. And never has infidelity exacted such an emotional toll. When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened only our economic security, and that was something that could be negotiated. But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens our emotional security. We used to turn to adultery as the space where we sought “pure love.” But now that we seek love in marriage alone, adultery utterly destroys it.
There are numerous ways that infidelity hurts today. We have this Disney romantic ideal; we turn to the one and only one person to fulfill our endless list of needs: to be my erotic lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal. And I am that for someone else: I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. Infidelity announces publicly: I’m not…you are not. It becomes the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shatters that magnificent ambition of love. Throughout history, infidelity has always been painful, but today it has actually become traumatic, because it threatens our sense of self.
I have a client, Jeremy, his wife is plagued. He reports that she says, “I thought I knew my life. I thought I knew who you were, who we were as a couple, who I was. Now, I question everything.” Infidelity—a violation of intimate trust, causes a crisis of personal identity. “Can I ever trust you again?” she asks. “Can I ever trust anyone again?” “Who are you… who am I?”
This just what my client Melanie tells me when she’s talking to me about her story with Robert. Married, four kids. Robert left on a business trip, and Melanie was playing on his iPad with two of the boys, and she sees a message appear on the screen: “Can’t wait to see you again.” Strange, she thinks, we just saw each other. And then another message: “Can’t wait to hold you in my arms.” Now Melanie isn’t stupid and quickly realizes these are not for her. Melanie reports that her father had affairs, but her mother found one little receipt in his pocket. Melanie goes digging, and finds hundreds of messages, photos exchanged and intimate yearnings expressed. The vivid details of Robert’s two-and-a-half year affair unfold in front of her. Affairs in the digital age are death by a thousand cuts.
We have created this romantic ideal; we trust our partner’s fidelity with an exceptional intensity. Yet we ourselves have never been more tempted to stray. There are no new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel that we are entitled to pursue our desires, we deserve to be happy; and you see where that leads. If our parents used to divorce in their day because they were unhappy, today we use divorce because we think we could be happier. Today, if divorce carried all the shame of old, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame to carry. So Melanie doesn’t dare talk to her friends because she knows that they will judge her for still loving Robert. Yet, everywhere she turns, she gets the same advice: Leave him. Throw the dog on the curb. And if the situation were reversed, Robert would be in the same situation. Has staying has become the new shame?
If we can have a divorce, why do continue to have affairs? Typically the assumption is that if someone cheats, either there’s something wrong in the relationship, or wrong with the person. But millions of people can’t all be irrational. The common logic goes something like this: If you have what you need at home, then why go looking elsewhere. But doesn’t passion have a finite shelf life? What if there are things that even a good relationship can never provide? If even happy people cheat, what is it about?
The vast majority of people that I work with are not serial philanderers. Yet they find themselves in a conflict between their values and their behavior. Many are people who have actually been faithful for decades, but one day they cross a line that they never thought they would cross, even at the risk of losing everything. Then they discover that home is never home again. They did it for a hint of what? Affairs are an act of betrayal; they can also an expression of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair, you usually find a longing or a yearning for emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a desire to regain lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and age…or all of it together.
I have another client, Kim, who is fabulously happily married, loves her husband, and would never want to hurt the man. She also tells me that she’s always done what was expected of her; good girl, good wife, taking care of her in-laws. Kim fell for the arborist who removed the tree from her yard after the flood. And with his truck and his tattoos, he’s quite the opposite of her. But at 47, Kim’s affair is more about the adolescence that she never had. It’s hard to remember that it isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have become. It’s not that she was looking for another person, as much as she was looking for another self.
One thing all people in affairs have in common is they feel/felt alive. They will tell me stories of recent losses; of a parent, who died, a friend that went too soon, or bad news at the doctor. Death and mortality often live in the shadow of an affair, because they raise questions:
· Is this it?
· Is there more?
· Am I going on for another 25 years like this?
· Will I ever have that feeling again?
Maybe these questions are the ones that push people to cross the line, and that some affairs are an attempt to beat back deadness. Their affair is their antidote to death.
Affairs are often much less about sex, and a lot more about desire:
· Desire for attention
· Desire to feel special
· Desire to feel important
The very structure of most affairs, the fact that you can never have your lover keeps you hungry. The affair becomes a desire factory, because the incompleteness, the ambiguity, and keeps you wanting more that you can never possess.
Desire runs deep. Betrayal runs deeper. Yet it can be healed. Some affairs are death knells for relationships that were already dying on the vine, while others jolt partners into new possibilities and new lives. Statistics indicate that the majority of couples who have experienced infidelity of one kind or another stay together. Some of them will merely survive, while others will turn a crisis into an opportunity. They turn it into a generative experience. Often more so for the deceived partner, who will frequently say:
“You think I didn’t want more? Yet I’m not the one who did it.”
Now that the affair is exposed, they, too, get to claim more, and they don’t have to uphold the status quo that clearly wasn’t working for them that well either.
Not that this is a reason to stray, but in the immediate aftermath of an affair, because of this new chaos that may actually lead to a new order, there is the possibility of depths of conversations with honesty and openness that they haven’t had in decades, if ever. There are times when partners who were sexually apathetic find themselves suddenly so lustfully insatiable, they don’t know where it’s coming from. Something about the fear of loss rekindles desire and makes way for an entirely new kind of truth.
We know from trauma experiences that healing begins when the perpetrator acknowledges their transgression. So for the spouse who had the affair, for Robert, one thing is to end the affair, but the other is the essential important act of expressing guilt and remorse for hurting his wife. But the truth is, lots of people who have affairs feel terribly guilty for hurting their partner, but they don’t feel guilty for the affair itself. That distinction is important. Robert needs to hold vigil for the relationship that he feels no guilt for having experienced. He needs to become, for a while, the protector of the boundaries. It’s his responsibility to bring it up, because if he thinks about it, he can relieve Melanie from the obsession, and from having to make sure that the affair isn’t forgotten. That in itself, counter intuitively, begins to restore trust.
For deceived partners, it is critical to do things that bring back a sense of self-worth, to be surrounded with love and with friends and activities that give back lost joy, meaning, and identity. But even more important for the deceived party is to curb the curiosity to dig for the sordid details:
· Where were you?
· Where did you do it?
· How often?
· Is she better than me in bed?
Questions like these only inflict more pain. Instead, switch to what are called “investigative questions,” the ones that determine the meaning and the motives:
· What did this affair mean for you?
· What were you able to express or experience there that you could’t do with me?
· What was it like for you when you came home?
· What is it about us that you value?
· Are you pleased this is over?
Each affair redefines the relationship. Every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be. But affairs are here to stay; they’re not going away. The dilemmas of love and desire don’t yield simple answers of black and white or good and bad, or indicate clearly victim and perpetrator. Betrayal in a relationship comes in many shapes and forms. There are many ways that we betray our partner; with contempt, with neglect, with indifference, or with violence. Sexual betrayal is only one way to hurt a partner. In other words, the victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.
I see affairs from a dual perspective: hurt and betrayal on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other—what it did to you, and what it meant for them. When a couple comes to me in the aftershock of an affair, I will often tell them this:
“Most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”
I say that, and then just listen.
SEE A LIFE COACH IN BATON ROUGE
Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.