Sex and Relationship Infidelity: A Betrayed Partner’s Need to Know the Truth
“Infidelity is the breakdown of trust caused by keeping secrets in an intimate partnership.” – Robert Weiss
The Agony of Betrayal
I’ve employed the above definition to describe cheating ever since the Internet came along in the early 1990’s. When working with clients and their betrayed spouses, I attempt to bring home the concept that it is the betrayal of relationship trust caused by consistent lying, rather than any specific sexual act, that both defines infidelity and causes the deepest pain to the betrayed partner. The emotional violation and trauma experienced by a spouse who is forced to live with ongoing secrets, lies, and the resulting denial of his or her own reality by a cheating partner is indeed deep. The sudden discovery or unraveling awareness that a long-term intimate partner has been living a secret life filled with sexual infidelity—whether that infidelity has been carried out in-vivo (affairs, prostitutes, anonymous sexual partners, etc.) or online (porn, webcams, social media, dating/hookup sites, etc.)—evokes feelings that lead the betrayed partner to question literally everything about his or her relationship.
It is frequently the case when working with a betrayed spouse or life-partner (much as it is with abused children) that the victim will begin to question his or her own behavior, often experiencing guilt, shame, self-doubt, and remorse when reviewing the past. Attempting to establish some sort of emotional control over their grief, betrayed partners will turn on themselves as a source of the problem. It’s all too common for these individuals to think, “If I’d just been nicer, or better in bed, or thinner, or more emotionally supportive then he wouldn’t have turned to all those other women,” or, “If I made more money, was better endowed, had more hair, or drove a nicer car then she wouldn’t be meeting up with those old boyfriends she discovered on Facebook.” Betrayed spouses also find themselves examining feelings and misgivings they previously pushed aside when believing the lies they were told; oftentimes they wonder why they chose to ignore their self-protective instincts. Even worse, they may begin to question if they’ll ever be able to regain the trust they need to stay in this or any other relationship.
This negative self-appraisal is both normal and an understandable part of the grief process—especially when the source of that grief is the loss of what one thought his or her primary relationship to be. In cases involving repetitive patterns of cheating, betrayal, and lies, a wide range of powerful emotions are likely to be unleashed and to stick around for quite some time. Some more common responses to learning about a loved one’s infidelity include:
- Shock/Despair/Depression – The betrayed spouse is oftentimes numb and somewhat unable to function. Other people may be livid and screaming that they should take action (separation, divorce, etc.), but early on the betrayed spouse is more often seeking insight, validation for his or her feelings, and emotional stability as opposed to drastic action.
- Self-Doubt/Remorse/Shame – As stated above, many betrayed spouses blame themselves for not having seen the patterns of lying and deceit, and for not acting sooner. Some will tell no one about what they are going through due to shame and fear of judgment. Sadly, this leaves them isolated in their fear and hurt.
- Honeymooning – Some betrayed spouses move full-force into romance/seduction mode, thinking that if they provide enough sex, their partner won’t “need” to stray.
- Blaming Third-Parties – Betrayed spouses often direct the brunt of their anger onto the person (or people) with whom their partner cheated, viewing their spouse as an “innocent victim” of someone else’s unscrupulous behavior. Cheating partners are supportive of this, as it takes the heat off them.
- Detective work – Betrayed spouses often go through cell phone and credit card bills, wallets, and pockets, and ask endless questions, all in an attempt to understand the entirety of what has occurred.
- PTSD Symptoms Such as Rage, Mood Swings, Withdrawal, and Hyper-Vigilance – Betrayed spouses will display love and then become rageful for no overtly obvious reason. For example: inadvertently seeing a sexualized image in a magazine ad or watching a romantic movie scene can trigger feelings of hurt, insecurity, and anger.
- Poor Boundaries – Lacking others who will understand and wanting to lash out, a rage-filled spouse may act in ways he or she later regrets. This behavior may include co-opting children by telling them “what daddy or mommy did to me,” and telling bosses, mothers, and others about the infidelity. Some spouses will resort to verbal and even physical abuse toward the unfaithful partner.
Emma is a successful, 46-year-old realtor who accidentally discovered her husband’s ongoing pattern of infidelity.
After ten years of marriage, my sex life with Reed started to disappear. I thought it must be what happens when you’ve been together awhile, or that he just wasn’t as attracted to me as he was when we met. But whenever I asked about this he reassured me that wasn’t the case. When I questioned him about his increasing emotional and often physical unavailability, he would say that he was really busy with a project at work, or tired, or distracted. These were his lies. But after the project ended, or he got some rest, or the kids got older, or his mother moved away, or whatever excuse he had given me passed and still nothing changed, I decided to take action. I started going to the gym, I got my hair cut the way it was when we first started dating, and I even bought some new lingerie to try to get his attention. Still nothing. And he just kept coming home later and later, spending half his time when he did get home on the computer with the door closed—all the time saying he was up for a promotion and needed to really perform for work. Then came the day my laptop died and I borrowed his to check my email, only to find literally hundreds of pictures and videos of nude women, a lot of them amateurish, which led me to believe they came from women he knew. I was stunned. At that moment I literally had no idea what to do, so I just left his laptop open on the kitchen table so he’d see it when he got home.
Confronted with clear evidence of his infidelity, Reed did what most cheaters do. He admitted to some of what he had done… and he covered up a whole lot, too, telling Emma that yes he’d looked at porn, and yes, he’d downloaded a lot of images and videos, but he swore he wasn’t in contact with any of the women (a lie), and he hadn’t had any affairs (another lie). Eventually, the full extent of his behavior was revealed during a month-long period of crisis-related couples counseling—most of the information coming out piecemeal even though Emma had requested from day one to “simply know the truth.” Reed’s staggered disclosure just made things worse for Emma.
He kept swearing to me, “This time I’m telling you everything.” Or sometimes he would get angry, saying, “Why do you keep bugging me? I’ve told you the truth.” But then a few days or a week later there would be another revelation or I’d find something new on his cell phone or computer. Eventually, my faith in him and his willingness to tell me the truth was so thoroughly destroyed that I started to feel like Humpty Dumpty. He had knocked me over and shattered me over and over, and I just wasn’t sure that he or I or anyone else could put me back together again. Throughout this process I felt like my life-foundation was crumbling beneath me. The truth was awful, the lies were worse. I quickly turned into someone I barely recognized, shouting and raging at him one moment, eating and spending his money as fast I could to feel better (extract revenge) the next. Within a few weeks I couldn’t concentrate at home or at work, and I nearly lost my job. If I hadn’t worked there for so long, I probably would have.
Why Disclose Past Infidelity?
Betrayed partners such as Emma often ask for complete disclosure. Reasons for this include:
- To validate their suspicions about what was happening in the relationship—suspicions their spouse dismissed and/or denied at the time
- To know if they’re at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, financial disaster, public humiliation, etc.
- To determine if and to what degree the cheating partner values their relationship
- To gain a sense of control over an out-of-control situation
- To help them determine how to proceed (or not proceed) with the relationship
- To see what else their spouse has lied about, as trust isn’t partial and betrayed spouses lose faith in everything about the relationship, not just things related to sex
For couples wishing to remain together, full disclosure all at once protects betrayed spouses from the continued emotional body blows produced by partial truths revealed over time. It also increases the odds that trust can be rebuilt. An unfaithful spouse who tells the full truth and then continues to be honest about his or her behavior has a much better chance of eventually regaining the respect of the betrayed partner.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough the need for disclosure to be carefully planned, organized, and carried out in a clinical setting. This process should not be undertaken without the supervision and involvement of licensed clinician(s) who have worked with both parties to prepare them for the process and potential outcomes of disclosure—as the sharing of this history, even in a safe, controlled, therapeutic setting, is unavoidably a traumatic event. In fact, many betrayed spouses, both before and after learning about a loved one’s pattern of infidelity, experience acute stress symptoms and even symptoms of PTSD (note Emma’s inability to concentrate at work, her frequent mood shifts, and her compulsive eating/spending). The phenomenon of relationship betrayal as a form of trauma is the subject of next week’s blog.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of the sex addiction treatment program The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found on Huffington Post and on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.
Weiss LCSW, R. (2015). Sex and Relationship Infidelity: A Betrayed Partner’s Need to Know the Truth. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 29, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2012/09/sex-and-relationship-infidelity-a-betrayed-partners-need-to-know-the-truth/