pornography

As a therapist who’s spent more than 25 years treating individuals and couples with intimacy and sexual issues, including every imaginable problem related to infidelity, I can assure you that one of the most difficult aspects of helping a person who has cheated on his or her significant other is getting that individual to view the behavior as infidelity. Either the cheater doesn’t think what he or she has done qualifies as infidelity, or the cheater can’t understand why his or her mate won’t just accept an apology, offer forgiveness, and then pretend the transgression(s) never happened.

The simple truth is cheaters routinely rationalize, minimize, and justify their sextracurricular activity, blaming everyone and everything but themselves for their actions and the pickle in which they suddenly find themselves. In the therapy biz, we refer to this as “denial.” If you’re wondering, denial is a series of internal lies and deceits that cheaters tell themselves to make their behavior seem OK (in their own minds). Typically, each of their self-deceptions is supported by one or more rationalizations, with each rationalization bolstered by still more falsehoods.

When viewed from a distance, denial is about as structurally sound as a house of cards in a stiff breeze, yet cheating partners typically behave as if they’re living in an impenetrable bomb shelter. An impartial observer could easily see through the smokescreen, but unfaithful partners either cannot or will not, choosing instead to ignore the seriousness and potential consequences of their actions so they can carry on with their cheating. And this willful ignorance can go on for years, often continuing until the infidelity is discovered (and sometimes beyond that).

The most commonly engaged in form of denial, used by almost every person who cheats, is based on the following rationalization: “What my partner doesn’t know can’t hurt her/him.” This, of course, is not true. In reality, even though a betrayed spouse may have no idea that a cheater is sleeping around, he or she generally has a sense that something is wrong, typically feeling an emotional (and maybe even a physical) distancing by the cheater. Sadly, betrayed mates often blame themselves for this, wondering what they’ve done to create this rift. Even worse, a cheater’s kids will feel the same sense of distance—and they are even more likely to internalize blame than the cheated on partner. So cheaters who think they’re not hurting their families are dead wrong.

Nevertheless, most cheaters will insist that their behavior is perfectly acceptable within the bounds of their relationship. In therapy, they say things like:

  • Getting a quick hand-job is no different than masturbating, so it doesn’t count as cheating.
  • I was only chatting with him/her on Facebook. So what if he/she is a former lover? And so what if we get a little flirty? It’s not like we’re actually hooking up.
  • Everybody looks at porn. It’s no big deal. It’s not like I’m hooking up with people in real life.
  • Masturbating on webcam with people I don’t know and will never meet in person isn’t cheating, and I don’t understand why my partner is so upset.
  • Strip clubs are no different than porn, and neither qualifies as infidelity.
  • Going onto a hookup app every once in a while for sex isn’t the same as having an affair.

As you can see, people are often confused about the activities that do and don’t qualify as cheating, especially when those behaviors occur with digital assistance. A few years ago, in an attempt to provide some 21st century clarity, Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Dr. Charles Samenow, and I conducted research looking at people whose partners were engaging in significant amounts of sextracurricular activity, both online and in the real world. Our most important findings were:

  • The keeping of secrets about romantic and/or sexual activity is the most important (i.e., painful) aspect of cheating. The loss of relationship trust is devastating.
  • When it comes to the negative effects of cheating, there is no difference between tech-based and face-to-face activity. They are equally painful to the betrayed partner.

This study confirmed our decades of professional experience, telling us that it’s not any specific sexual act that does the most damage to a betrayed partner and the relationship; instead, it’s the lying, the keeping of secrets, the emotional distancing, and the loss of relationship trust. Based on this knowledge, I have since created a digital era definition of cheating:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.

One of the reasons I like this definition is it encompasses both online and real world sexual activity, as well as sexual and romantic activities that stop short of actual intercourse—everything from looking at porn to kissing to strip clubs to something as simple as flirting. More importantly, the definition is flexible depending on the couple. In other words, it lets couples define their personalized version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision making. This means that it might be just fine for one partner to look at porn or to engage in some other form of sextracurricular activity, as long as his or her mate knows about this behavior and is OK with it. On the other hand, if that partner is looking at porn (or engaging in some other romantic/sexual activity) and keeping it secret, or his or her spouse knows about it but doesn’t find it acceptable within the mutually agreed upon boundaries of the relationship, then the behavior qualifies cheating.

Even with this definition in place, men and women who engage in infidelity often think their actions are acceptable. In therapy sessions, I generally ask these clients to respond to one very simple question: “If your behavior isn’t cheating, then why are you keeping it a secret from your mate?” If necessary, I will suggest that a client’s actions might be fine within the boundaries of his or her relationship if the client’s partner knew about those actions up front and agreed they were OK. I then suggest that if the client and his or her mate can mutually agree, without coercion of any sort, that certain activities are acceptable, that’s great and so be it. In such cases, the client can continue in good conscience with whatever it is that he or she is doing.

Picture the following:

On your way out the door you say, “Honey, I’ve been feeling sexually deprived lately. Actually, I’ve been feeling this way ever since the kids came along. So instead of going to that work conference I told you about, I’m going to buy some booze and cocaine, hire a couple of sex workers, and party in a hotel all weekend. Is that OK by you?”

Unsurprisingly, I have never, not even once, had a cheating client take me up on this suggestion to be open and up front with his or her partner. Nor have I ever expected that to happen. And why would I? After all, if any of these clients thought their significant other would agree to these behaviors they’d have broached the topic already. They’d have told their partner up front what they wanted to do, the partner would have agreed, and they wouldn’t be in therapy with me.

By the way, this sort of “open relationship” can and does work for some couples, as long as it’s approached with integrity—discussed honestly and mutually agreed upon without any type of coercion. This is because healthy relationships are more about honesty and each partner having an equal say than about meeting preconceived societal notions about what a relationship is supposed to look like.

Cheaters, however, shudder at the idea of being honest about their desires because they know (or believe) that their mate will put the kibosh on whatever it is they’re wanting to do. Moreover, such honesty would alert their partner about their sextracurricular desires, which would make engaging in those behaviors a lot harder to get away with. And who needs that hassle, right? Or maybe the cheater wants the right to sleep around, but wants his or her significant other to stay home and be completely faithful. Whatever the reasons, cheaters seem to prefer secrets and lies to honesty and integrity.

To repeat, cheating is much more about lying, secrets, emotional distancing, and the loss of relationship trust than actual romantic and/or sexual behaviors. In most relationships, actual behaviors are much easier to forgive than the deep emotional betrayal and the loss of relationship trust wrought by all the secrets and lies. Because of this, after infidelity is uncovered, an apology for what the cheater has done, even if it’s delivered with a box of candy, is not enough to repair the damaged relationship. In fact, it’s not even close. To heal a primary relationship, trust must be restored, and that takes much more than an apology.

In future postings to this site I will discuss the process of healing relationships after the discovery of one partner’s infidelity, based on material that appears in my recently published book, Out of the Doghouse, available on Amazon.com at this link.