Studies universally suggest that somewhere between ten and twenty percent of both men and women in committed, long-term relationships and marriages are sexually unfaithful to their spouse or significant other. Of course, in today’s world of social media, chat rooms, webcams, instant messaging, and instant pornography, the concept of “what defines cheating” can feel somewhat more malleable and significantly easier to deny than back in the day when cheating meant actually having live physical contact.
So what exactly does it mean to be unfaithful in today’s digital world?
Is a live physical interaction still required, or does a webcam encounter with someone half a world away count equally? What about pornography, or flirting with a sexually available woman on Facebook or through smart-phone apps like Blendr and Ashley Madison?
Let’s face it, for older individuals (say, the over 30 crowd), it’s a new and confusing world. That said, after two decades spent working with hundreds of betrayed spouses and their ultimately remorseful mates, the answer to the question of what defines infidelity remains as clear today as it was when Monica Lewinsky first stored away that stained little blue dress (for those who remember that story).
Infidelity can be defined simply as the breaking of trust that occurs when secrets are kept from an intimate partner. In other words, with sexual infidelity it’s the betrayal of relationship trust caused by consistent lying that causes long-term intimate partnerships to crack wide open.
Sadly, many men don’t realize how profoundly their secretive sexual behavior can affect the long-term emotional life of a trusting partner. And some would prefer to not know. When the occasional, shall we say, “more entitled” man enters sexual addiction treatment and loudly expresses in therapy that it is his God given biological, evolutionary-based right to have sex with as many women as possible, I will remind him of the following: “There is no rule saying you can’t have sex with as many women as you wish as often as you wish. However, if you are married or in a committed relationship, it is best for you to run your well-rounded sexual agenda by your wife/significant other before you act it out. If it’s OK with her for you to see a few hookers every week and have an affair or two, then it’s OK with me.”
In 20 years of clinical work I’ve not had many men take me up on this suggestion, but, sadly, I’ve had plenty who’ve left treatment to continue their infidelity in silence, all the while justifying their actions by blaming the very relationships they have dismissed through their own lies and secrecy. Often in these cases there is no behavior change unless the individual is threatened with potential partner loss or divorce.
Men who sexually or romantically cheat and then betray their relationships with lies and secrecy do so for a variety of underlying psychological reasons, the most common of which are listed below.
- He never intended to be monogamous, despite taking vows or making commitments to do so. He doesn’t understand his commitment to only be sexual with his significant other is a sacrifice made to and for the relationship. He un-empathically and/or resentfully sees monogamy more as something to work around than actually keep.
- He resents not getting enough love, adoration, appreciation, time, focus, etc. from a spouse who is likely juggling multiple priorities like kids and work. Often not fully aware of his own emotional needs, he begins to see prostitutes or begins affairs rather than being assertive in healthy ways and trying to negotiate what he needs and wants from his spouse.
- He wrongly perceives the early romantic and sexual intensity of his relationship as LOVE, not understanding that early relationship attraction is gradually replaced in healthy partnerships by longer-term attachment, commitment and relationship intimacy.
- He has a relationship or sexual addiction type of problem that keeps him distant from those close to him. He uses sex and romance to fill his own emotional emptiness.
- He wants to leave his current relationship, but first wants another one waiting in the wings.
- He is insecure about his age (young or old), his looks, his income, etc. He uses the affair or hookup in an attempt to prove his value, and to reassure himself that he is desirable and worthwhile.
- He is bored, overworked, or otherwise feels entitled to get something “special” just for him. He is excited by the mystery and intensity of a secret sexual/romantic life.
- He thinks that as long as no one finds out, he’s not hurting anybody.
- He cheats to retaliate against his spouse for a perceived or actual hurt. He finds an email between his wife and her ex-boyfriend from college, so he hires a prostitute to even the score.
- He has suppressed early trauma such as emotional neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse that leaves him unwilling or unable to be entirely faithful to a wife or partner. He strays away from intimacy with his significant other, turning instead to anonymous or intensity-based experiences as a distraction.
- He has unreasonable expectations of what his spouse should offer, expecting her to meet his every single need. When his spouse inevitably fails him, he feels justified in seeking attention elsewhere.
- He undervalues his healthy need to maintain solid, supportive friendships with other men, instead seeking to fulfill unmet emotional needs through sex and affairs.
- He wants to have his cake and eat it too. He is not mature enough to understand the effects that his word, once broken, will have on a loved one.
Truth and Consequences
It can be an incredibly painful experience to learn of a loved one’s cheating. While a man’s infidelity may reflect unaddressed problems in the relationship, it is more likely that he has lifelong challenges with relationship intimacy and deepening commitment—which are the kinds of issues that can often be successfully treated in good couples therapy.
If it turns out the man is a sex or love addict, as many cheaters are, he will need specialized individual treatment as well. Marital and couples counseling can for some turn a relationship crisis into a growth opportunity. Unfortunately, even when experienced therapists are extensively involved with people committed to healing, some couples are unable to ever regain the necessary sense of trust and emotional safety required to make it together. For these couples, therapy can help the two people involved to process a long overdue goodbye.