Dealing with Sexual Betrayal: 6 Things Therapists Need to Know In the wake of the recent Ashley Madison hack and data dump, sexual infidelity is in the news more than ever. Because of this, a growing number of spouses are actively checking up on what their partners are doing with their free time. Smartphone apps, texts, emails, and the like are being surreptitiously (and sometimes overtly) checked, and countless scores of cheaters are being found out. Plus, some unfaithful spouses are using news of the hack as an opportunity to come clean about previously hidden sexual behavior by voluntarily disclosing their infidelity. As a result, therapists of all stripes are encountering a rising tide of betrayed spouses, nervous cheaters, and couples in crisis. For clinicians who don’t specialize in this type of work, the loaded, swiftly changing emotions that surround sexual and romantic betrayal can lead to a lot of clinical second-guessing. To help alleviate some of this anxiety, I’ve created a short “Infidelity FAQ” for therapists, presented below. This list is created based on existing research and more than 20 years of clinical experience – specializing in intimacy issues such as infidelity.

Before I present the FAQ, however, I think that a brief discussion of what does and does not qualify as infidelity in our increasingly digital world will prove useful.

Once upon a time, of course, sexual betrayal was relatively easy to define. If a person had physical sexual contact with someone other than his or her spouse, that person had cheated. Sometimes therapists had to explain that yes, things like oral copulation, hand jobs, heavy petting, and even just a bit of kissing count as sexual contact, but otherwise the definition of sexual infidelity was pretty straightforward. Most unfaithful spouses were discovered thanks to hard physical evidence such as:

  • Lipstick on the collar
  • The scent of an unfamiliar perfume or cologne
  • Telltale receipts from hotels, clubs, restaurants, and the like
  • Being spotted by a nosy (and talkative) neighbor

Nowadays, the situation is not nearly as cut and dried. In fact, the Internet has muddied the waters quite a lot. For instance: Does masturbating to online porn count? What about just looking at porn? Is it OK to chat up a former flame on Facebook? How about mutual masturbation via webcam with a person living thousands of miles away? What about sexting? Is simply visiting a site like Ashley Madison, Tinder, or Skout and flirting (without ever hooking up) a form of infidelity? Etc.

A few years ago, in response to the questions such as these I created the following modern-day definition of cheating:

Sexual infidelity is the keeping of sexual or romantic secrets from a spouse or long-term partner.

One of the reasons I like this definition is that it encompasses both online and real world sexual behavior, as well as sexual and romantic activities that stop short of the sexual act itself. Furthermore, the definition is flexible. It allows couples to define their own version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision making. As long as those boundaries are not violated, there is no infidelity.

Now the FAQ…

Does infidelity automatically lead to separation and divorce?

No. Admittedly, if one or both partners was leaning toward divorce anyway because the marriage wasn’t working, then infidelity can easily tip the balance. However, most relationships don’t end simply because of cheating – even long-term serial cheating. Usually, when couples come to see me after the initial disclosure of sexual infidelity, I recommend that they not make any major relationship-related decisions for at least six months. This gives them a cooling off period during which they can decide what they want long-term, and in which way they can begin the process of healing and rebuilding trust if that is the direction they choose. This does not, however, mean they need to continue sleeping in the same bed or even under the same roof. Very often, a short time apart is helpful, providing both partners with some much needed space in which to sort through their feelings.

Should they tell the kids?

First of all, the kids may already know. After all, children are not great respecters of personal space, so they may have inadvertently stumbled upon evidence of the infidelity already. If so, this must be addressed in an age-appropriate manner. And when kids don’t already know, it is best for parents to disclose generalities but not specifics. Therapists can guide couples in this process, helping them tell the kids (in an age-appropriate way) that they are having some marital difficulties that they’re trying to work through, that it’s not the kids’ fault, and that they still love the kids. Therapists may also want to help parents discuss the fact that there is tension in the house and things may not seem normal for a while, but both parents will do their best to keep that to a minimum. Then, if the kids have any questions, those queries can be answered at an age-appropriate level. Kids should not hear minute details, and graphic language should not be used. Important: Couples should always be warned about the dangers of saying things to kids that cannot later be unsaid.

Is full disclosure to a betrayed spouse necessary?

If the couple wants to stay together and rebuild relationship trust, then full disclosure is nearly always a necessary part of the healing process. However, it should only occur if the betrayed spouse wants it. (Which is nearly always the case.) Full disclosure is a therapist-guided process in which the unfaithful spouse voluntarily comes clean about everything related to his/her infidelity. The level of detail involved in disclosure should be decided by the betrayed spouse. Some spouses want every gory detail; others would prefer to hear the information only in general terms. The purpose of full disclosure is threefold:

  • To eliminate secrets and unknowns, beginning the process of restoring trust
  • To alleviate the betrayed partner’s fear that he or she doesn’t know everything, and that the cheater is still keeping secrets
  • To let the betrayed partner clearly evaluate the situation, knowing the entire history and deciding if he or she wants to work on the relationship or end it

For those couples who are actively working toward healing, where both clients have fairly intact ego strength and social support, full disclosure clears the playing field and starts the game anew. In cases of multiple or serial infidelity, disclosure (after the initial revelation) should only occur with the assistance of an experienced therapist who can keep the process on track, helping both parties process their feelings in a healthy way instead of lashing out and making things worse. Full disclosure in a controlled therapeutic environment may take several sessions. Full disclosure should not take place if the couple does not want to stay together, or if one or both halves of the couple lacks the emotional stability that is necessary for this process to occur in a reasonably healthy way.

Should the couple be having sex?

A better question here might be: Why would you have sex with someone you don’t trust? Yes, in general sex is an important bonding element in romantic relationships, but not when sexual betrayal is a couple’s primary emotional focus. Nevertheless, betrayed spouses sometimes think that if they give the cheater more sex at home, he or she won’t be as tempted to stray, which is nearly always untrue. It is important to understand that the betrayed spouse did not cause the infidelity, it was the cheater’s decision. So losing ten pounds, dressing sexy, and offering to provide more or better sex at home probably won’t fix anything. As such, it is usually better to put off having sex, at least for a few months, while the couple sorts things out.

Is the cheater sexually addicted?

Maybe, but probably not. Cheating is not, per se, indicative of sexual addiction. For a diagnosis of sexual addiction the following three criteria must be met:

  • Preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasies and behaviors (for six months or more)
  • Loss of control over sexual fantasies and behaviors, generally evidenced by failed attempts to quit or cut back
  • Directly related negative life consequences – diminished relationships, trouble at work or in school, anxiety, depression, financial issues, legal trouble, loss of interest in nonsexual activities, lack of self-care, etc.

An anonymous self-test for sexual addiction can be found here. If a cheating client does indeed seem to be sexually addicted, that individual should be referred to a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) or a sexual addiction treatment program.

Can trust ever be fully restored?

Yes and no. Yes in that trust can indeed be rebuilt, and no in that the new version of trust will not look like the old version. (That’s not a bad thing.) Generally speaking, it takes 9 to 18 months of rigorous honesty before a betrayed spouse starts to really trust the cheater again. To help with the rebuilding of trust, a variety of boundaries can be set, the first of which is no more infidelity. Other boundaries to consider include the installation of parental control software on the cheater’s digital devices, full financial accountability, being home at a certain time (and calling if more than five minutes late), returning all phone calls within ten minutes no matter what, scheduled check-ins during the day, going to bed at a certain hour and not getting up to go online no matter what, etc.

In the beginning, these restrictions will likely seem onerous to the cheater, but over time, if he or she truly wants to save the relationship, the rules can become valued trust-building tools. Once again, the restoration of trust will not recreate the pre-infidelity marriage. That ship has sailed. However, many couples find that healing from infidelity creates a new level of honesty and intimacy, and that their relationship is actually stronger because of the problems it has survived. It is important that as a therapist you explain this possibility right from the start, as the process of healing from infidelity is lengthy and difficult, and most couples need a hopeful vision for the future to keep them motivated.

 

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