Infidelity: Why it Happens and How to Heal From it
Infidelity can shake the foundation of any relationship. Here's why affairs happen and how to heal from them.
Nothing rocks a relationship quite like infidelity. Relationships are built on trust and security, and infidelity cracks this foundation. Cheating is the most commonly cited thing that people say they just couldn't forgive or work through. However, cheating is also common, and most people have been effected by infidelity in one way or another.
Although undeniably damaging and hurtful, infidelity is more complicated than many of us like to think. It's not as simple as "bad people cheat." The truth is, many good people cheat, too, and for reasons that make sense.
In an ideal world people would be faithful and work through any relational issues through open communication, but in lieu of living in this utopian version of the world, let's gain a better understanding of infidelity: what it is, why it happens, and how to heal from it.
Infidelity has Many Definitions
Infidelity can mean different things to different people. More traditional monogamists will say that any sexual activity constitutes an affair. Some will say that emotional cheating counts as being unfaithful, and others will say that watching porn counts as well. Non-monogamous relationships have very different boundaries about what constitutes cheating (and these couples are typically much better at clearly defining these boundaries and communicating about their relationships).
It's best to have open conversations with your partner(s) about what infidelity means. This will leave less room for ambiguous situations and potential conflicts.
But perhaps one definition of infidelity is: any behavior with a person other than your partner that crosses an emotional or sexual boundary.
Why Affairs Happen
While we may like to think our relationships are affair-proof, the truth is that all relationships can be vulnerable to infidelity. Affairs can happen even despite our intent to maintain loyalty to our partner.
This is for a few reasons.
First, even in the best of relationships there are significant ruptures that can lead us to seek comfort from someone else. A big or extended fight could make us feel disconnected, rejected, and lonely. If there isn't a repair after the rupture, we might seek affection or attention from another person.
Second, monogamy or marriage do not mean that we stop feeling sexually attracted or emotionally drawn to other people. Humans continue to feel sexual desire for people besides their spouses. We still find other people attractive and funny, and there's nothing wrong with this. However, acting on these feelings without this being acceptable in the relationship is a problem.
And finally, some of us just don't feel compelled to be monogamous and don't feel especially bad about crossing this boundary. We might voice commitment to one person and vow to swear off all others, but we may not mean it. Perhaps we hope the affair will be discovered so we can get out of the current relationship (if we don't know another, healthier way of doing so). Or perhaps we feel entitled to be with anyone we want, and hope to hide our transgressions so that we can continue the behavior.
Affairs Aren't a Rare Occurrence
Infidelity, though destructive and painful, is pretty common in relationships. One survey found that 20% of men and 13% of women reported be unfaithful while married. But most people can talk about an experience of infidelity, either because they cheated, were cheated on, or were the affair partner.
I'd guess that infidelity by the privileged and wealthy is an even higher percentage and that's because people with power feel entitled to act on their desires and immune to consequences. (Stay tuned for my upcoming post on Anatomy of a Scandal for more on this.)
However, as I always say, when it comes to affairs, people always find out. If the affair is anything more serious or prolonged than a one-night stand, it won't stay a secret. It's just a matter of time before the spouse gets suspicious, or the partner having the affair either makes a mistake or fesses up (and it's usually the former).
It Doesn't Usually Happen out of Nowhere
Although the person who discovers an affair might feel it's a total shock, chances are there were problems preceding the infidelity. Research by the Gottman Institute has shown that infidelity is a consequence of relational unhappiness, usually occurring when a partner feels they are continuously ignored by their partner.
This doesn't mean it's okay to cheat, and it doesn't mean the other partner (the one who has been less attentive than they should be) is to blame. But an important part of the healing process is acknowledging the conditions that led to the affair, and accepting that there was big issues that led the person to get important needs met elsewhere.
Healing from an Affair
The First Step:
The person who was unfaithful needs to decides what (or rather, who) they want. Do they want to stay in their current relationship, or do they want to leave their current partner for the person they've been having an affair with? This question needs to be answered, with certainty, before any healing can occur.
In fact, therapists won't work with a couple if there is ongoing infidelity. It just isn't productive.
If the decision is to heal from the infidelity and work on the relationship, here's what each partner needs to do.
What the Partner Who was Cheated on Needs to Do:
The person who discovers the affair needs space to ask investigative questions (as coined by Perel) to find out why their partner cheated. Investigative questions try to unearth the partner's motives for cheating and understand their thoughts/feelings during the affair. These are very unlike what Perel calls detective questions, which are very specific questions aimed at uncovering exactly what was done, by whom, when, and where. These detective questions paint a painful picture of the affair that don't actually help the person understand their partner's motives, needs, or feelings throughout the infidelity. The answers to detective questions are not necessary for healing and may, in fact, hamper it.
The person who discovers the affair also has to tolerate the fact that their partner usually feels many different emotions about the affair, guilt/shame and anxiety to joy and "being alive." While the cheating partner probably feels remorse, they might also be sad to lose the other person they were seeing and have positive feelings about the extramarital relationship with that person. The partner who was cheated on shouldn't expect the other to only feel regret and guilt. Being curious about their feelings post-affair will help both people understand why the infidelity occurred and what their relationship needs moving forward.
Finally, there is also the steep climb of rebuilding trust and security in the relationship. When ready, the person who was cheated on will need to take the risk of trusting their partner again. It may be some time before this is possible, but they will need to slowly lower their vigilance about their partner's whereabouts or communications. And if a genuine repair process has occurred post-infidelity, it will be possible to take these steps. However, if the person who had an affair is dismissive, avoidant, continues being unfaithful, or does not offer comfort and connection, it will be impossible for their partner to trust them again.
What the Partner Who Cheats Needs to Do:
The person who was unfaithful will need to prepare for a long healing process. They have betrayed their partner's trust and it will take time, and emotional work, to regain this trust. First, they will need to answer their partner's questions (ideally investigative questions, not detective ones) so that their partner can understand why this happened. Next, they should expect their partner to be vigilant and suspicious about their behaviors, such as doubting if they are really at work late or wondering who they're texting. Last, they need to offer reassurance about their investment in the relationship. If they're dedicated to staying in the relationship, they need to be crystal clear about it, and end all contact with the affair partner. (This last point is non-negotiable; there can be no further relationship with the affair partner if the current relationship is to have a chance.)
Healing from infidelity also requires an incredible amount of non-defensiveness and patience from the person who cheated. There is an instinct to defend the affair, blame the other for making them do it ("You wouldn't have sex with me, I had no choice!"), or want the person to "just get over it." Instead of justifying the infidelity, they need to first focus on their partner's feelings, questions, and needs. Later there will be time for the person who cheated to explain why and make requests from their current partner for improving their relationship, but at first it needs to focus on the other person.
This surprises many people, but I often say that the person who was unfaithful is the higher flight risk during this healing process. You may think that the partner who was cheated on would be the most likely one to leave, but despite the pain they feel they are often incredibly invested in understanding why the affair happened and working towards healing the relationship. The person who cheated, on the other hand, has already found someone outside of the relationship to meet important needs, and now needs to give up that exciting and fulfilling relationship with the affair partner while being the "bad guy" in their current relationship. They need to tolerate the guilt (or even shame) they feel, make space for their partner's painful emotions, answer incredibly difficult questions (often more than once), and all while processing their own complicated feelings about the affair.
Once an infidelity has been discovered, a couple can no longer continue on in the status quo.
Infidelity Leads to Change
As an expert in relationships and infidelity, Esther Perel has outlined the recovery required to heal from an affair. While undeniably hurtful, affairs can also be a catalyst for incredibly positive change in a relationship. Once an infidelity has been discovered, a couple can no longer continue on in the status quo.
As we know from the research, infidelity is the result of a relationship that isn't working, not the cause of a relationship not working. This means that an important need wasn't being met in the partnership and one person looked elsewhere to get that need met.
Most often it's when one partner feels ignored, neglected, devalued, or lonely. They may have tried to connect to their partner without success. They may feel hopeless about fixing the problem and unable to find a way to communicate this. All humans need love and connection, so if a person isn't getting this from their partner, they may find someone else to meet that important need.
Once a partner is unfaithful and the other finds out, change is inevitable. Either the change is an ending to the relationship, or the change is an investment in healing, reestablishing trust and security, and improving the relationship so that it is stronger and healthier.
What About the Serial Cheater?
Some people are repeat offenders, cheating on one partner after another. This can be for a few reasons. First, it can be because they struggle to maintain close, monogamous intimacy with one partner. The cheating is a way to reduce their connection with their partner and give them an out from the current relationship if they want one. With some therapeutic help, they can develop a more secure attachment style and be a wonderful partner.
Second, people who repeatedly cheat may be looking for validation that they can only seem to get through sex with new partners. Some people with low self-esteem will search for a boost through intimacy with others, which is problematic for two reasons. One, this type of validation never lasts long and the person will need a new infusion of self-esteem through another affair. And two, this type of self-esteem boost only comes from engaging sexually with new people. Long-term partners don't provide the same high. This type of serial cheater needs to do some individual therapy to figure out why their self-esteem is dependent on attraction from others and learn how to be happy with themselves on their own before they can be in a stable relationship.
Third, some serial cheaters feel entitled to indulge their desires and lack remorse for their actions. These types of people may fit into the Antisocial Personality or Narcissistic Personality category. They don't see a reason not to be unfaithful. The fact that they could hurt their partner or damage their relationship are not compelling reasons to them. These types, the ones who don't feel badly about cheating, probably aren't going to change or engage in a genuine healing process with their current partner. They aren't great candidates for therapy since they have little motivation to change their ways.
What To Do After Discovering Infidelity
My next post will talk about what to do once you've found out your partner has been unfaithful. The most important things are to take care of yourself, decide what you want to do, and get support for the healing process (if that's what you want to do). Getting past infidelity isn't easy but it is possible, and it can lead to a stronger, more honest, and more connected relationship if done right.