Is it Infidelity?

December 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

As a personal growth coach who works in the area of sexuality among other domains, I often hear the question is such and such behavior infidelity.  I have a done a lot of research in this area and I have an e-book on Amazon on this topic.  It is an intriguing one and although seemingly difficult to answer, it is actually more straightforward than one would imagine.

One leading expert in this field who I admire very much is Frank Pittman, a psychiatrist who has been specializing in this area for over 30 years.  If you have read the literature or books about infidelity, he will almost inevitably be listed as a reference.  When he is asked this question, he says something along the lines of, you must suspect it is or you wouldn’t be asking the question.

When it comes to matters of infidelity, intimate relationships are as unique as the people who make them up.  What they all have in common, however, is some sort of agreement.  On a very fundamental level, if someones behavior is in contradiction to the agreement, then a behavior is clearly infidelity.  However, what about circumstances where a particular behavior is not explicitly mentioned or part of the agreement?

In cases of the above, the person you need to be asking is your partner.  If you are asking a third-party, it implies on some level that you are feeling some sort guilt or sense a lack of alignment.  The authority on whether or not your partner thinks something is cheating is your significant other – why not ask them?

I think these borderline situations can and do cause a lot of problems.  That is why, I recommend that when you are in doubt, do your best to follow the morally safer course.  After all, you have a lot to lose if you guess wrong!

We can get clearer on defining appropriate behavior by going back to some sort of definition of infidelity and considering what exactly the nature of betrayal is.  Literally, the word means a breach of faith and implies someone was deprived of information they had a right to know.  It is the deception and the disorientation that follows it that actually does the harm.  Therefore, when in doubt it is almost always better to err on the side of caution and over communicate.

Here is a concrete example, a woman does not sleep with a colleague, but she flirts with him and occasionally goes to lunch alone with this person.  While there isn’t overt sexual activity, there is certainly some sort of erotic charge and if this is accompanied by guilt or a desire to hide the behavior from her partner, then there is an intent to deceive and it is reasonable to consider this as at least a type of emotional infidelity.  If you ask a lot of women which is worse sexual or emotional infidelity, you might be surprised by the spectrum of answers.  Usually, women are more hurt by their partner falling in love with another woman rather than say a one night stand with a virtual stranger.

These situations often get confusing, but it is helpful to ask yourself, if I were on the receiving side of it, would I want to know, how much would I want to know and would I want my partner to err on the side of over or under communicating.  This is a good starting point for an inquiry into these tricky waters.  Even better is to have a frank discussion with your partner so there are no misunderstandings in this sensitive area.  It’s one of those key things that once your relationship takes a hit because of a misunderstanding or false assumption, it can be hard to get the trust back.

Love only grows in the fertile soil of mutual trust.  Therefore, even little white lies can undermine the foundation of your relationship.  That is to say that a little bit of deception can go a long way and even withholding information is deceptive and disorienting.  If your relationship is about love and intimacy, then deception is clearly not in the best interests of a solid and secure space to be intimate and emotionally vulnerable.

You may be asking, what if I was unfaithful and I have a lot to loss by confessing it.  If so, you are not alone and the experts seem to be divided on what is best.  My own opinion is that if you withhold something, you will be living a charade and on some level you will know that.  You may or may not be caught, but you will have some level of shame and guilt and it will be more difficult to connect with your partner.  I believe in most cases, it’s better to come clean, deal with the fallout and move on.  For some couples this is impossible, but for others it often leads to a transformation from good to better.  Granted, this shift can take a lot of time and my involve a considerable level of discomfort and tears.

When people cheat, often they are unconsciously trying to bring attention to an area of the relationship that needs attention.  In fact, some theories say that the person wants to get caught and perhaps acted out with the hope some unmet need would be forced to the surface.  Certainly, this is not true in all instances, but it often is.  Chances are if the behavior is repeated it’s a sign of some unmet need or unresolved issue in the relationship.

Infidelity is a very common phenomenon.  We are all human and while we may aspire to perfect faithfulness, the statistics suggest that it is quite likely that in a long-term marriage or partnership one or the other partner will cheat.  One study, puts the actual number for one-time infidelity by either one of the two partners in a marriage as high as 80%.  When you consider the divorce rate, the infidelity rate among men (50-60%) and the doubling of the infidelity rate among women over the last five decades, these kinds of numbers are seem more reasonable.

With the use of contraceptives, people spending more time at work, women working outside the home, an increased level of business travelling and more stress in general, these trends make even more sense.  Also, the institution of marriage, which is largely social in nature vs.the more private nature of a love affair sheds even more light on the temptation.  People also live longer and undergo more change, 100 years ago until death do us part may have meant living until 60 rather than 90.  At the same time, people years ago weren’t bombarded with media and advertising riddled with perfect bodies, perfect lives and the type of anonymity and isolation we often see in cities and even suburbs.

All of these factors make infidelity a phenomenon that we will likely have to deal with at some point in one of our key relationships.  Interestingly, it doesn’t necessarily mean your partner doesn’t love you if they stray, especially when it’s the man doing the cheating.  It could mean many things and it’s probably in the couple’s best interest to get to the bottom of what really went wrong or caused someone to act out.  Don’t try to read the other person’s mind, you will almost certainly not get the whole picture.

I think a good way to avoid infidelity is to make your expectations known and communicate about what kind of container you are trying to create for your intimate life.  Assuming your partner knows what you expect isn’t good enough for such an important area.  Intimacy sort of defines itself — “in-to-me-you-see.”  If communication is motivated by this orientation to go deeper, you can handle problems before they occur.

What is inevitable is that in any long-term relationship there will be moments of weakness and temptation.  Deal with them proactively and you won’t be in the very uncomfortable situation of trying to piece your shared life back together again.  If you or your partner does stray, seek out professional help in a coach or therapist.  This will save both of you a lot of grief and possibly prevent your from burning bridges and hurting other innocent people on the road to recovery.

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