Is It Cheating If I...?
Once upon a time infidelity was pretty easy to identify. If a person was having sex outside of his or her primary relationship - with a neighbor, a coworker, a casual acquaintance, a prostitute, or perhaps a total stranger - then he or she was cheating. However, in today’s world of social media, chat rooms, digital pornography, interactive webcams, instant messaging, “adult friend finder” apps, sexting, and the like, the definition of cheating is somewhat murky. Is a live, in-the-flesh interaction still required, or does a webcam encounter with someone half a world away count equally? Does masturbating to Internet pornography qualify as infidelity? What about flirting with sexually available people via Facebook or smartphone apps like Blendr and Ashley Madison?
Let’s face it, for many people, especially those of us over thirty, it’s a new and confusing world. That said, I offer here a simple, straightforward definition of sexual infidelity, developed through more than two decades of work with betrayed spouses and their ultimately remorseful mates.
Sexual infidelity is the breaking of trust that occurs when sexual secrets are kept from an intimate partner.
At the end of the day, sexual infidelity is not so much about the physical sex act - either in the real world or online - it’s about the fact that you are keeping it a secret from your partner, the one person in the world with whom you supposedly share everything. If you’re looking at pornography and your spouse knows about it and is OK with it, then it’s not a problem. But if your spouse doesn’t know, you’re cheating. If you’re chatting on Facebook with an old flame from college and your partner knows and doesn’t mind, so be it. But if you’re keeping these interactions a secret from your partner, you might want to re-think what you’re doing. Basically, if you’re hiding any sexual or romantic behavior from your significant other, you’re engaging in infidelity. It’s just that simple.
Is It Really Such a Big Deal?
Sadly, many cheaters don’t realize how profoundly their secretive sexual behavior can affect the long-term emotional life of a trusting spouse or partner. Usually when the cheated-on partner finds out about the infidelity - and they almost always do - it’s not the extramarital sex that causes the most pain; instead, it’s the fact the partner’s trust and belief in the person that he or she is closest to has been shattered. It makes no difference if the cheating occurred in person or online through the use of porn, webcams, social media, or some other digital technology. In other words, a “virtual world” affair is every bit as painful to a betrayed spouse as an in-the-flesh affair. No matter where or how the infidelity took place, learning about it is incredibly traumatic for the cheated on partner. One study shows it can even result in acute stress symptoms characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder.[i] That’s pretty serious stuff.
In some ways the trauma that arises when a cheated-on partner learns about his or her significant other’s infidelity stems from the fact that while the cheater has obviously known about the extracurricular sexual activity all along and may actually be feeling some relief once caught, the betrayed spouse is usually blindsided by the information. And even when the partner was not fully deceived and had some prior knowledge of the infidelity, learning the full extent of the behavior may be incredibly painful and overwhelming. After all, cheating is usually an ongoing pattern rather than an isolated incident, and knowing about a singular affair with a coworker is scant preparation for learning about a spouse’s enduring array of porn use, webcam trysts, prostitutes, and other affairs. Plus, it’s not just anyone who’s causing this pain. The injury - the trauma - experienced by betrayed partners is amplified by the fact that they have been cheated on by the person they most counted on to have their back. “Betrayal” really is the right word for this.
It’s also not unusual for a questioning partner to have his or her suspicions and/or intuition denied, often for years, by an unfaithful spouse who repeatedly insists that he or she is not cheating, that he or she really did need to stay late at work, etc. Sometimes the cheated-on spouse is accused of being mistrustful and paranoid. In this abusive way betrayed partners are made to feel, over time, as if they are the issue, as if their emotional instability is the source of problems in the relationship. Faced with such an ongoing onslaught of lies and well-crafted excuses, many begin to doubt their own reality. And, as we have long known from work with abused children, having your accurate reality denied - being made to feel wrong when you are actually quite right - is incredibly traumatic.
Is it any wonder that when betrayed spouses finally find out they’ve been right all along they sometimes react badly? Typically they experience emotional lability, fluctuating between rage and tearfulness at the drop of a hat. Sometimes they decide to “cheat back” in retaliation (nearly always hating themselves for doing it). Many become compulsive with substances or behaviors - alcohol, drugs, eating, exercise, spending, etc. In fact, it is not unusual for such dependencies to develop even before the infidelity is uncovered, as some people may turn to these potentially addictive behaviors as a way to self-medicate their depression, anxiety, and frustration with the relationship.
Healing From Infidelity
Sadly, it is only in the past few years that the trauma of sexual infidelity has become an area of legitimate study. Nevertheless, family counselors and psychotherapists are quickly gaining insight into the long-term emotional effects of betrayal on a closely bonded partner. Without doubt these individuals have every right to feel angry, mistrustful, hurt, and confused. At the very least they need validation for their feelings and help processing the shame of being cheated on, along with education and support to move forward. Many also need guidance with day-to-day issues like managing their emotional lability, approaching potential healthcare issues (including the possibility of STDs), setting appropriate boundaries, and curbing their (sometimes constant) desire to question the cheater in detail about his or her past and current behaviors.
Most betrayed partners decide to remain in the relationship. In these instances it may take them a year or more to reestablish trust in their spouse - even when the spouse is clearly committed to behavioral change, open communication, honesty, and living a life of integrity on all fronts. When the betrayed spouse is willing to join the cheater in his or her efforts by also engaging in a process of self-examination, education, support, and emotional growth, it greatly increases the odds of healing and remaining together long-term.
That said, many cheated on spouses decide the pain they have experienced (and may still be feeling) is greater than their desire to remain in and rebuild the relationship. They may feel as if the relationship was never that great to begin with, or that trust simply cannot be restored. Just as a betrayed spouse is not wrong to stay in a relationship and attempt to fix it, he or she is also not wrong to walk away.
Ultimately, what is most important for betrayed partners, regardless of whether they stay in the relationship, is how they learn from and grow from the experience. Typically this involves placing a strong emphasis on re-developing and trusting their instincts and sense of reality, learning to openly and appropriately express emotions, developing and solidifying a peer support network, and making sure that self-care, self-nurture, and healthy activities are given a more prominent life focus.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality,