A few weeks ago, Blisstree contributor Rebecca Dawson wrote a brave and honest post for us called My Marriage Survived a Cheating Affair and So Can Yours. Sure, that was just one person’s personal experience, but I’ve always wondered if there were any hard and fast rules about infidelity in serious, committed relationships. Is screwing around always a dealbreaker? Or can couples use unfortunate sexual indiscretions to actually strengthen their bonds of matrimony? I’ve seen both examples in real life (as I’m sure you have), so I asked psychotherapist, sexpert, and Blisstree contributor Dr. Julie Elledge six questions about the cheating heart, and how an affair may be the best thing that ever happens to your marriage.
Why do married people cheat?
From an anthropological standpoint, we’re constructed to invest in one person emotionally (love/attraction) and build a family structure (commitment/pair-bonding), but we’re also driven by our sex drive to desire variety in our sex life (to ensure the survival of the species, more partners were better). While we’re born with all three of these desires, we grow up with other influences that help to integrate our desires for love, lust, and commitment. For example, our sex drive that drives our need for variety can be integrated with one partner if novelty is introduced into sex play. When novelty is frustrated by a brittle bond between the couple or cultural messages that don’t allow for sexual versatility, then solutions outside the relationship may be considered and exercised.
As Rebecca Dawson wrote in her post My Marriage Survived a Cheating Affair and So Can Yours, affairs can be a symptom of a larger functional issue in the relationship. When one or both partners feel that they can’t get their individual needs met within the couple system, they’ll often look outside of it to get their needs satisfied. For example, a partner may not feel intimate with his/her own partner; eroticism may be missing; sexual freedom and novelty may be quelled by a kind of closeness that de-eroticizes the partner; one partner may have fantasies that he/she wants to act out, but doesn’t feel the emotional safety to expose them; or there’s the fear of expressing erotic needs that will damage the current level of intimacy or impulse control.
It’s a hard reality to accept, but an affair can often functionally take pressure off the couple and stabilize the relationship in the short-term. Think of an affair as a three-legged stool that’s more stable than a two-legged stool. The needs of the couple are spread out among three pressure points instead of two. But the problem with cheating as a solution to getting individual needs met is that it causes profound injury to the trust that forms the bond between the couple.
An affair should never be used as a justification for coping with faults within the couple’s system. Poor communication, money issues, sexual frustration, and a lack of intimacy aren’t reasonable excuses for an affair. With infidelity being cited as the primary cause of divorce in 25%-50% of cases (according to the Journal of Marriage & the Family and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), most couples have a hard time recovering from such a serious breach of trust. Cheating leaves a path of destruction that devastates everyone involved. The cheater carries shame and guilt as well as a fear of not being forgiven, while the victim bears the feelings of rejection, failure, and anger.
What do you consider emotional cheating?
Emotional cheating is when one member of the couple turns to a third party to get emotional needs met which supplant his/her partner. The emotional affair is an outside, emotionally-intimate relationship that replaces the marital intimacy and removes the motivation to restore the marital intimacy. Some intimate relationships outside of marriage actually motivate the person to restore their marital intimacy, while other times – especially for women — emotional cheating is the beginning of a sexual affair.
Which is worse: Emotional cheating or physical cheating?
Any affair, emotional or physical, is a specific kind of betrayal of trust. It causes profound injury to the intimate-erotic connection that bonds a couple together. Woman often cheat emotionally because they’re first attracted to a man who provides the emotional intimacy missing in their marriage – and sex often follows. Men often cheat because they miss the erotic side of sex and can’t integrate their eroticism into the intimate relationship with their partner. Take a look at ashleymadison.com. Redbook reports in its April 2011 investigation of the website that eight million men and women have signed up for the cheater’s website. Only one-third are women, while two-thirds are men. The bulk of the women are looking only for cybersex to fill an emotional void. Redbook’s reporter found that the men who contacted her were looking for emotional intimacy as much as sex, but they didn’t want to upset their marriage.
Cheating is used to cope with a marital difficulty rather than addressing and healing whatever problems are leading to the affairs. Which is worse, an emotional or a physical affair? The one that happens to you is worst.
Is there a type of marriage that can overcome infidelity? What does it take?
Affairs can be highly “addictive” and very difficult to stop even after the cheater is discovered. It’s not uncommon for the unfaithful spouse to continue the affair after it’s discovered — either openly or in secret. Some people find it necessary to move to another city to stop the affair.
Healing trust that’s been injured by the affair starts with finding out what led to the infidelity and addressing those issues. Restoring trust requires the unfaithful person to be willing to be an open book for a period of time until trust has been restored. The cheater now has lost the privilege of privacy that was granted before the affair. This means email passwords, phone records, activity schedules, and any other info should be open and available to the injured spouse. This info must be offered up willingly and freely by the the unfaithful spouse as an understandable condition of healing the trust. The couple must also agree to process the injured spouse’s experience. With a therapist, the injured spouse can express his/her experience of the betrayal with the unfaithful spouse validating and taking responsibility for the pain that was created. Because the unfaithful spouse is full of shame, guilt, and remorse, it can be difficult to tolerate the anger, hurt, and alienation that the injured spouse experienced. Having a psychotherapist available to support both individuals through this difficult step can make the difference between restoring the long-term intimate-erotic connection and divorce.
When can a marriage simply NOT survive a cheating affair?
There isn’t a simple answer to this question. The answer lies in the nature of the relationship prior to the affair, the make-up of the individuals, and their personal histories. Obviously, the best option is to avoid having an affair in an attempt to cope with difficult issues in the marriage. It’s always better to seek couples counseling or intimacy coaching to address marital problems and issues that are making you vulnerable to engaging in this destructive and misguided attempt to cope with the underlying problems.
Is a one-night-stand better or less devastating to a couple than an extended affair, in terms of getting past it?
Any breach of trust, whether an extended affair or a one-night stand, is a betrayal. I don’t want to minimize the impact of any affair on a couple by saying that one is better than the other in terms of getting past it. Whichever happens to you is going to be the hardest to move beyond, because you’ll feel betrayed, angry, and alienated.
Extended affairs are usually both emotional and sexual. In addition to surviving the damaged trust, the offended spouse must cope with feelings of being duped for an extended period of time. The trust is so battered that healing the breach frequently requires therapeutic intervention.
A one-night-stand is often an opportunistic situation that’s compounded by poor impulse control. Sometimes, one-night-stands stem from a need for emotional distance to satisfy erotic needs. In other circumstances, emotional intimacy has de-eroticized the partner. The lack of emotional engagement is what attracts the cheater. Unfaithful spouses in these situations fear the loss of emotional intimacy with their partner, and go outside the relationship to satisfy their erotic urges instead of working within the commitment to increase the emotional safety needed to express their sexual needs.
There are ways to temporarily create emotional distance within the committed relationship for sexual play without sacrificing the trust in the relationship. My book, Lovers Exploration Guide, Developing an Intimate-Erotic Connection is a self-help tool that helps couples balance their intimate needs and erotic urges; it’s interactive with Videos for Lovers. This educational series shows a variety of normal, healthy couples with different sexual desires like Matt and Tina and Felicia and James, who prefer emotional intimacy that gives rise to their sexual desire, versus Karen and Michael and Annie and Eric, who prefer more eroticism that arouses their sexual desire. Other couples in the series reveal more sexual variety oscillating between intimacy and eroticism. Increasing sexual versatility between the couple deepens their emotional commitment and satisfaction with the relationship. Through sexual contact, couples feel accepted, validated, and loved.
Relationship therapists who work with sexual issues or intimacy coaching can help couples understand how to create the erotic space in their relationship to restore sexual desire for each other. This sexual connection isn’t just a nice added bonus in a relationship; it’s part of the foundation of commitment. It’s where couples turn to find comfort, heal, and renew.
Dr. Julie Elledge has a Ph.D. in education, masters in clinical psychology and a bachelor of arts in psychology with a minor in communication arts. She is a psychotherapist and coaches couples and individuals to optimize their performance at work and in their personal lives. Using a variety of storytelling methods Julie helps clients to develop powerful self-stories that overcome past traumas and crisis to lead a happy fulfilling life.
Julie and her colleague Tom Hicks have penned the book Lovers Exploration Guide, Developing Your Intimate-Erotic Connection that works in combination with Videos for Lovers to lead the reader through a journey of self-discovery and an exploration of what their relationship is and could be emotionally and sexually.
Founded in the latest research and theory, Julie and Tom have also developed a theory, How Couples Develop an Intimate-Erotic Connection and a treatment model, Restoring Intimacy and Eroticism for mental health professionals. Professional training for mental health professionals is available through Academic Alley.