Infidelity is physical or emotional unfaithfulness in a partnership, and it often results in profound emotional damage. Healing requires both partners to take an honest look into what led to the infidelity, and deal with the parts of the relationship that were unsatisfying. When both partners are committed to repairing the relationship, trust and intimacy can be rebuilt.
While infidelity ends some relationships, others move forward and thrive.
Definition of Infidelity
Infidelity is a violation of a prior agreement made between partners regarding their sexual and/or emotional exclusivity. What each person considers infidelity may differ (e.g., one partner may consider watching pornography or viewing other erotic stimuli as cheating while the other doesn’t, or one partner may perceive infidelity to be only sexual while another believes an emotional affair is as much of a violation).
Infidelity: Monogamy vs. Polyamory
Monogamy, or the practice of having one partner at a time, is the central relationship arrangement in Western culture. All infidelities defy the assumed or stated agreement for monogamy, whether that is through an emotional attachment or physical interaction.1
When more than two people are involved, this is known as a non-monogamous or poly relationship. In an ethically non-monogamous relationship, the partners may practice swinging or polyamory. These arrangements encourage honest communication and consent amongst all involved partners and are not examples of infidelity.2
Infidelity falls under unethical non-monogamy, because one partner is neither informed about nor consents to the extra-marital relationship. What determines whether or not one has been unfaithful depends on whether the predetermined agreements of exclusivity have been respected, and not on whether the relationship is monogamous or non-monogamous.
7 Types of Infidelity
When a violation or breach of fidelity occurs in a relationship, it usually falls under a specific category. Categories or types of infidelity include physical infidelity, emotional cheating, cyber infidelity, object infidelity, and financial infidelity.
Here are seven types of infidelity:
- Physical infidelity: Physical or sexual connection outside of the relationship. There may or may not be an emotional component between partners.
- Emotional infidelity: Emotional attachment or intimacy with another person. Emotional affairs can do as much damage, if not more, to a relationship as a physical affair.
- Cyber infidelity: Social media has made it easier for people to engage in online messages, chats, forums, or groups with sexual content. Cyber infidelity also includes viewing erotic stimuli, such as cheating via pornography.
- Object infidelity: An obsession or interest outside of the relationship can result in what is known as an object affair. This is a situation where one partner is more focused on something such as work or their phone, which causes a distraction from the relationship.
- Financial infidelity: Money can become a point of contention for many relationships. If it progresses to the point of financial infidelity, one partner may be deceitful about how much money they earn, how they earn money, how much debt they owe, and how they spend or loan out money. They may even have money hidden away in cash or other bank accounts that their partner doesn’t know about.
- Micro cheating: A term for actions that bother a partner, such as flirting that crosses a line, but there is no intention of straying outside of the relationship.
- Combined infidelity: When the infidelity includes more than one type. Many infidelities include elements of both sexual and emotional intimacies. A cyber affair may also be considered a form of emotional infidelity.
Causes of Infidelity
The causes of infidelity are varied and complex, with interplaying relational and personal factors contributing to the unique situation. A lack of relational or sexual satisfaction is one prominent contributor. Fulfilling relationships include reciprocity of affection and validation, as well as honest communication. If these attributes and others such as safety, relationship stability, and emotional/physical intimacy decline, the relationship may become susceptible to infidelity.
Relationships may also be vulnerable during times of transition, such as when young children begin attending school or after adult children leave the home. Personal factors that contribute to infidelity include unhappiness or low self-confidence. The thrill or pursuit of an affair can be invigorating and ego-boosting, too.
Reasons why people cheat can include:
- Lack of affection
- Being emotionally unavailable
- Feeling lonely or neglected by partner
- Fear of intimacy
- Avoidance of conflict
- Seeking change or variety
- Falling out of love
- Commitment issues
- Self-esteem/body issues
Risk Factors: Are Some People More Likely to Cheat?
Certain factors have been found to increase the risk for infidelity, including demographics such as higher levels of education and being male.3,4,5 Neuroticism and low conscientiousness have also been found to predict infidelity among couples who are dating.6
Having a more permissive attitude toward infidelity or being raised in an environment that normalizes infidelity may also make a relationship more at risk. Ultimately, the quality and level of satisfaction of your relationship with your partner will likely play an enormous role in how much your relationship is at risk.
Infidelity’s Effect On a Relationship
Regardless of the details of an affair, both partners are bound to be greatly impacted after disclosure. There may even be a ripple effect to other people living in the home, such as children.
Common effects of infidelity are:
- Anger issues
- Low self-esteem
- Hysterical bonding
How Infidelity Affects the Person Who Was Cheated On
The injured partner may face intense emotional reactions. Some feel a sense of loss or betrayal trauma. Others may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression, including suicidal thoughts. For some, the stress is so severe it resembles post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (sometimes referred to as infidelity post-traumatic stress disorder).7 Those with acute stress reactions may have obsessive thinking, intrusive thoughts, or physiological hyper-arousal.
Following the disclosure of the infidelity, the partner who was cheated on may engage in risky behaviors, such as having unprotected sex or over- or under- eating or exercising. If you are struggling after your partner’s affair, and especially if you have thoughts or urges of suicide or self-harm, reach out for help so you can begin the process of healing, get over being cheated on, and move forward.
How Infidelity Affects the Person Who Cheated
The person who engaged in the betrayal may also be significantly affected by extreme emotional reactions, including a strong sense of guilt or shame. Some people may feel stuck or helpless in the relationship, while others feel hopeless that they can change. Some people struggle with giving up the extra-marital relationship, even if they know it needs to end. They may even feel a sense of grief.
The offending partner may also harbor intense fear that they will never be forgiven by the partner they hurt and worry they must constantly prove themselves beyond reasonable expectation. Other partners may actually blame the infidelity on their partner or express irritability or coldness.
When it comes to preventing infidelity, it’s important to have open conversations with your partner about your boundaries for fidelity and what you perceive as infidelity. Communicating early on about your relationship desires and expectations can help prevent bigger problems down the road. These kinds of topics are discussed in premarital counseling.
Recovering From Infidelity
If your relationship has been affected by infidelity, consider seeking the help of a marriage and family therapist who is experienced in working with couples and infidelity. Professional counseling can provide a space for you and your partner to rebuild trust, strengthen intimacy, sincerely apologize for past actions, and deal with the problems in the relationships that made it susceptible to an affair in the first place.
The early conversations about infidelity may be filled with accusations or defensiveness. Part of the therapist’s role is to help you and your partner recognize these interactions, learn fair fighting rules, and stabilize the situation.
A crucial piece to recovering from infidelity is forgiveness. Through remorse and apologies by the offending partner, the partner who was hurt can let go of their anger and resentment. The offending partner often seeks forgiveness quickly, but this is a process that should not be rushed. Forgiveness takes time, and pushing the hurt partner to forgive prematurely can further damage the relationship.
Recovering From Repeated Affairs
Repeated affairs can be a sign of much bigger underlying problems in the relationship. If there’s a history of infidelity in your relationship, be honest with your partner about any lingering feelings of hurt or insecurity.
It’s possible to save a marriage after an affair and rebuild a stronger foundation in your relationship. However, the repair can only happen if both partners work equally towards healing. If problems related to the infidelity go unresolved, the relationship may continue to deteriorate.
In some situations, a sexual addiction or compulsion for love and romance may help to explain recurring motivations for infidelity. An individual who feels helpless against their urges may feel shame or worthlessness. Other repeat offenders may not be remorseful and take advantage of opportunities without apology.
In order for repeated affairs to be successfully addressed, the offending partner must be open to exploring and moving on from the source of the urges or motivation for the infidelity.
3 Types of Therapy Used to Treat Infidelity
Most forms of therapeutic treatment for infidelity include sessions with both partners as, but there may be times throughout treatment when individual sessions are utilized.
Three modalities a therapist may use to treat infidelity include:
1. Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT)
EFT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on building attachment in relationships. In other words, EFT is used to improve the bond between partners. From an EFT perspective, infidelity can devastate the attachment bond causing the relationship to become unsafe.8
EFT addresses the attachment injury that resulted from the infidelity and works toward repairing the bond between partners. An EFT therapist will help you understand your emotions and adopt healthier patterns.
2. The Gottman Method
The Gottman Method is an evidence-based model that assists couples to build friendship, resolve conflict, and make meaning.9,10 The Gottman’s developed the “Atone, Attune, and Attach” model for dealing with infidelity.
In the “Atone” phase, the offending partner must be remorseful and accept responsibility without being defensive. In the “Attune” phase, the couple learns to manage conflict and recommits to each other. In the “Attach” phase, the couple rebuilds connection and physical intimacy.
3. Integrative Approach
Using integrative therapy and the integrated approach (usually a combination of psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, and humanistic therapies), couples can move through three phases of recovery after infidelity:11
Here are the three phases of the integrative approach:
- Manage the impact of the initial crisis
- Gain a shared understanding of the factors that led to the infidelity
- Make the decision to move forward together or separately
Does Marriage Counseling Help After Infidelity?
It can be hard to rebuild trust after infidelity, but it is possible. Rebuilding trust takes intention and understanding of what the infidelity meant for the relationship. It involves taking ownership and accountability and finding ways to reconnect and reform the foundational pieces of the relationship. Infidelity can turn the relationship upside down and it can be challenging to know how to start.
Processing your feelings and creating space for these feelings in the relationship is a good way to begin. Working with a therapist is a great way to find a framework for this as well. Marriage counseling helps after infidelity tremendously as it helps to give structure on how to rebuild the relationship.
How to Find a Couples Therapist
If you’re ready to work on your relationship to make it healthier, working with a couples therapist is a great way to begin. Consider starting your search through an online therapist directory. You can search through bios and read up on clinicians to learn more about them and make calls as a couple to see if they are a good fit.
Final Thoughts on Infidelity In a Relationship
Infidelity is very hard to handle in a relationship as there are many reasons why someone might cheat. It can trigger past traumas or be the creation of a new trauma. It’s important to take care of yourself during this time and consider what your goals and values are, and think about couples therapy to help you and your partner move forward. If your goal is to rebuild your relationship, therapy can make a big difference in how you feel and know that it may be challenging, but it is not impossible to come out stronger on the other side.