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.
A Definition of Infidelity
Infidelity is a violation of the prior agreement between partners regarding their sexual and/or emotional exclusivity. 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,1 whether that is through an emotional attachment or physical interaction.
Relationships in which more than two people are involved are known as non-monogamous relationships. In an ethically non-monogamous relationship, the partners may practice swinging or polyamory. These arrangements encourage honest communication and consent amongst all of the involved partners and are not examples of infidelity.2
Infidelity falls under unethical non-monogamy, because in these situations 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.
In other words, what one person considers to be infidelity may be different to someone else. One partner may consider watching pornography or viewing other erotic stimuli as cheating while another does not. One partner may perceive infidelity to be only sexual while another believes an emotional affair is as much of a violation as a physical affair.
Have open conversations with your partner about your boundaries for fidelity and what you perceive as infidelity. Communicating now about your relationship desires and expectations can help prevent bigger problems down the road.
Types of Infidelity
When a violation or breach of fidelity occurs in relationship, it usually falls under the following categories:
- 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 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 is a topic that becomes 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 does not know about.
- Micro-cheating: A term for actions that bother a partner, such as flirting, 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. Or, a cyber affair may also be considered a form of emotional infidelity.
Causes of Infidelity
A lack of relational or sexual satisfaction is one of the most prominent contributors to infidelity.3 Fulfilling relationships include reciprocity of affection and validation, and honest communication. If these attributes and others such as safety, relationship stability, and emotional or physical intimacy decline, the relationship may become more susceptible to infidelity.
Other relational variables that may contribute to infidelity are:
- Lack of affection
- Feeling deprived or neglected by partner
- Fear of intimacy
- Avoidance of conflict
- Seeking change or variety
- Falling out of love
- Low commitment to the relationship
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. Ultimately, the causes of infidelity are varied and complex, with interplaying relational and personal factors contributing to the unique situation leading up to the infidelity.
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 which normalized 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
Some people have affairs to begin the end of the relationship. Others underestimate the emotional closeness they feel with another person and the affair starts more subtly. Some infidelities occur once, and others go on for years. Regardless of the details, both partners are bound to be greatly impacted after the disclosure of the infidelity. There may even be a ripple effect to other people living in the home, such as children. It is not uncommon to experience feelings of sadness, anxiety, and deep loss.
How Infidelity Affects the Person Who Was Cheated On
After learning about a partner’s infidelity, the injured partner may face intense emotional reactions. Some feel a sense of loss or deep betrayal. Some may experience signs or symptoms of anxiety or depression, including suicidal thoughts. For some individuals, the stress reaction is so severe it resembles post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).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 that you can begin the process of healing and moving 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, and 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.
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, and deal with the problems in the relationships that made it susceptible to an affair in the first place.
Most therapeutic treatment for infidelity includes sessions with both partners as the primary approach, but there may be times throughout treatment when individual sessions are utilized.
Modalities that a therapist may use when treating infidelity include:
1. Emotion Focused Therapy
Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) is a type of psychotherapy which 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 that attachment bond and the relationship becomes 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 with building friendship, resolving conflict, and making 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 the integrated approach,11 couples move through three phases of recovery after infidelity:
- Managing the impact of the initial crisis
- Gaining a shared understanding of the factors that led to the infidelity
- Making the decision to move forward together or separately
Couples recover from infidelity by learning cognitive-behavioral and insight-raising skills that promote understanding and forgiveness.
Regardless of the approach, the therapist will work to create a space of safety and vulnerability so that you and your partner can tell the story of the affair. The initial conversations can stay focused on basic information so that your therapist can get a clear understanding of the situation.
Other more sensitive or complicated questions and details should be discussed only after the immediate crisis has stabilized and only to the extent that it is relevant to the clinical treatment of the infidelity. The early conversations about the infidelity may be filled with accusations or defensiveness. Part of the therapist’s role is to help you and your partner recognize these interactions and stabilize the situation.
A crucial piece to infidelity treatment 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. Couples can work to develop compassion and empathy for each other while finding hope in a future together they are both excited about.
Recovering From Repeated Affairs
Repeated affairs can be a sign there are much bigger underlying problems in the relationship. If there is a history of infidelity in your relationship, be honest with your partner about any lingering feelings of hurt or insecurity. There is an opportunity to rebuild a stronger foundation in your relationship after a bout of infidelity. However, the repair can only happen if both partners equally work towards the healing required to move forward. If problems related to the infidelity go unresolved, the relationship may continue to deteriorate.
A relationship has a good opportunity for repair when:
- The underlying factors have been addressed
- The offending partner is remorseful and accountable for their actions
- The hurt partner takes responsibility for their own emotional reactions and communication
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.
Additional Resources for Couples Dealing with Infidelity
Some excellent organizations for couples who are working through an act of infidelity include: