Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. But does it have to be?
Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. But does it have to be?
Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. But does it have to be? Relationship therapist Esther Perel examines why people cheat, and unpacks why affairs are so traumatic: because they threaten our emotional security. In infidelity, she sees something unexpected — an expression of longing and loss. A must-watch for anyone who has ever cheated or been cheated on, or who simply wants a new framework for understanding relationships.
Infidelity (also referred to as cheating, adultery (when married), being unfaithful, or having an affair) is a violation of a couple’s assumed or stated contract regarding emotional and/or sexual exclusivity.
The truth about infidelity: Why researchers say it’s time to rethink cheating
Cristina overheard it in the garage. Her husband sat in the car, talking intently on his Bluetooth. As the car speakers blared his conversation, it dawned on Cristina that he was in the midst of breaking up with another woman.
“It was literally like the ground had been ripped out from under my feet,” Cristina, a Toronto web developer, says of that evening in 2013.
She would soon learn that her husband of 10 years had been seeing another woman for five of them. The woman was a work colleague and married, too. Theirs was an emotional affair involving some physical intimacy. “He said it felt like he was back in high school doing something illicit.”
For the sake of their two children, the spouses sought couples’ therapy, investing in two additional therapists that they would see separately. At the end of the first year, Cristina discovered the other woman was still in contact with her husband – resulting in a trial separation over the holidays. “The first year was a total writeoff. There was too much pain,” says Cristina, now 40.
The separation proved to be a breaking point – but also an opening. Her husband’s therapist had given him three choices: to divorce, or remain in the marriage and not mend anything, or rebuild the marriage entirely. Husband and wife chose No. 3: to construct a new marriage out of the rubble of their first.
“I didn’t feel a shame in staying,” Cristina explains. “It was a place in life where you re-evaluate everything and realize if something makes you unhappy, do something about it. Why would we go back to a marriage that was obviously broken?”
Cristina and her husband are two in a growing cohort of couples for whom infidelity is proving not to be a dealbreaker. But rather than staying together for the sake of the kids, adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach or going full-on polyamorous, these spouses are putting in the work to rebuild marriages.
Along with them, a community of researchers, authors and therapists now hazards that extramarital affairs – long considered the greatest betrayal – don’t have to be intolerable, but can in some cases strengthen a marriage, jolting spouses out of bad, familiar habits. While it’s not an approach for everyone (and not when an incorrigible cheater is involved), marital reinvention is a consoling option for spouses who want to return to monogamy after it’s been ruptured.
More broadly, a number of thinkers are beginning to reconsider how, culturally, we process infidelity. They are calling on couples to get more realistic about the viability of long-term monogamy. Shining a harsh light on how starry-eyed we are, they argue that our expectations of absolute fidelity are mounting, even as new threats proliferate; think hookup sites, cybersex, digital porn and the rise of “work spouses.” They’re exposing how badly we react to infidelity, how poorly we understand what it all actually represents in our relationships.
We are at a tipping point that “may lead to a new order,” argues Esther Perel, a therapist, speaker and seminal thinker in the field whose forthcoming book is A State of Affairs: Cheating in the Age of Transparency. While Perel acknowledges that for many, adultery may be the death knell for a sinking relationship, for others it is an alarm call. In a paper titled After the Storm, Perel proposed new possibilities, postinfidelity: “Most of us in the West today will have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. For those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person. An affair may spell the end of a first marriage, as well as the beginning of a new one.”
The rethink on infidelity lies within a broader societal discussion about monogamy, a debate becoming more frequent and more critical. As we live longer, stay married longer and come to expect more out of our partners, there’s been a growing call for more realism around unwavering, lifelong commitment. “Monogamishly” married sex columnist Dan Savage has likened monogamy to alcoholism: if you fall off the wagon, you should be given a chance to get back on. Research psychologist Christopher Ryan, co-author of the controversial 2010 book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, has pointed out that monogamous marriage doesn’t exactly come naturally to humans, or their primate ancestors. Arguing that sexual jealousy is socialized into us in North America, Ryan tracked several Amazonian tribes in which men very willingly share their wives. He noticed that the French and Spaniards find our attitudes here very immature. And certainly among many gay men, sexual exclusivity does not define how you show someone that you love them.
Which is all to say, could monogamy eventually go the way of premarital sex as a cultural value?
The stats are bracing: Some 63 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women reported having been unfaithful at least once, according to an international study published in 2004. While Canada has no history of documenting national trends in relationship behaviour, it can be illuminating to peer in on divorce trends, since infidelity often dissolves marriages. More than 40 per cent of marriages are expected to end in divorce before the 30th anniversary, Statistics Canada reported in 2008, the last year the agency collected numbers on divorce. Factor in the crippling hack of cheaters’ hookup website Ashley Madison last July – which saw the names, street addresses and sexual desires of 37 million user accounts leaked to the world – and it’s clear that, despite societal censure, infidelity is completely pervasive.
“I don’t think anyone really gets out from under this,” says Lucia O’Sullivan, a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick who conducts Canada’s most groundbreaking research on infidelity. “Monogamy fights our natural instincts. We’re drawn to people who are pretty in some way, who are appealing. Our brain lights up, our pupils dilate – everything.”
Brains gone haywire over pretty things: Research is finding that’s the somewhat basic cause of most affairs. Most people don’t cheat because of some dark defect in personality, O’Sullivan wrote in a study to be published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. They don’t even necessarily stray because they are unhappy in their relationships (as Perel has warned repeatedly, “Happy people cheat”). It’s situational and has to do with opportunity, O’Sullivan explains. Meaning that just about anyone is vulnerable to cheating, not just your sociopathic ex.
At O’Sullivan’s sunny Fredericton office, meticulously organized and scented with a freesia essential oil, a whiteboard divulges the provocative studies under way this past January: Topics include mate poaching, kissing, breakups and the inevitable pain that follows. Strikingly frank when she talks about sex, O’Sullivan loves stereotype-busting findings that betray our inconsistency. Her big question is why, if monogamy is so near-universally endorsed, is infidelity so common?
“We coddle ourselves,” she says. “Our whole life, we are attracted and drawn to other people but there’s this magical thinking that it’s absolutely impossible for our partners to ever find anyone else attractive.”
What she’s discovered is that we’re getting more and more unrealistic in our expectations of fidelity. The definition of “cheating” now goes well beyond sex to a whole array of threats that undermine people’s faith in their relationships, O’Sullivan and her doctoral student Ashley Thompson wrote in a 2015 Journal of Sex Research article titled Drawing the Line. Emotional attraction to a work spouse, a partner masturbating solo to the porn stash he’s bookmarked online, texts another partner occasionally sends her ex when she’s drunk: These things all proved to be “ripples” in the love lives of study respondents. Even seemingly benign behaviours riled them up. Respondents got insecure when their partners “liked” their exes’ posts or got tagged in their photos on Facebook. Some were even threatened by a partner’s celebrity crushes. “There are so many ways that people are offended,” O’Sullivan sighed.
What her findings have uncovered is that infidelity isn’t just about sex, but about something far more privately needy. “It’s how much we can stand our partner’s gaze drifting,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s this idea that your partner’s attention, attraction and arousal aren’t going to stray from you. It’s that all encompassing idea of, ‘It’s you and only you, baby.’ This is why porn is so discomfiting for so many, because that implicit contract is violated. It sounds irrational but deep down, that’s what we expect. Of course few people really like to clarify these concepts.”
Indeed, we are notorious in the West for our unease in discussing wants, needs and expectations with partners and spouses. But also we’re startlingly hypocritical about it all. People set draconian standards for their partners while conveniently letting themselves off the hook, O’Sullivan and Thompson write in a new paper titled I Can but You Can’t, slated to appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Relationships Research. Especially when it came to grey areas such as having lunch, studying late, doing favours, providing emotional support or sharing secrets or gifts with someone outside of a relationship, the study respondents grew wary of their partners while justifying their own dicey behaviour. (Both women and men were equally self-righteous.)
“The reason we’re finding hypocrites is because people want to protect themselves from hurt, but not without having a little fun themselves,” says Thompson, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
With such telling research in hand, O’Sullivan’s perspective on infidelity is somewhat clinical: She thinks we need to get real. Especially if indiscretions fall into those murky zones no one’s quite clear on yet, she urges partners to be more “tolerant” of each other, and perhaps do a little perspective-taking if they’re guilty of the same.
Moreover, she and other thinkers in the field are questioning the notion that there can be no greater betrayal than adultery.
“In our society, we see sexual infidelity as the worst thing. Why is it the worst thing? Neglecting your children or being abusive isn’t a worse thing? Why is this the quintessential betrayal? This is culturally defined in our society,” says Sandra Byers, who is chair of the University of New Brunswick’s psychology department and sees couples at her private clinical psychology practice.
And yet infidelity remains a dealbreaker. Should it be? “By virtue of this violation, are you willing to consider null and void everything you share with this person, your whole integrated history, your family life, all the things you plan to do in the future?” O’Sullivan asks. “You’re willing to say done, erased, never again, nothing more?”
It’s a poignant question that shifts North Americans away from the range of responses they’ve long deemed normal after an affair: blind rage, jealousy, vengeance and abandonment of the relationship.
But the hows of getting over infidelity are another matter entirely. How to stop replaying the hurt and resentment in a toxic mental loop? How to regain trust? How to get on top of such primal betrayal, and why should couples even deign to try?
In cases that do not involve multiple affairs, when the cheater expresses remorse and both partners are devastated, “Please don’t get a divorce. This is an opportunity,” Philadelphia couples therapist Edward Monte begs.
When his couples tell him they want to rebuild, Monte asks them both to step it up: “It’s fine to be victimized up front, but you have to own the responsibility of the relationship four minutes before the affair.”
He also asks spouses to drill down into the dalliances. “It sounds cruel, but the thing to do is to examine the affair in light of, ‘what do you need’ and ‘what did you choose?’ As a therapist, I love when men have affairs because now they’re out of the closet and can’t pretend they don’t have needs. I want to know, what do you need that you now need to take home?” says Monte, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of social policy and practice.
This technique echoes the difficult questions Perel puts to her couples. Instead of the classic, “Why did you do this to me?”, Perel’s interrogation goes more like this: What did this affair mean? What were partners able to express there that they could no longer express with their spouses? How did it feel to come home?
While there’s no guarantee that this marital reset button will ensure monogamy for life, it can make couples happier.
Today, Cristina and her husband have quit seeing their three therapists. He also quit his job, where the other woman worked. “Somehow things are calmer. We’re more in tune,” Cristina says.
Before the affair, the kindness had fizzled out of their marriage. They’d grown apart and he felt there was no space for him at home after work. The other woman made him feel needed. “Life gets in the way,” Cristina says. “Childrearing gets in the way. Commitments get in the way. Schedules get in the way. You spend more and more time at work and that’s what happened. It was a transition to a relationship in which he wasn’t failing in any way.”
Today, the two focus on being thoughtful, grateful and kind to one another: They shower each other with compliments and surprise each other with gifts, like in the early days. Cristina makes sure to ask her husband about all the “gory details” of his work day. He treats her as his confidant again. She’s relinquished more control of the parenting, finding that he’s been a more present father and husband since. “It’s not magic,” Monte says of the marital rebuild, “just staying aware.”
As for trust, only time could reconcile that one, although Cristina feels she’s had to learn to live with uncertainty.
Her “second” marriage to the same husband? “I wouldn’t wish infidelity on anyone, but sometimes you need to face a crisis to re-evaluate what’s important,” Cristina said. “It’s a lot of work but there’s a lot of mutual history that you can draw on. The history isn’t that easy to throw away.”
Would she stay again if he cheated again?
“I’d have to live through it,” she said. “You can never tell.”