The Heart of the Matter: Unraveling the Lies Behind Infidelity
By Adam Nisenson, LAMFT, CSAT-C
The Heart of the Matter: Unraveling the Lies Behind Infidelity
By Adam Nisenson, LAMFT, CSAT-C
“There are times when I doubt everything. When I regret everything you’ve taken from me, everything I’ve given you, and the waste of all the time I’ve spent on us.” –David Leviathan, The Lover’s Dictionary
When Time Magazine announced The Silence Breakers as their choice for 2017’s person of the year, it brought into sharp focus a long-neglected whirlwind of sexual harassment and appalling behavior from men in positions of power everywhere from Hollywood to Washington D.C. But while the world focused on the fallout, few paid attention to the other victims in these appalling, often criminal cases of sexual misconduct and abuse. Many of these men were married or attached, leaving their spouses to pick-up the pieces of a shattered relationship.
Infidelity’s short and long-term consequences are vast and far-reaching, oftentimes devastating for everyone involved.
Most people know someone who’s cheated. Maybe it’s something you’re not particularly proud of having done yourself. Strictly speaking, men are more likely than women to stray—though that’s not to say that cheating is strictly for the guys. For many, it is far too easy to justify. My needs aren’t being met at home; they reason with themselves. It’s just this once.
Despite the assuring siren song of justification, infidelity doesn’t soothe loneliness or fill the void of self-acceptance. What it does do, however, is go far beyond irreparably damaging a marriage and personal relationships. An affair can often snake out into all aspects of your life, affecting you psychologically, emotionally, and financially.
Why We Hurt The Ones We Love: The Reasons Men Cheat
Infidelity—extra dyadic involvement as it’s so callously termed—is consistently looked down upon across cultures, literature, and religions. It is also universally prevalent and persistent.
Cheating comes with huge, often devastating consequences. In addition to being the number one statistical reason for divorce across races and age groups, infidelity can lead to everything from stress and anxiety to STDs, professional and social distress, and even violence (Wang, W., 2018). Yet, even with everything that hangs in the balance, some people still choose to look the big lie of infidelity in the face. Why?
By the numbers, men are more likely to be unfaithful—roughly 20% of men admitted to having an affair in a 2018 study, compared to 13% of women (Wang, W., 2018). More importantly, though, men and women often stray for different reasons. For most men, no single factor will be a driving force behind infidelity, and sometimes the circumstances and reasoning for cheating will change as time goes on. Regardless, and while it’s essential to remember that cheating is always a choice, it can help the healing process to understand some of the common reasons why men in particular feel compelled to cheat.
In Search of an Ego Boost
One of the foremost reasons cited for having an extramarital affair by men is that their emotional needs aren’t being met by their current partner. Often, this translates into using infidelity as a means of escapism and avoidance instead of tackling the actual issues in yourself or relationship.
Sometimes, a man simply doesn’t have the experience or maturity level to fully commit to a monogamous relationship. He may be unwilling or incapable of accepting that his actions have consequences that branch out to those around him, and still sees the bonds of trust and commitment as flexible, bending to his ever-changing moral barometer.
A surprising number of men think that infidelity will somehow heal a wounded ego after a big fight or in retribution for being cheated on first. It’s understandable— anger is a heated, relatable emotion. But fighting this kind of fire with fire only makes the waters of hurt, resentment, and contempt even murkier.
Sometimes It’s Not About Sex…
Insecurity is a huge factor when it comes to male infidelity. The “mid-life crisis” trope didn’t get to be cliché because it’s untrue. Someone who is suddenly looking in the mirror and seeing much more hairline—and waistline—than ever before, or maybe finds themselves struggling along on a career or life path that isn’t what the 20 year old version of themselves would have envisioned, then other areas of their life can become shaky as well. Regardless of whether an existing relationship is still healthy, men in this situation find themselves cheating simply to check the dipstick on their virility—a search for validation.
… And Sometimes it is
More than women, men will cheat opportunistically. Escorts, one-night stands, casual office sex, an out of town fling during a conference. This kind of infidelity often happens because a man is desirous of some novelty, and it just happens to be easily available. A man with a higher sex drive than his partner or in the midst of other stressors in his life might feed himself enough Big Lies to justify this type of behavior.
Drawing the Lines: What’s Cheating?
Further complicating the issue is the fact that there are no clearly defined boundaries as to what constitutes cheating in the first place. Sure, we can all mostly agree that extra-dyadic intercourse is definitely being unfaithful, but when it comes to things like pornography, webcams, sexing, flirting… infidelity is quite often in the eyes of the betrayed.
The Emotional Affair Explained
Sex is far from the only form of intimacy humans share. A relationship is made up of meaningful connections. Unless you’re in an open or polyamorous relationship where the parameters have been discussed and communication flows freely, it’s reasonable to expect that all your spouse or partner’s physical, verbal, and emotional intimacy will remain exclusive between the two of you. When the sanctity of that connection is violated—even if no physical contact ever occurs—then the intimate foundation of a relationship has been rocked to its very core.
While the old definition of infidelity was a fairly narrow scope, recent years have seen the concept of cheating broadened and redefined.
The primary difference between a traditional affair and an emotional one comes down to physical contact. During an emotional affair, the clandestine “meetings” normally associated with infidelity will often occur online, over the phone, or via text. Additionally, there may be in-person dates—but the affair stops short of physical or sexual interaction.
While it’s normal and healthy for individuals to maintain friendships and social circles outside of their romantic relationship, emotional infidelity is poison to a marriage. A genuinely healthy friendship will enrich your relationship, never threaten it. When a seemingly harmless crush or attraction crosses emotional boundaries, it can often be even worse than a physical affair for several reasons, including:
They often lead to physical affairs
It’s easy to justify the harmlessness of an emotional affair because it’s “not real.” The reality is that communication is an intimate act in and of itself and putting that kind of emotional investment into someone that isn’t your partner is just as bad as traditional cheating. More, once you’ve connected emotionally with someone outside of your marriage, it’s that much easier to take the next step towards the physical infidelity as well.
They’re an indicator of deeper relationship problems
Emotional cheating is just as likely to lead to divorce or separation as a physical affair (Meyer, C., 2019). An unsurprising factor, despite the lack of sexual infidelity. If one partner is seeking trust or validation outside of the marriage, it certainly could point something vital missing or wounded within the relationship.
They require affection
As horrible as it would be to find out the person you love had a drunken one night stand, there is something decidedly even more devastating about discovering that they’d violated your emotional intimacy and trust by sharing their love and affection with someone else.
They’re too easy
A physical affair requires two people to be in the same physical space. Today, the Internet makes it possible for any two people in the world to connect with each other at any time. This is wonderful for keeping people connected. It also makes it easier than ever to experience some type of infidelity.
Is it Infidelity? Recognizing the Signs
Hollywood would have us believe that the mark of a cheater is obvious—lipstick on a collar, cheap perfume in the car, glitter everywhere. The reality is that it isn’t always easy to know when things are amiss. If you suspect your spouse or partner might be unfaithful, consider some of the most common signs:
Secretive or unusual phone or computer use
Password protecting all of their electronics
Significantly less, more, or different sex within your relationship
Drastic changes in their appearance or grooming habits
Long periods where they’re unreachable
An altered schedule
Emotional distance or lack of conversation
Infidelity’s Ripple Effect
It’s one of the most insidious aspects of the Big Lie. Cheating doesn’t just affect your marriage—it can have a deep-seeded psychological impact on you, alter your health, your relationships going forward, even things like your career and social circle. No matter what, infidelity is devastating to deal with. Reaching out for support, therapy, and taking the time to process and heal are all essential tools to help reclaim your life after cheating has touched it.
Adam Nisenson is a therapist at The EFT Clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah where he specializes in men’s issues and sex addiction. He is certified co-leader in the ManKind Project and is also the Executive Director of the Jung Society of Utah.
Meyer, C. (2019, March 23). What Is the Difference Between an Emotional and a Physical
Affair? Retrieved from https://www.mydomaine.com/emotional-affair-and-a-physical-affair-1102788
Wang, Wendy. “Who Cheats More? The Demographics of Infidelity in America.” Institute for
Family Studies, 10 Jan. 2018, ifstudies.org/blog/who-cheats-more-the-demographics-of-cheating-in-america.