Once a Cheater Always a Cheater?

This is a continuation of my series on infidelity. Read previous posts here!

If someone cheats once, are they more likely to do it again? At least one bit of research says, yes, if you cheat you’re more likely to cheat again. However, that same piece of research also says that people who have been cheated on once are also more likely to be cheated on again.

So what does it mean?

 

If you’ve read my previous posts about infidelity you might already know how I feel about this cliché. I don’t think that cheating once has any indication on whether or not you’re going to cheat again. I think it’s a statement used to shut down discussion of infidelity and shame the person who was unfaithful. Not super productive to understanding why the infidelity happened or how to prevent it.

In fact, the person who belittles the infidelity by saying “they did it once so they will do it again” is missing out on an opportunity to ask questions about why it happened so it doesn’t happen again. It falls into the narrative that people who cheat are inherently bad people.

It’s easy to blame infidelity on the person who did it rather than the situation that led to the infidelity. It prevents both partners from examining how to have better relationships in the future. If each partner is equally likely to experience infidelity again, discussing together (or with a therapist, or with friends) why they think that the infidelity occured is especially important.

To be able to do this we need to destigmatize infidelity, at least enough to be able to have some kind of conversation about it.

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Reframing Infidelity: What Counts as Cheating?

Earlier this month I reached out to my readers and my friends and I asked them to tell me about a time that they were unfaithful. I encouraged them to use my definition of infidelity: anything you did that you wouldn’t have wanted to tell your partner about.

When I ask people about a time they were unfaithful, using this description, most people have something that comes to mind immediately. I am very appreciative of everyone who took the time to message me their stories to be quoted in this post ❤️

I wrote a paper on infidelity and it was thrilling, guys.

I wrote my senior thesis on infidelity. Specifically, I wrote about a theme of guilt that appears in stories women tell about being unfaithful, and how that guilt is gendered. I found that women experienced guilt before, during, and after infidelity in ways that felt unique because they were women.

Examples:

Guilt before infidelity: Women felt guilty that they couldn’t hold their marriage together. There is a lot of implied responsibility for women to provide the emotional structure of a relationship. If needs aren’t being met they may be called needy or greedy or over-attached. Women expressed guilt over their inability to “just be happy with what they had” even if what they had was a loveless, emotionless relationship.

Guilt during infidelity: Women felt guilty in ways that fell deeply inline with the virgin/whore dichotomy. They believed that the physical act of being unfaithful made them less than they had been before. Many women expressed guilt at wanting to feel good during sex. This is echoed in a lot of poor sexual education that does not encourage women to put their pleasure first (or even explain to women what pleasure is.)

Guilt after infidelity: Women felt guilty for disrupting the narrative of the happy home. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to hold their relationship together even if their male partner was not putting in similar effort. At times that weight was magnified if they had children, a large conservative family, or if they were active in a church.

Why infidelity, and what now?

I wanted to write about infidelity because it’s a subject that not many people talk about openly and honestly. Most of the time it’s a conversation that gets shut down by someone saying “if you do it, you’re a bad person, and you just shouldn’t do it.” It didn’t make sense to me that everyone who cheated was this archetype villain who set out to hurt the person that they loved. Everyone in my immediate friend group had a story about being unfaithful. So where was the in-between?

In my thesis I focused on physical infidelity. Not all infidelity is physical. Referring back to my definition at the top, infidelity is anything you wouldn’t want to tell your partner about. We’re all adults here and we can navigate that definition in ways that make sense to us. I’m not talking about surprise parties or that time you went into the other room to fart.

The goal of my research, and my continued interest in infidelity, is to open up some discourse on infidelity.

If we learn more about how infidelity occurs, we can better prevent it from happening.

The Starting Emotion

There is typically a starting emotion that occurs prior to infidelity. Someone who is in a long-term committed monogamous relationship doesn’t just walk into someone else’s penis by accident. There is almost always a fault. The crack in the ceiling.

Some starting emotions from the submissions I received:

  • I was with an abusive guy in a controlling relationship. I had been with him since I was 18 and he made me desperately unhappy.
  • His needs always came first and he gave no interest to what made me feel good.
  • [My fiancé] never partied and didn’t like that I did, so by matter of association,  I felt like I couldn’t be myself with him.
  • I felt as though I had been pulled into the relationship either by pressure, security or comfort.
  • I didn’t feel super happy with the relationship but I didn’t want to break up either.
  • I realized that I was compromising all of the time for him but he would never compromise for me. Being unhappy was so normal that I started to forget I was unhappy.
  • This guy at work was showing me attention that I felt I hadn’t gotten in a long time.
  • He moved away and started relying on new friends to help him through the tough times instead of his partner. I didn’t feel appreciated anymore.
  • I shared with him only the happy me, the one that he met that night at the party.
  • I didn’t realize I wasn’t myself around my boyfriend until I found someone I could be myself around. After that all I saw was how little my boyfriend tried to relate to me.

In previous posts I’ve written about the starting emotion as being unhappiness. In most of these examples, it’s easy to pull out that sense of unhappiness. Usually it’s reflected in some kind of need not being met. Often it has something to do with not knowing exactly what is wrong but feeling a sense of wrongness.

We aren’t taught how to deal with these feelings and often they can feel like a normal part of a relationship. While they are common, they should not be normal.

The Opportune Moment

Following this moment of unhappiness, or realization that some need is not met, an opportunity presents itself.

Some examples of opportunities from the submissions I received:

  •  I was at a friend of a friend’s house (with the friend) and sex came up.
  •  It was one summer in high school- I attended two summer programs, back to back.
  • I met a guy at a party, and we hit it off really well.
  • There was one particular coworker that caught my eye.
  • I found myself befriending and becoming infatuated with someone I worked with.
  • I met a new friend and we immediately clicked.
  • On my 21st birthday a friend threw a huge house party “for me” and invited about 50 people that I didn’t know.
  • We would go to this karaoke bar and dance and sing the night away and he would drive me home, kissing my cheek when he dropped me off.

Dim the lights and shine the flashlight up your face because this is the scariest part of all. The opportune moment is basically happening all the time. It’s sitting in a car with someone. It’s being at the same party. It’s working in the same office. It’s anything that puts you into close proximity with someone else.

A lot of people understand that this is how infidelity begins and they cope with this by becoming absolutely over-the-top controlling. You can’t see her! You can’t talk to her! I’m going to go into your account and block all the women!

Bless their hearts. They’re doing it all wrong.

Controlling what someone does isn’t going to make them faithful. It’s only going to make them resentful.

Every couple should define their own boundaries together, and as your relationship goes along you may create new ones when you find a situation makes you uncomfortable. You can’t never go to work, never meet other people, or never go to a party. And you shouldn’t avoid these situations. Meeting new people and engaging with new people is fun. And it’s what I think is an important part of a functional relationship. A good support system is critical.

And, anyways, the opportune moment can’t operate on it’s own. If you put someone in a happier, more adjusted relationship into any of these situations, they’re going to come out the other end much differently.

Turning Opportunity into Apocalypse

This is the singular moment when the door of opportunity opens up and you put your dumb dumb foot in:

  • You’re at a party and your significant other is getting tired. They’re ready to leave but they want you to stay and have a good time. Instead of calling it quits early, you take them up on the suggestion, and get yourself another drink. There’s a guy that you think is really cute and he’s sitting alone so you take the opportunity to get to know him a little better. Ten minutes into the conversation you find yourself with your legs draped over him, wildly gesticulating about how funny he is. You go home and tell your s/o that it was a pretty boring night after they left.
  • You’re sitting with your co-worker talking after work and you decide to get drinks. You feel a strong sense of chemistry. You want to keep talking to her because she’s making you smile and it’s lighting up this energy you haven’t felt in a long time. You text your s/o to tell them that you’ll be home later because you’re getting drinks with work friends, a lie through omission.

This is the landing zone for infidelity. You’re clearly doing something that you don’t want to tell your s/o about. You’re also opening the tiny little slit of opportunity and making it worse on purpose.

For a lot of people, this New Relationship Energy is what drives the opportune moment past the breaking point. New Relationship Energy (NRE) is that giddy excited feeling you get when you start connecting with someone new. It’s that sense of chemistry.

If you’re in a long term relationship, you may not have a lot of NRE. It fades over time and it might require a little more to get the same buzz. A sustainable long term relationship, I think, depends a lot on committing yourself to reviving that NRE over and over again.

But when you catch yourself in this moment, with this new person, and you feel that feeling, you may not even realize that it was gone. All you’ll know is that you want a quick fix. And if you go back again for a second fix, you might start to question yourself. Do I feel this way because I love this person? Do I feel this way because I don’t love my person? 

Constantly chasing NRE is a really easy way to avoid the real work and responsibility of a monogamous relationship.

After this point things can go a couple different ways. No relationship is the same and no infidelity is the same. Maybe the girl who threw her legs over the guys legs ends up kissing him that night. Maybe the boy who goes to get drinks with his co-worker sleeps over and lies about a late night video game marathon with the boys. Maybe they realize what a terrible decision it was and maybe they keep chasing that feeling.

This should be a book

There are so many things I’m leaving out. Boundaries vary. Relationships vary. Some people are poly. Some people are open. Some people never talk about boundaries. Some people are in healthy relationships and infidelity happens. Some people are unhealthy relationships and infidelity happens. Sometimes infidelity is the way out. Sometimes they never tell. Sometimes they do. Most people seem to feel really, really bad when it happens. Even when they shouldn’t. (A whole section of my thesis was about how even physically or sexually abused women feel guilt for cheating on their abusers. I won’t tell anyone how to feel, but I think there should be some serious absolution here.)

What I’m pretty sure any infidelity does have in common are these two factors: a sense of unhappiness or some kind of need not being met, and an opportune moment.

For some people, flirting is no big deal. Am I going to smile extra hard at the barista when I’m in a good mood and hope they throw some extra shots of espresso in? Uh, maybe. But my intent isn’t to get in their pants. It’s to get a good buzz. Equally I feel no discontent in my partner throwing his charms for a mood boost.

But there are other circumstances, and you’ll know them when you find them.

They make you feel dark and grey inside. You know they are wrong and you’ll wonder how you managed to find yourself there to begin with.

Better understanding yourself and how to handle these situations could, in the long run, prevent something unfortunate from happening. 

Learning to take your unhappiness seriously can also help prevent infidelity.

It’s easy when you’re in a long term relationship to push aside feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction as just a normal part of a relationship. If you’ve been in a consistently unhappy relationship where you constantly feel like you are putting in more work than your partner is, that’s cause for concern.

Take your unhappiness seriously. If your relationship has a blister, don’t go walking around on it all day. Talk to your partner about the things that are concerning you. Talk to your partner about what you want your relationship to look like.

Finally, don’t tell your partner you’ll never cheat on them. Because that’s what everyone says, and it still fucking happens. What I find much more realistic, and much more romantic, is committing to your partner that you will always be truthful to them, you will always be honest with them, and you will always confront difficulties in your relationship together, as a team. To me, that’s essentially the same thing as saying “I’ll never cheat on you.” But, it also encourages you to break down what cheat means and discuss the pre-infidelity-vibes when they start to happen.

Do you have a question about sex or love? Submit now and I’ll answer it on my blog! Want to read more of what I’ve written on infidelity? Click the #infidelity tag on this post!

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My Thesis and Donald Trump’s Infidelity

I wanted to share this piece from the thesis I started in 2014. At the time Donald Trump wasn’t involved in any real politics and was mostly just convenient research fodder. Some parts may not make sense out of context. My thesis was titled Guilt as a Gendered Expression in Infidelity and this is from the chapter where I discuss how the language describing women who cheat is different than the language describing men who cheat. For instance, Trump was unfaithful to his wife (multiple wives, in fact) and the conversation has focused almost exclusively on the women involved. We can see a similar instance in “the women of Tiger Woods” a series of articles that went out during the Woods cheating scandal that highlighted the many beautiful women, who they were, and why Woods might have picked them.

How men are treated when they have been unfaithful is much different than how women are treated when they are unfaithful. A notable example of this was the affair between Donald Trump and Marla Maples that became public in 1990. Donald Trump had been married to his first wife, Ivana Trump, when he began seeing Maples. Articles from the time of the infidelity indicate that the story of Trump’s infidelity was very much a story of Maples involvement. A series of interviews with Marla Maples following the affair becoming public.

Similarly to the three narratives I analyzed, Maples seems to have experienced this infidelity uniquely because she is a women. It does not seem to matter whether or not the woman is being unfaithful to her spouse, or with the spouse of another woman. Maples story begins with this narrative that women are good and good women do not taint themselves with infidelity. In the Seattle Times article “Marla Sez: I Am Not A Homewrecker”(1990) Marla is described as just that, a homewrecker. “Since [the relationship becoming public] Marla Maples has become a star – Celebrity Mistress, Homewrecker of the Western World”(para. 13).

The article reiterates that it was her involvement with Trump that gave her the bad girl persona. “She was a Southern angel, Baptist-style”(para. 3). Marla was good, she was innocent, but when she got involved with Trump the public appeared more interested with her than with him. Maples experiences similar guilt to the women from the earlier narratives I had chosen as well. “I stayed with him longer than I should have out of old Southern Baptist guilt. I felt since we had gone ahead, I had to make it work”(Maples, para. 26).

Fifteen years after the affair was made public, Marla has since married and divorced Trump herself. She continues to be written about publicly in relation to Trump. (“Marla Maples Finds Her Groove”, 2012). This discussion of language brings us back to the subject of guilt because we very specifically use language around the subject of women being unfaithful that assigns guilt. Men are more or less removed of the responsibility for their failing relationships with the general assumption that they just couldn’t help themselves. Women, however, are more susceptible to an entire personality shift. Infidelity is not something women do, it is something women are. They didn’t just step out on their wives like Donald Trump, they are homewreckers. Language deeply contributes to how women feel and the lengths they appear to go to convince others that they are not bad people. Such was the case from all three narratives I analyzed, and the story of Marla Maples.

 

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Preventing Infidelity Pt. 3

Welcome back to my series on infidelity! We’re entering part three of preventing infidelity, the last segment in prevention. If you haven’t yet, go back and read my previous posts on infidelity (HERE). Off we go.

In my last post we talked about some communication tips for preventing infidelity. These were mirroring and figuring your shit out. Pretty simple, strangely effective. Learning to communicate through the rough patches in your relationship can help you build a stronger relationship together. Unfortunately, there’s someone knocking on the old door of regret, and his name is bad news bear. You’ve communicated into your rough patch, but you’re not able to communicate your way out of it.

Being unable to communicate yourself out of a problem could mean a few things.

  • You need some outside assistance
  • Your relationship has hit a wall, it’s not meant to go onwards
  • You and your partner are no longer equally committed
  • This is a problem that cannot be fixed
  • This is a problem that should not be fixed
  • BONUS: You need to try a little longer (See: Triangular Theory)

You need outside help

Do you know why there are so many therapists? psychologists? counselors? life coaches? psychiatrists? We’re so inept, people. We’re not taught how to deal with anything important. Wrapped deep in our skull is a small child, rocking back and forth, dripping in grey matter. Sometimes that’s a good day. Outside assistance in the form of someone trained to know how to deal with your bullshit is, at times, essential in figuring out what to do next. A psychologist can’t tell you what to do, but netflixthey can help you work through some difficult problems in order to think more clearly. A couples counselor can do this with two people, or with individuals. They can also structure communication time so you’re less likely to stray away from the path to salvation/forgiveness/makeup sex. If you and your partner are struggling to communicate through a particular issue, try seeking out some help.

Your relationship has hit a wall

A relationship ending is not the same as a relationship failing. Some relationships are meant to last for a few months, some are meant to last for a few years. They provide us with a partner, opportunities for growth, love, companionship, but they are not necessarily meant for forever. In fact, every relationship you have will end until one doesn’t. 

This is of course depressing, horrible, painful, maybe worse than being broken up with. You both want the relationship to bcontinue but as hard as you try, you can’t seem to make it go forward. That’s because the structure of your relationship has not been afforded a forward. There is no more path. I’ve seen this kind of relationship expire before and it’s usually one of the more painful ends to a relationship. When both partners are confused as to why they are unhappy, they become snarky, and resentful, looking for something or someone to blame. Ultimately the couple that ought to have split long ago stays together until their mutual confusion combusts into a mutual anger and then, finally, they can leave.

You and your partner aren’t equally committed

Sometimes two people aren’t equally committed. One person is looking for a casual relationship and it becomes something more serious. One person might be interested in marriage and the other might never want to get married. You may have entered the relationship on equal footing but now one person may be placing more time and commitment into a different pizzapart of their lives – their career, their schooling, their friendships. You may no longer feel respected in your relationship. Attention might dwindle. If you and your partner are not equally committed to one another and your partnership, one partner may expend more energy to make up the difference. Enter: resentment, exhaustion, sadness, anger.

There is a problem that cannot be fixed

Sometimes problems can’t be fixed. The wound has festered before you’ve had the opportunity to confront it. You have differences too stark to be compromised. You’re left with two options: suffer through the insanity of your unhappiness, always trying to find that one key that unlocks the problem, or … leave, and find acceptance in the fact that not every problem can be fixed.

There is a problem that should not be fixed

A problem that should not be fixed is different than a problem that cannot be fixed. A problem that should not be fixed is one that disrupts both partners if it’s fixed. The partners may not be compatible and want one person to change to solve the problem.

Example of a problem that should not be fixed by you: Your partner spends all day in his dirty underwear playing video games surrounded by empty cans of mountain dew – one of which you’re not entirely convinced isn’t actually urine. This guy needs to fix his own life.

Example of a problem that should not be fixed at all: You’re studying to become a doctor and your partner is sick of your late nights and minimal free time. They tell you that their feeling neglected and you need to spend less time at the hospital. Your partner needs to stop drinking the cray juice.

You need to try a little longer

One of my favorite theories of love is the triangular theory of love.

There are three components to the triangular theory of love:

  1. Passion
  2. Commitment
  3. Intimacy

At any point in a long term relationship, you may experience a combination of these three components.

  • Non Love: The absence of all three
  • Liking/Friendship: Intimacy
  • Initiated Love: Passiont
  • Empty Love: Commitment
  • Romantic Love: Intimacy/Passion
  • Companionate Love: Intimacy/Commitment
  • Fatuous Love: Passion/Commitment
  • Consummate Love: Passion/Commitment/Intimacy

All couples strive for consummate love. This is the “perfect couple” that still looks at one another passionately, still loves one another intimately, still acts as a partnership daily. In a longterm relationship (10, 20, 30+ years) a relationship may shift between these different kinds of love. In a marriage of 60 years it may not be uncommon for a several year span of companionate love, where it seems the intimacy has gone but there is still passion and commitment. The goal for all couples is to always strive for, and always return to, consummate love.

In the case of a disagreement or an unhappiness in a long term relationship, it may be beneficial to consider sadness as a useful emotion. There is a certain amount of sadness that one should expect to have. This allows us to more fully appreciate the happiness. If you feel you are unable to work out a problem with your partner, don’t feel the pressure or need to solve this problem immediately. Give yourself a breath, and give yourself time to truly think about the problem. Why does this influence you so deeply? How does it influence your partner? Can you grow like a tree around the problem and continue moving forward?

Now what?

I hear you. What the hell does this have to do with infidelity? Well, everything. Communication and unhappiness are the foundation for why people are unfaithful to their partners to begin with. We let the things that bind us to our partners burn away and it leaves us feeling lost. Working hard with your partner will benefit you in the long run, even if it seems a little redundant at times. There will, certainly, be periods where everything is perfect. A good relationship should strive for more perfect moments than imperfect moments.

A lot of this reflects ones state of mind and how they perceive the things happening around them. If you find yourself frequently agitated with your partner, what is it that is bothering you that is making you react in this way? Instead of seeking out comfort, or passion, or intimacy, or a feeling of partnership with someone else, (“cheating”, “infidelity”, “the easy way out.”) try the school of hard knocks and give yourself the suffer sweats. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Give it all you’ve got. If it still doesn’t work out – well, that’s another post altogether, and one we’re not here to talk about.

On the next post: What is opportunity (in being unfaithful), how can we avoid it, should we avoid it? 

Have a question about sex or love? Submit at www.suggestivetongue.com/ask and I’ll answer it on my blog.

 

 

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What Leads to Infidelity?

For my senior thesis we were tasked to choose a topic that really interested us. Something we kept coming back to: isn’t there more to this? For me that was infidelity. The narrative of infidelity in our culture is very simple. People who cheat are bad. They cheat because they couldn’t control themselves. They hurt someone they cared about so that probably means they didn’t actually care about them. Don’t cheat.

But if that’s so simple, why do so many people cheat? Why do so many people cheat when they know they’re going to feel bad about it? Why do they keep cheating while they feel bad about it? I was specifically interested in women who have cheated and what their emotional experiences were. This was primarily because studies that look at infidelity only pay attention to men – even though women cheat just as much. Because of the information that is currently out there, I focused on ciswomen in heterosexual relationships.

My thesis garnered me an A and gave me the golden ticket to graduation. It also provided excellent blog fodder, and a challenge in the process. How can I make the complicated subject of infidelity more simplistic? For my first post, I present:

What leads to infidelity?

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1. Unhappiness

Unhappiness is largely the cause of women being unfaithful. Current research loves to pin women and men into separate categories. They say that men cheat largely for sexual reasons and women cheat largely for emotional reasons. I found this distracting in my research because the emotional and the sexual are irrevocably intertwined for many couples. A woman who has a sexual affair may be doing it because she is feeling emotionally withdrawn from her partner, for instance. A man may have an emotional affair because he is no longer feeling sexual chemistry with his partner. There are so many ways in which these two categories intersect. It belittles the importance of these studies to assume women are simply seeking a shoulder to lean on and men are only seeking something to put their penis into.

Unhappiness is not easy to pinpoint. Often times someone may not realize they are unhappy until so many factors have coalesced,  the origin of their unhappiness has vanished entirely. Perhaps communication has fallen in their relationship. Maybe they no longer look at one another when they talk. Maybe their phones have become a priority in their relationship and they no longer make jokes with one another. Maybe they haven’t made sex a priority and physical intimacy took a dive. When one thing begins to lack, others can fall in that same pit. It is often a balancing act. With two people – with two separate sets of needs – this can be even more difficult to manage.

For instance: a man who derives emotional intimacy from sexual intimacy and a woman who derives sexual intimacy from emotional intimacy. It sounds complicated, but it’s a common irritant in relationships. “I’m not feeling emotionally tended to enough to have sex – I’m not feeling sexually tended to enough to be emotional.”

Sometimes relationships just end because those two people no longer create the same relationship that they had once desired.

Unhappiness collides with the inability to communicate these unmet needs or desires. You may not see your unhappiness developing. You may become used to your unhappiness. You may excuse it. You may expect it. You may ignore it. Often times it may feel that your unhappiness is better waved away, a simple problem that will only cause more problems if you face it. You may not see how the problem builds over time.

The important question that arises is why don’t you just leave if you’re not happy? This is a question that will be covered more deeply in future posts in this series.

2. Opportunity

To be unfaithful you need to have the opportunity to be unfaithful. It is less likely that you will randomly leave your home one evening, grab the first person you stumble into, and go have an affair. There are many factors involved. Time away from your partner, the ability to get to know others well, a sexual or emotional attraction, an encouragement from friends or an outside source, and alcohol or other substances that lower your inhibitions. These among other things can create room for you to do things you may not have done otherwise.

Social Psychologists love to discuss things like personality when it comes to infidelity. There were a lot of small and specific studies in my research that tried to pull out who cheats. Is there a certain age, race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality (so forth…) that cheats more often than the rest? Who are they? We are obsessed with knowing the factors that make us more at risk. I was completely disinterested in these studies. Maybe it is my belief that we’re all influenced in so many different ways that it’s obvious that there will be some variation between our realities.

Evolutionary Psychologists, on the other hand, love to focus on hormones. They want to know if there might be something neurological about cheaters that makes them different. I find this fairly silly, too. We could certainly do some study that marks testosterone or menstruation to infidelity but at the end of the day I’m simply not interested in that either (If you are – go write a good paper about it.)

If you do leave your house one day it’s possible that your personality may make that extra nudge. Maybe you’re super outgoing and just happen to be ovulating that night, oh boy, watch out. But I feel that what is happening emotionally is far more important. Because of the sheer number of people that are unfaithful, I feel that all types of personalities must be involved in these scenarios.

Opportunity doesn’t seem like enough, though. Once you have unhappiness, and once you have opportunity, you also have a belief that you cannot leave your relationship. Some believe they cannot leave their relationship because they are in love. The belief that they are in love trumps everything – even common sense. In one story I read for my thesis, a woman cheated on her husband. She said that she loved him so much that that she felt guilty for cheating on him, and the guilt encouraged her to stay with her partner even more. The perception of love may be enough to make one believe it is impossible to leave. They can very literally not imagine a life without this person – even if it is one where they are less than satisfied.

Other reasons women may not leave their relationships: they are financially unable to do so, they have children together and are concerned about the wellbeing of the children, they do not believe in divorce or have religious obligations, they are afraid of breaking apart the family, they don’t know that they have anywhere else to go or have cut all ties with other family, they are physically or emotionally abused by their partner.

This is one thing I found particularly difficult about my research. Many women are physically or emotionally abused after being unfaithful to their partners even if they weren’t unfaithful and were just perceived to be unfaithful. Women have been murdered because of this perceived or real unfaithfulness. It can put the opportunity to receive real affection outside of the relationship into a different light. There is no one size fits all story about infidelity.

And, of course, some women don’t leave because they want to work it out, they just don’t know how or haven’t been able to.

Conclusion

If unhappiness (with the right context) leads to infidelity, it makes sense that we should be able to prevent infidelity if we learn to spot unhappiness and either prevent or ‘treat’ the unhappiness. This is why the emotional process of infidelity interested me so much. Current discussions about infidelity focus a lot on blame. They use the same preventative measures as abstinence educators. “Just don’t have sex!” works about as well as “Just don’t cheat!” Instead of discouraging infidelity, we should be encouraging happiness. We should be telling men and women that their needs are important and worth speaking out for. We should not be encouraging relationships as something that last forever in all cases if you’re doing it right – that’s not realistic. It sets up certain expectations that are broken over and over again.

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Following this post:

  • How can this information help us prevent infidelity? (3 post set) If we can spot unhappiness can we prevent infidelity?
  • When and why do women experience guilt because of infidelity? (3 post set) The experience of guilt throughout infidelity was the focal point of my thesis and will expand more deeply into the emotional process. 
  • The Language of Infidelity (1 post) Why are there so many words to describe women who cheat (homewrecker! mistresss! the other woman!) 
  • How we talk about Infidelity in the Media (1 post) How does the media talk about men and women when they cheat? How does that help us frame our understanding of infidelity?

If at any point you have questions regarding these posts, please leave them in the comments and I will respond there. If you have a specific question about infidelity that you would like answered in a post, see my ask advice page.

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Should we listen when women tell us why they cheat?

I’ve reached the ‘reading to first person narrative’ part of my thesis.

These are the comments from just one online article about a women who had cheated on her husband.

  • Whore….
  • Pathetic waste of life
  • I can help summarize this article so you all don’t have to read it: I”m a cheap, tawdry slut who can’t take responsibility for my actions. If I lived in Saudi Arabia or the days of the Bible, my ass would have been hauled out to the town square and stoned to death. However, feminists will come to my rescue as there is no such thing as shame anymore.
  • What a way to try and rationalise [sic] her actions. What a weak little girl. She probably doesn’t understand the idea of taking responsibility for her actions in any area of her life.
  • If she forgot herself so easily, and was randomly brought back to herself by some guy being into her, there wasn’t much of a self to care about in the first place.
  • tl;dr I didn’t feel special enough
  • You fucking dirty slut you need your twat sewn up.
  • I don’t even have to read this garbage. You did it because you are a deceitful, lying, cheating whore. End of story.
  • You know what I find funny? The fact that you think this man will still want you after you leave your husband. He’s using you. You’re like a toy or a video game, he picks you up when he’s bored. Please divorce your husband, he deserves a wife that isn’t an ungrateful slut.
  • Way to shift blame from yourself, classic.

They go on, similarly.

There were a couple comments that strayed from the norm. A few people saying they believed what she did was horrible but they weren’t going to call her names. Ye olde white knights. “I’m not going to call you a slut buuuuuuut…” There were also a couple women who stepped up and said “I have felt like she has felt before. I haven’t cheated, but I understand why she did.”

Boom. That’s where my thesis rests.

Why don’t women leave before they cheat? Why do they cheat and then take to the internet for confessional? Why do studies report that guilt after infidelity is a sign of the desire to make reparations and not just a shitty emotion because you did something shitty because you wanted to leave? Many women report guilt because they felt they couldn’t live up to being the perfect wife. Many women report guilt because they had desires that they felt were ‘greedy’ when they should be pleasing their husbands. Many women report guilt in being unable to hold their families together for their children. Infidelity in this case may act as a crutch to ‘have it all.’ To be the wife. To be the mother. To hold the family together. To not have to find ways to make your needs met. But to find satisfaction somewhere else.

In turn I argue that when we call women sluts we’re silencing the real story behind what they did. Not the justification. Because you can’t justify infidelity. But you can look towards explaining what could provoke a women to do something that causes such moral agony. You can put a lens towards her grief, even if she is the one who caused that grief. (How often do we put ourselves into situations that we know will hurt us, after all?)

It’s no big shocker that internet comments are the dregs of the internet, but they are also a place of active silencing for women who want to share their stories. They say: we hear you, and we don’t want to hear you anymore. I think we can learn something from those stories that help make our relationships (with ourselves, and with our spouses) happier.

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The Language of Infidelity

In gathering research for my thesis I’ve had to read a lot of articles about infidelity. In doing so, I’ve found that the language seems to waiver depending on what decade the paper was written, and where the paper is putting its focus.

Before I write my paper, I have to determine how I want to phrase infidelity. The language you choose for a paper sets the tone for the paper. Do I want to call it infidelity? What about cheating? Stepping out? Adultery? Disloyalty? Being unfaithful? What about extramarital sex? We could always call it an affair, two-timing, back-stabbing. What about fooling around? Playing the game? A fling? Some hanky-panky?

If you weren’t counting, there’s 14 just there. And that doesn’t even account for the various types of infidelity there are. Was it emotional? Sexual? Sexual and emotional? Was it perceived by the adulteress as infidelity or was it genuinely by the script just not right? Is there a difference? What if you’re married? Dating? Engaged? For how long?

These are factors I have to figure out. Do I want to focus on a certain age range? Why? Heterosexual women? Why?

As of now, I’m leaning towards using my own language. So many of these papers were written between 1990-2004. Today we’re seeing more visible shifts in the paradigm. Couples are choosing to get married differently than they used to. Couples are taking on new boundaries in their relationships. Women have more flexibility in their relationships than they did in the 70s. Though we are still struggling for body autonomy in the states, women do have more rights and more support than they used to when it comes to pleasure and asking for what they want – and doing what they want.

Because of all of that I’ve thought about phrasing it unethical non-monogamy. That’s something I’ve used on my blog before, and goes in tandem with the current narrative of ethical non-monogamy. Unethical non-monogamy would be anything that a woman acknowledges she should not be doing with someone else but continues to do it anyways. I phrase it like this, because there seems to be a correlation between women feeling guilty after being UENM, and how much they feel that specific behavior was wrong.

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It’s a mouthful.

If you’ve missed some earlier posts, my general thesis is going to be expressing societal reasons women might experience guilt after infidelity. So far, research focuses primarily on evolutionary psychology perspectives. Women feel guilt because they know they did something wrong in the whole pair bonding system. I’m uninterested in that. I’m interested in why society tells women that we should expect men to cheat but they need to put up with it and stay at home anyways. I’m interested in why society tells women how to pleasure men and put their own satisfaction second. I’m interested in how seeking out something for yourself is done in these back-alley ways and why women don’t just leave their partners.

There has been some research that says guilt acts as a reparative system. You enter back into your relationship after cheating and you say “I feel guilty” and you look it, too. But what if that’s not true? What if the bad feeling is simply because you knew you were being transgressive? Why does that bad feeling reinforce a desire to stay in a relationship that – clearly – the women was struggling with in some way already.

So far my research looks like this: a lot of circles on a piece of paper, a different topic and idea in each circle. I want it to look like this: one giant circle, with lots of sub-plots. I wish I could shake my notes like a Wooly Willy and have all the little pieces go where they’re supposed to. But I suppose that defeats the whole point of writing a paper.

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Infidelity and The Powerful Juxtaposition

A big thank you to my guest blogger for emailing with me about his story. I have pulled some portions of his response into quotations that I felt were particularly relevant. It’s my hope that we are able to shine a light on why good intentioned people do such hurtful things. This is a story I’ve heard before, and maybe you’ve heard it too. How can we learn from stories like this to prevent ourselves, and our friends, from making the same mistakes? Read on, reader. Please keep your comments respectful, as I’ve come to expect. If anyone else would like to share their story please use the contact page at the top of my site to reach out.

Let’s learn a little more about you, first. 

What is your age and where in the world do you live? Would you consider your upbringing to be conservative? What kind of sexual education did you get?

I just turned 22. I lived in Texas for the first 18 years of my life in a small-medium town, and then went to school in Colorado for two years before transferring to south Florida to finish up my bachelors. My upbringing was indeed conservative–my family was never religious, but all of my friends and peers were. My parents also tended to have more conservative values. My sexual education was pretty limited; I didn’t have much in the way of talks about contraception almost at all and the main focus was on abstinence.

I am an atheist now, and consider myself very liberal.

Can you describe your relationship to us? How long did you date, how did you meet?

My relationship with L was unconventional. We actually met through a mutual friend that I had pursued previously. Our relationship was cultivated almost entirely online, starting with Facebook and transitioning into long phone conversations and Skype–She was from my Texas hometown, but I was in California when we began messaging.

We fell in love and declared as such in July of 2013. She was 18 and I was 21 (a large gap considering she was entering her senior year of high school and I my senior year of college) but I found her incredibly mature and insightful and saw numerous qualities that made me say “damn. I just may have found the girl I’m going to marry.”

Without going into excessive detail, we decided on having an open relationship. I had read significantly about the concept on your site as well as others, and felt that I wanted to give it a shot. L was hesitant but with further education and discussion came to be amenable to the idea, as we were so far away from each other and we did not want our life experience to be hampered by the obligations that a fully monogamous relationship entailed. However, we were very much in love and wanted to look towards the future and go to school in the same city the next year–possibly NY. We planned on possibly being exclusive at that point.

Things were happy for the first four to six months, I would say. But eventually, we began to have problems that I detail in the next question.

I consider L my third “real” girlfriend. I had two previous relationships in high school as well, but for various reasons I consider them more superficial, though they shaped me into my current self. L is my longest relationship to date and also the only person I have slept with.

Why don’t you describe the details that led up to the infidelity. What do you think brought you to that moment?

I believe a few key factors laid the groundwork for me to cheat:

1.   I had concerns that I was too young to fully settle down.
2.   I begun to suspect that L was not quite the person I thought she was; she had emotionally volatile tendencies that I perceived as immaturity issues, but I assumed that moving out of our hometown would mellow her out and she would undergo significant growth into who I thought she was originally
3.   A, the other woman, possessed numerous qualities that L lacked that alerted me to things I was lacking in my current relationship and needed to have in a life partner.

At a certain point in our relationship, we were having significant problems–jealousy, discrepancies in the amount of attention one was giving the other–that were causing both of us unhappiness. L strongly hinted that the open relationship was to blame, and I thought so at the time as well. (I now realize it was just sheer incompatibility as well as poor communication from both sides, particularly mine.) I knew at that point I either had to become exclusive earlier than anticipated with L and incur the possibility of never sleeping with or having a relationship with another girl again, or leave L. I felt strongly that I had so much love still to give to the world and so much discovery I wanted to do via relationships with others, but i did think that eventually, L would be the person I ended up with, so I made a judgment call and decided to initiate exclusivity and sacrifice the single life. This was my first mistake.

Was this primarily emotional infidelity or physical infidelity or a mix of both?

It was both. I met A on a two week trip about a month after I became exclusive with L, and we had an instant connection. Before long, she confessed her feelings to me. I decided to tell A about L’s existence before i took action on these feelings. However, i tell A that although I am seeing L, we’re not going to be in a relationship until the fall, which is a lie. I also told her that I wanted to explore our connection but did not want to create an expectation that we would pursue it after the trip was over. I didn’t want to outright lie to A but I also did not want to jeopardize all of my chances at a relationship with her. I go into the rationalizations I made for my behavior in the next questions, but one of them was that as long as I had good intentions and was “mostly honest”, the “right” outcome would happen. In truth, I realize now that I felt I wasn’t strong enough to turn down a potential two week fling, so I tried to set the stage for her to do it for me. Not my best plan of attack.

I kissed her when she decided that she wanted to go through with it and essentially dated her throughout the rest of the trip–nobody else on the trip was aware of L’s existence. What I didn’t expect is that I fell in love with A over the course of the trip, and she with me. She, in many respects, embodied a person that I had always wanted to share companionship with; someone with incredible drive and a fervent sense of empathy for anyone and everyone else.

She, in many ways, revealed to me many things that I was lacking in my current relationship.

In many ways, the relationship between A and I ran its course like it would have if L didn’t exist. While we didn’t sleep together (she’s saving until marriage), we did everything but and it felt incredible. At the end of the two weeks, I cried after I said goodbye to her. We wrote final letters to each other. It was an incredibly meaningful experience for both of us.

At no point did I feel like I cheated because I needed sexual gratification; there was a significant emotional void that A filled for me. I felt like A trusted me and believed in everything I was and stood for with such admiration.

I felt like she /got/ me, and I was at a point with L where I felt like a part of her detested who I was.

That juxtaposition was incredibly powerful.

During and after the infidelity explain how you felt. Was the infidelity on going or did it happen in a singular experience?

As stated above, it was an ongoing affair. It was a surreal experience; while I had feelings of guilt during the two weeks, I also had strong feelings that it was the “right” thing to pursue my feelings towards A. I made numerous rationalizations for my behavior:

– “well, I still love L and I’m going to still ship her a really elaborate and thoughtful gift for her birthday.”
– “A and I aren’t realistic options for the long term, so this will be perfect for me to be better for L! I can get my desire for another relationship out of my system and will have peace of mind for the rest of my relationship with L”
– “I really do love A and am expressing that the best way I know how. How is expressing love to the fullest at every possible moment wrong?”
– “I would hold resentment towards L for the rest of my life if I cut myself off from A during this trip. I don’t want to hold a grudge.”

I consider myself a highly emotionally aware person, so I just made everything make sense morally. Of course in hindsight, it was an immense betrayal of trust that I built with both A and L, which is the exact opposite of what love truly should be.

But I had such strong feelings for A that the blinders were on in full force and I couldn’t see that at all. I think a part of me didn’t want to.

Also, I think it’s important to note here that L actually had a ‘side relationship’ during our time being open. She was clear to him as well as me that I was much more important, but her having someone else, especially when I didn’t, caused a lot of issues for us.

To elaborate, during our time being open, I had failed to meet anyone and fulfill my desire to have a fling or even someone to make out with. I think I was already a bit sad for that when I left for my trip. It feels weird and selfish to say that but I felt like my youth wasn’t sufficiently lived–I was always fairly awkward growing up so I have only in the past year or so felt confident in flirting and talking to women. Meeting the “right” person so early in that period was awesome, but at the same time I held some sadness about it that I think I just denied to myself until it was too late. I think in the end I held an idea in my head of what an open relationship was supposed to be–what I wanted it to be–and it was a bit unrealistic. Eventually I think the right(wrong) circumstances came along in the form of A and I just lashed out without giving myself a chance to think.

After the infidelity, what happened?

I eventually decided on telling both parties that I cheated, with intentions of repairing the relationship between L and I. I tell L first, and I tell her that I kissed A at the end of the trip. I rationalized it by thinking that I shouldn’t have to hurt L more than necessary, but I should be honest that I emotionally and physically cheated. I left out that I fell in love with A but I mention that the connection was incredibly strong.

I was so focused on getting her forgiveness and minimizing her pain that I didn’t bring up at all why I cheated.

I.e. the problems we were having in the relationship that led us to this point. I think I didn’t feel like I was in a position to do so. I can’t decide whether I regret that or not. L was, of course, wildly upset and decides to take some time and evaluate our relationship on her upcoming vacation in Germany, where she wants to be single. However, we would keep in contact and if I could prove that I would better myself from this experience, she would take me back.

I told A everything, including that I hid the full truth from L, which she is obviously upset at me for. She is also incredibly hurt by the situation and we decide to break off all communication.

L and I emailed every day while she is abroad, and I realize that a central issue of our relationship was that I felt the need to hide certain details from her because I felt like her feelings would be hurt or that I didn’t trust her to emotionally process things the right way. I knew that if I were to pursue any sort of relationship at all, I needed to be 100% honest with her all the time, consequences be damned. I made a decision then (about two weeks after the first conversation) to tell L everything that happened, and iterate a commitment to total honesty moving forward and a desire to rebuild our relationship. She then is furious and breaks off all contact with me.

I try to reach out to A and let her know that I did the right thing and told L and that we were done, but A, understandably, never responded.

It has been about a month and I have not spoken to A since. L and I have had sparse conversations about exchanging possessions of each others’ we’ve had, and she still holds a lot of bitterness and hate towards me for the situation. I can’t say I fault her for it. We are planning on meeting in September to make a single exchange, and we will have a final conversation then about everything. One of the hardest things to deal with from this is that she may never forgive me.

Do you feel that you could have prevented the infidelity from happening?

My feelings on this question are complicated. I believe the only thing I could change about the situation is that I should have had the courage to break things off with L before cheating.

However, the bond I experienced with A was so strong and so eye opening that although I would never put myself in that situation in the future, a part of me is glad I experienced it.

You don’t lose someone like that and make the same mistakes twice.

Everything was so hazy during that two weeks. I really did have an overwhelming feeling at the time that pursuing A was the right thing. It resonated deeply inside me and overrode all reason and logic. I’m incredibly remorseful for my actions, but I almost felt helpless to my heart. I understand that sounds like an excuse–it’s sincere.

I was cognizant that my actions were traditionally wrong, but since I had good intentions and wasn’t cheating maliciously, it was fine. Which is of course, not fine.

As the person who was unfaithful in the relationship (presuming your partner was not also unfaithful) are there any sentiments that you feel are important to share that others would not like to hear or are difficult to say? Do you feel it difficult to share your side of the story with others?

I would say that my biggest lesson from the situation was that you should constantly ensure that you evaluate any relationship you are in based on current realities rather than assumptions.

I was so caught up in assuming that L was perfect for me that I spent a lot of time performing mental gymnastics to keep her in that role.

Really, our relationship had simply run its course, and I should have had many more honest conversations about that possibility early on. Perhaps it would have saved our relationship, or perhaps it would have ended naturally before my trip and I would be free to pursue A to this day without having truly lost both L and A.

I would never condone cheating. On no level do I feel like what I did was the right thing to do. I lost two of the most influential people in my life–two people that I both loved–through actions that were entirely my fault, and I will live with that pain for a long time, maybe forever. That said, the experience that I’ve gained as a result of the choices I made will serve me incredibly well. The pain I continue to go through will serve as a motivator for constant self-evaluation.

Sharing this story with others has actually been manageable and has also been the biggest part of me recovering from the fallout. I encourage anyone in this situation to reach out to anyone you can about it–I’ve explained the situation to and received feedback from mutual friends of L, mutual friends of A, and friends that never met either of them. I was surprised to discover that other people that I held in incredibly high esteem had cheated before in their lives as well, and was also surprised at the level of empathy shown from people that had been cheated on in the past.

People will surprise you.

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Stream of Thought on Infidelity

I go through phases of interest on my blog. Lately I’ve been really hung up on the idea of infidelity. This one seems to come in waves. I wrote a pretty big post about infidelity in 2012 and as of now, its still my highest rated post.

I have been trying to figure out what exactly interests me so much about infidelity. I’ve realized that one key point is that we silence those who cheat. As a student of Psychology, it is the silenced voices that interest me the most. Why don’t we want to hear what these people have to say? Why aren’t we listening to them? How might listening to them give us valuable information about why and how infidelity happens?

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I spend some time on reddit and I am usually the only voice (quickly down-voted) asking what happened for the infidelity to occur.

I suggest that it is likely one of three things:

a) The unfaithful partner wasn’t fully satisfied in the relationship (emotionally or physically) and found a way to be satisfied outside of the relationship. It is possible that they want out of the relationship, it is also possible that they simply didn’t know how to be satisfied in the relationship and faltered in their monogamy.

b) The unfaithful partner was no longer interested in being in the relationship and didn’t know how to verbalize this because the relationship itself was okay. Instead (as recently broken down by Dan Savage) they hurt the relationship and used that crack they created to leave.

or, fan favorite,

c) They’re just a horrible asshole fuck them you can’t rationalize anything ever they’re just a bad person they should burn in hell.

There are other reasons people cheat, of course. But as I’ve talked over and over again to people who have experienced both sides of infidelity, these reasons repeat themselves again and again.

There is regret because they are unhappy, but they want to stay, because they’re just not sure they can leave. They want to be in love, they are in love, they think they’re in love. Can you be in love and cheat? Can you heal a relationship after you’ve broken it in this way? I think the answer to both questions is yes. As noted in my previous post (linked at the top) most people who cheat end up seeming to regret their actions. I would also expect that most people who cheat also begin said relationships by reaffirming that they would never be unfaithful.

What happens between point and point b?

Those are the stories that I find most interesting, and most useful, in preventing infidelity from happening. Given how prevalent infidelity is (I am expecting that most people reading this are in some way familiar) its something that is not given much attention. I am also interested in how infidelity varies given cultural context (see France, more about that in this book.)

To have this conversation with anyone/everyone, someone much more deeply invested than I would have to somehow balance the real legitimacy of both wanting to and not wanting to validate the emotions coming from both sides. How is this done, and how is it done correctly?

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Polyamory: It’s not infidelity

You don’t have to go more than a week without seeing a popular news site write an article about polyamory. These past few years have been a firm introduction to ethical non-monogamy in the media.

I imagine a fair mix of writers here. Half of them veteran columnists, exploring polyamory as though it were Jeff Vandermeer’s “Area X” – a dangerous place where one ought not put themselves mentally for fear that they themselves too will change. The other half, actually poly, having either offered or been sought out to write a post on the mysteries everyone is hearing so much about.

My favorite part about a good poly article is when it’s posted on Facebook and I can read the comments people (probably those who only read the title) leave. I like to imagine that they are sitting in their little homes doing normal people things like drinking coffee or watching a sitcom and then – there it is. Something happening on the internet that they’re an expert at.

My favorite comment is some variation of this:

Great, it sounds like more vindication for cheating. 

I love this comment so much because it has absolutely nothing to do with anything and makes no sense. It is so passive aggressive that half the time a little “awwwwwwwww” escapes. Like when you feed your cat something they’re not used to and they just sort of look at it like “what, do you think I’m an asshole? I’m not eating that!”

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The great thing about polyamory is that you don’t have to like it. It’s been happening, and quite well, without you approving of it. And people are eating it up. Why? One reason is because it provides an alternative to infidelity. People who are satisfied in their relationships are less likely to go outside of their relationships to find satisfaction. So weird. Amiright.

Infidelity: the action or state of being unfaithful to a spouse or other sexual partner.

Unfaithful: engaging in sexual relations with a person other than one’s regular partner in contravention of a previous promise or understanding.

If we can trust the definition of words (which – y’know – I prefer to make up my own definitions, but lets go with it) we can come to some common understanding about infidelity here.

To put it in laymen’s terms: cheating is that thing that happens when you have sexy times with someone after you told your partner that you wouldn’t have the sexy times.

In the case of polyamory, that’s almost exactly the opposite. In many cases, polyamory includes a verbal understanding that sexy times will happen with other people. It’s also important to note that not all poly relationships involve sex. In fact, polyamory, looking at -amory, is really about love and feelings and emotional intimacy.

But who cares about that shit? Not the media! Not Miss Sarah reading The Atlantic or The Fox News machine! This pertains to her because… morality!

Some poly relationships are simply about exploring the vast emotional connections that one person can have and maintain. Some involve exploring new sexual relationships with those people. The whole tree of ethical non-monogamy and the various forms of relationships aren’t ever really brought into these articles, so it’s an understatement to say that these commenters aren’t getting the full picture.

Any relationship (monogamous or otherwise) is based on an understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Any relationship, monogamous or non-monogamous, can struggle with issues of satisfaction and – potentially – infidelity.

Lesson? Don’t read the comments on news articles. If you do, do so as a reminder that there is work to be done.

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