By Robert Weiss, LCSW
Once upon a time infidelity was pretty easy to identify. If a person was having sex outside of his or her primary relationship – with a neighbor, a coworker, a casual acquaintance, a prostitute, or perhaps a total stranger – then he or she was cheating. However, in today’s world of social media, chat rooms, digital pornography, interactive webcams, instant messaging, “adult friend finder” apps, sexting, and the like, the definition of cheating is somewhat murky. Is a live, in-the-flesh interaction still required, or does a webcam encounter with someone half a world away count equally? Does masturbating to Internet pornography qualify as infidelity? What about flirting with sexually available people via Facebook or smartphone apps like Blendr and Ashley Madison?
Let’s face it, for many people, especially those of us over thirty, it’s a new and confusing world. That said, I offer here a simple, straightforwarddefinition of sexual infidelity, developed through more than two decades of work with betrayed spouses and their ultimately remorseful mates.
Sexual infidelity is the breaking of trust that occurs when sexual secrets are kept from an intimate partner.
At the end of the day, sexual infidelity is not so much about the physical sex act – either in the real world or online – it’s about the fact that you are keeping it a secret from your partner, the one person in the world with whom you supposedly share everything. If you’re looking at pornography and your spouse knows about it and is OK with it, then it’s not a problem. But if your spouse doesn’t know, you’re cheating. If you’re chatting on Facebook with an old flame from college and your partner knows and doesn’t mind, so be it. But if you’re keeping these interactions a secret from your partner, you might want to re-think what you’re doing. Basically, if you’re hiding any sexual or romantic behavior from your significant other, you’re engaging in infidelity. It’s just that simple.
Is It Really Such a Big Deal?
Sadly, many cheaters don’t realize how profoundly their secretive sexual behavior can affect the long-term emotional life of a trusting spouse or partner. Usually when the cheated-on partner finds out about the infidelity – and they almost always do – it’s not the extramarital sex that causes the most pain; instead, it’s the fact the partner’s trust and belief in the person that he or she is closest to has been shattered. It makes no difference if the cheating occurred in person or online through the use of porn, webcams, social media, or some other digital technology. In other words, a “virtual world” affair is every bit as painful to a betrayed spouse as an in-the-flesh affair. No matter where or how the infidelity took place, learning about it is incredibly traumatic for the cheated on partner. One study shows it can even result in acute stress symptoms characteristic ofpost-traumatic stress disorder.[i] That’s pretty serious stuff.
In some ways the trauma that arises when a cheated-on partner learns about his or her significant other’s infidelity stems from the fact that while the cheater has obviously known about the extracurricular sexual activity all along and may actually be feeling some relief once caught, the betrayed spouse is usually blindsided by the information. And even when the partner was not fully deceived and had some prior knowledge of the infidelity, learning the full extent of the behavior may be incredibly painful and overwhelming. After all, cheating is usually an ongoing pattern rather than an isolated incident, and knowing about a singular affair with a coworker is scant preparation for learning about a spouse’s enduring array of porn use, webcam trysts, prostitutes, and other affairs. Plus, it’s not just anyone who’s causing this pain. The injury – the trauma – experienced by betrayed partners is amplified by the fact that they have been cheated on by the person they most counted on to have their back. “Betrayal” really is the right word for this.
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