Most sex therapists will at some point find themselves face to face with a woman who has just discovered that her husband, boyfriend, wife or partner has been cheating on her. Before these sessions, I work on grounding myself so I can hold space for her shocked, hurt, and angry reactions.
Research estimates that up to 25 percent of committed monogamous relationships experience infidelity at some stage in the relationship. Whether that infidelity is emotional or sexual, involves text messaging, online chat rooms or in-person meetings, is an ongoing affair or a one-time connection, involves paid sex workers, or involves sexually compulsive behavior—the emotional impact of infidelity is immense. It is akin to the aftermath of an earthquake where the ground beneath the injured partner has ruptured to reveal the seismic fault lines of the relationship below.
Many women make misguided assumptions about themselves, the relationship, and their partner based on infidelity myths that permeate our culture. This is the first post in a two part series debunking myths 1 through 4 of the 7 most common myths cheated on women believe. Part 2 covers myths 5 through 7.
- The relationship is over.
- My partner/spouse cheated on me because he/she doesn’t love me.
- My partner/spouse is no longer attracted to me.
- My partner’s narcissism is the reason they cheated.
Myth #1: “The relationship is over”
Many of my clients whose partners have had non-monogamous affairs or casual hookups worry that if they don’t leave, others will see them as a failure to be “run over” by someone. This fear is fueled by the common cultural belief that infidelity means the end of the relationship—but that’s not true. In fact, according to a study by Marin et al. 60 to 80 percent of married couples after a case of infidelity together.
Whether a woman chooses to remain in the relationship or leave, it is crucial that the therapeutic space remains free of judgment. It is crucial that injured partners are encouraged to express all of their different feelings in treatment after the infidelity is discovered. While friends or family members in their lives may have strong opinions about what they should be doing (often based on these cultural tropes), therapy or coaching should focus on practices, techniques, and reflections that enable each woman to move through these different Wading emotions – including relationship ambivalence.
While I’m not encouraging couples to just go back to the way their relationship was before the infidelity, it’s common for cheating partners to experience denial and go back to their previous cycles to stabilize their rollercoaster feelings. This denial stops the therapeutic process. If the couple is unable to figure out what sparked the betrayal, it will be difficult to rebuild a stronger, more authentic relationship. It can sometimes take up to a year for couples to rebuild their relationship/marriage after infidelity – but it’s a job that has long-lasting benefits.
Myth #2: “My partner cheated on me because he doesn’t love me”
There are a number of reasons people commit infidelity. Some people may cheat because they no longer love their partner. Others cheat to explore a secret sexual interest because they have lost a need for intimacy due to various circumstances, or because they have a desperate compulsive need for positive reinforcement after a childhood of bullying or abuse. While these are not excuses for breaking a monogamous agreement or marriage vows, they are declarations based on emotions that can coexist with the love a person has for their partner.
All of these explanations are rooted in the inability of the person who is cheating to communicate their feelings or needs to their partner. Often the stray partner did not grow up with examples of committed romantic relationships or relationships that model how relationship needs are communicated. Without tools to communicate with their partner, someone may do whatever is necessary to meet their needs—even going against their own ethics or values. In many cases, the betrayed partner can only recognize through the therapy that it was not a lack of love for him that led to the infidelity, but the partner’s internalized fear and despair.
Myth #3: “My partner is no longer attracted to me”
When my clients tell me they fear their partner is no longer attracted or attracted to them, I try to elucidate and expand their definition of “attraction.” Our culture tends to define attraction as purely sexual – which is not the case. Someone may be attracted to their partner’s confidence, sense of humor and fun, openness, emotional intelligence, or intellect and wit. Sexual attraction is complex.
According to Janssen and Bancroft’s dual control model of sexuality, the source of sexual arousal (or what we sex therapists call the gas pedal) can be suppressed by an increase in inhibitory responses (or the brake pedal). A person’s inhibitory response may increase due to anxiety, stress, panic, awkwardness, physical pain, or psychiatric disorders. And often, someone experiencing one of these inhibiting reactions is very ashamed of having it. Untreated shame can lead people to breakdowns, relapses, or inner splits — which many partners consciously or unconsciously hide from their partners. Shame and secrets lead to disembodied or dissociated sexuality rather than integrated or aligned sex that combines love and lust.
Myth #4: “My partner’s narcissism is the reason he cheated”
Many people attribute infidelity to traits associated with narcissism, such as increased sexual appetites, more permissive attitudes toward casual sex, and overly positive beliefs about their abilities — including their ability to hide an affair or convince someone to start theirs to forgive infidelity. While my clients often report that their partner has some of these traits, it doesn’t mean they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
I have found that some behaviors that the cheating partner interprets as narcissism are actually the result of resentment from the person who is cheating. Often the betrayer will tell me that they feel their partner is ignoring their emotional or sexual needs. They may feel validated when they break the monogamy agreement, believing that they are entitled to have their needs met and that their partner is “abandoning” them. This type of bonding breakdown can also be the result of growing up with poor communication models.