There is no pain like that that comes with being betrayed. Not only is it very painful to know that the person you love has broken your trust, but the consequences of infidelity can be pretty earth shattering. From broken hearts to broken families to victims having trouble trusting future relationships, cheating can cause unprecedented agony compared to other relationship betrayals.
“Every betrayal hurts. But the particular betrayal of being lied to about an affair can feel worse than other types of lying,” says Dr. Tammy Nelson, author of Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement and other books on relationship dynamics and infidelity. “It affects self-esteem and forces the cheating partner to change their own identity to fit their new role as a cheater’s partner.”
Basically, infidelity is messy and hurts like hell. But learning how it manifests and why it happens in the first place can be a helpful step in overcoming or healing the fear of it after it has already happened. Here’s what you need to know.
What is infidelity?
“Infidelity is a breach of a couple’s relationship obligation,” says licensed professional counselor Brandy Porche, owner of His Daughter Counseling The Heart. When individuals commit to each other, they should define and agree on expectations of exclusivity. If fraud occurs, it means that the obligation has been breached.
dr Nelson explains that “Couples can feel cheated by many variations of deviating from a monogamy agreement.” For example, some couples might define kissing another person as cheating, while others do not. Some may enjoy it when their partner flirts with a sexy co-worker, but draw the line with them if you continue the conversation over text after work. It’s up to each individual to express where that line is for them, even though the conversation can be difficult.
“Each couple should define their expectations up front and before they commit,” says Porche. “Couples should engage and discuss their mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual expectations. This allows both partners to make an informed decision before joining the union.” If your partner knows exactly what cheating means to you and vice versa, then you are less likely to face misunderstandings later.
Why does fraud happen?
Even if you and your partner have an individual agreement about what cheating looks like in your relationship, that doesn’t mean you can’t or never want to cheat. Ultimately, no one can control anyone else, and according to Dr. Nelson there are many reasons why fraud can happen. Here are just a few:
- Can Opener Matters: “A ‘can opener’ affair is when someone cheats to get out of their relationship,” says Nelson. Essentially, the cheating partner is either consciously or unconsciously trying to leave their partnership. It forces their non-cheating partner to do the work of ending the relationship due to infidelity instead of the cheating partner communicating that they want to break up. Avoidable, but common.
- wake-up call-affair: Not every cheater wants their primary relationship to end, but cheating can still manifest itself as a result of uncommunicated issues. “Sometimes, as couples often tell me, an affair can be a way to spark a relationship and ultimately prove to be ‘the best thing that ever happened to a marriage,'” says Nelson. Cheating can sometimes force a couple to stop pretending everything is fine when it isn’t, and ultimately address their issues, potentially saving the relationship.
- Matters of occasion: “Infidelity doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the current relationship or your partner, but it could just be an opportunity that for whatever reason you couldn’t pass up,” says Nelson. Sometimes fraud happens without prior planning or intention. It can be an engaging conversation at a hotel bar that grows into something more, or an offer to act out a fantasy.
What forms can fraud take?
Porche says cheating can take three forms: emotional, sexual, and spiritual.
“Emotional infidelity occurs when one of the partners in the committed relationship develops an emotional connection and bond with someone outside of the relationship,” says Porche. This could be texting a friend so often that it’s in sync with her partner, or secretly allowing feelings of love and attraction to grow with someone else. When cheating is poorly defined within a couple, the cheating partner may claim, “Nothing physical happened, so it doesn’t count,” but “in many cases, this type of infidelity can make the relationship more hurtful and damaging,” Porche says.
Sexual infidelity is the most obvious type of cheating, and it’s when a partner “engages in sexual relations with someone outside of the committed relationship,” Porche says. In general, sexual contact with someone outside of the relationship is implicitly defined as cheating, but it’s always best to be specific about exactly where that line is drawn with your partner.
Porche also describes what she calls spiritual infidelity. “This is when a partner spiritually connects with someone outside of the relationship, to the point of attachment and dependency. This particular type of infidelity can begin as an innocent spiritual connection in the form of help that leads to emotional attachment and expectations.”
If your partner used to come to their senses in times of need or distress but instead finds that comfort in someone else, this could essentially be a case of spiritual infidelity.
Can cheating happen in non-monogamous relationships?
There is a false stereotype that people engage in non-monogamy to absolve themselves of possible cheating, but that is far from the truth. “Even in open relationships, affairs can happen,” says Nelson. She describes it as cheating or betraying a non-monogamy agreement. “A partner can have secrets from more than one partner, just as they can cheat on a monogamous partner. Any betrayal outside of an open agreement is considered infidelity,” says Nelson.
Most non-monogamists enjoy the greater depth of communication required to make their lifestyle work and are able to clearly define what cheating looks like to them. For example, not only is a triad of partners monogamous for one person, but they may agree to be monogamous among themselves and be closed off to other potential relationships. Or swingers like to meet up with other couples, but only agree to a “soft swap” where no penetration takes place. Violating these limits could be viewed as breach of trust by those who originally set the terms.
Some people mistakenly see non-monogamy as the solution to infidelity, but most people in this lifestyle know that opening up a relationship should be done to enhance it, not fix it. “Changing the agreement when things aren’t working out to be more fluid and flexible doesn’t cure betrayal,” warns Nelson. “It can only work if both partners are willing to communicate and practice a new, more open monogamy form of arrangement and can collectively create a vision of their ideal future and continually redefine it as they grow.”
Can a relationship be saved after cheating?
Yes, healing a relationship after a betrayal can be possible if both partners still love each other, can forgive each other, and genuinely want it to work, but that healing can take time. “The truth is the first step in trying to heal infidelity — the cheating partner has to admit the betrayal,” says Porche. The next step is for them to explain their decision to cheat and admit that it was indeed a decision.
“The third step is for the cheating partner to be there for the other partner while they mentally and emotionally process the betrayal,” says Porche. You need to be supportive as the betrayed partner experiences the fury of betrayal and mourns the loss of what they believed their relationship was.
Both partners need to be open about their feelings during this process and understand that adjusting to this new reality can feel like a roller coaster ride. Some relationships can emerge stronger from this challenge, but it’s also important to recognize when it’s beyond repair and when to walk away. “Most of the time, infidelity is the unreconciled result of the cheating partner’s internal events,” says Porche. Therefore, in general, a scammer’s willingness to undergo personal therapy and address these issues is critical to healing from the incident.
Healing after a partner has cheated is not only about making the relationship work, but also about recovering from the damage caused by their actions. Whether it’s learning to trust again or realizing that your self-worth has nothing to do with their behavior, taking care of yourself first is essential to even moving forward. Surround yourself with affirmative people who will listen to what you are experiencing, practice self-care, and remember that you are not responsible for the choices made by someone else.
Can someone who has been scammed change their behavior?
Chances are you know several people who have been unfaithful at some point in their life, many of whom have likely become great partners after working on their relationship and on themselves. So yes, someone who has been unfaithful can change. Having cheated in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen again. But! Everyone has the right to date whoever they want. If a history of cheating is a deal breaker for you, that’s totally fine and up to you.
On the other hand, people who are not willing to look within and work on themselves in therapy may not be able to overcome their desire to cheat. “It’s true that some people are compulsive in lying and hiding repeated affairs,” says Nelson, “and if you’re in a relationship with that person, it could be a sign that it’s time to get out of the relationship.” Cheating partners may have no interest in being monogamous or may be suffering from unresolved trauma that makes it difficult for them to commit. You can’t change this or anything else about a partner – they have to want it themselves.
It’s important to get professional help if you’re the cheating partner and your behavior is spiraling out of control, says Dr. Nelson. “Therapy can be a great way to get to the bottom of any pattern that’s affecting your (and your partner’s) life and happiness.”
Ultimately, only those who have cheated can challenge the notion that they cannot or will not change. Remember, with open communication, therapy, and a willingness to work together on the relationship, almost anything is possible.
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