Most sex therapists, at one time or another, find themselves sitting across from a woman who has just discovered that her husband, boyfriend, wife, or partner has cheated on them. Before those sessions, I work to ground myself so that I can hold space for their shocked, hurt, and rageful reactions.
Research estimates that up to 25 percent of committed monogamous relationships struggle with infidelity at some stage of coupledom. Whether that infidelity is emotional or sexual, involves texting, online chat rooms, or meetings in person, is an ongoing affair, or one-time hookup, involves paid sex workers, or sexually compulsive behavior–infidelity’s emotional impact is immense. It is akin to the fallout of an earthquake in which the ground under the hurt partner has cracked open 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 blog of a two-part series, which will bust myths 1 to 4 of the 7 most common myths believed by betrayed women. Part 2 will cover myths 5 to 7.
- The relationship is over
- My partner/spouse cheated because they don’t love me
- My partner/spouse isn’t attracted to me anymore
- My partner’s narcissism is the reason they cheated
Myth #1 “The relationship is over”
Many of my clients whose partners have had extra-monogamous affairs or casual hookups fear that if they don’t leave, she is and will be seen by others as a loser who is letting someone “walk all over” her. Feeding this fear is the common cultural belief that infidelity means the end of the relationship–but that is not true. In fact, according to a study by Marin et al., 60 to 80 percent of married couples remain together after an instance of infidelity.
Whether a woman wants to remain or leave their relationship, it is crucial that the therapeutic space is left judgment free. It’s critical that hurt partners are encouraged to express all their divergent emotions in treatment after infidelity discovery. While friends or family members in their lives may express strong opinions about what they ought to do (frequently based on these cultural tropes), the therapy or coaching should be centered on exercises, techniques and reflections that allows each woman to wade through those divergent emotions–including relationship ambivalence.
While I don’t encourage couples to simply return to the way their relationship was before the infidelity, it is common that betrayed partners experience denial and go back into their previous cycles in order to stabilize their roller coaster emotions. This denial halts the therapeutic process. Unless the couple is able to identify what precipitated the betrayal, it will be challenging to rebuild a stronger, more authentic relationship. It sometimes takes up to a year for couples to repair their relationship/marriage after infidelity–but it is work that has long standing benefits.
Myth #2 “My partner cheated because they don’t love me”
There are a number of reasons that people commit infidelity. Some people may cheat because they have fallen out of love with their partner. Others cheat to explore a secret sexual interest, because of a need for intimacy that has been lost due to a variety of circumstances, or due to a desperate compulsive need for positive reinforcement after a childhood filled with bullying or abuse. While these are not excuses for breaking a monogamy agreement or marriage vow, they are explanations based on emotions that can co-exist with the love a person has for their partner.
All of these explanations are rooted in the person who cheats’ inability to communicate their emotions or needs to their partner. Often, the straying partner didn’t grow up around examples of securely attached romantic relationships, or relationships that model how to communicate relational needs. With no tools to communicate with their partner, someone may find themselves doing whatever it takes to have their needs met–even going against their own ethics or values. In many cases it is through therapy that the betrayed partner is able to see that it isn’t a lack of love for them that led to infidelity, but rather their partners’ internalized fear and desperation.
Myth #3 “My partner isn’t attracted to me anymore”
When my clients tell me they fear their partner is no longer attracted to or turned on by them, I try to educate and expand their definition of “attraction”. Our culture tends to define attraction as purely sexual–which is not the case. Someone can 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 excitation (or what we sex therapists refer to as the gas pedal) can be squashed by an increase in inhibitory responses (or the brake pedal). A person’s inhibitory response can increase due to anxiety, stress, panic, awkwardness, physical pain, or psychiatric disorders. And often, someone experiencing one of these inhibitory responses holds tremendous shame for having them. Untreated shame may lead people to have breakdowns, relapses, or result in internal split selves–which many partners consciously or unconsciously hide from their partners. Shame and secrets lead to a disembodied or disassociated sexuality rather than integrated or aligned sex that combines love and lust.
Myth #4 “My partner’s narcissism is the reason they cheated”
Many people attribute infidelity to characteristics associated with narcissism. These include an increased sexual appetite, more permissive attitudes towards casual sex, and overly positive beliefs about their abilities–including their ability to hide their extra-monogamous relationship or convince both partners to forgive their infidelity. While my clients often report that their partner has some of these traits, it does not mean that they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
I have found that some behaviors the betrayed partner interprets as narcissism is actually the result of resentments held by the person who cheats. Often, the betrayer will tell me that they feel their partner is ignoring their emotional or sexual needs. They might feel vindicated in breaking the monogamy agreement because they believe they are entitled to having their needs met and that their partner “let them down”. This kind of attachment breakdown may also be the result of growing up with poor models of communication.
COMING SOON! 7 Myths about Infidelity Believed by Betrayed Partners: Part 2