Mental Monday: How Do You Define “Forsaking All Others?”

Here we go again.

Another celebrity with “indiscretions” is in the news and the chatter online and at the water-cooler is abuzz.

Scandalous! Exactly how many women were involved with him?!? His poor wife. He liked to do what? He did what where? He says he loves her?!? If that was my husband, I would….

We all hear about the (insert celebrities, pro-athletes, politicians) who cheat on their spouses. It makes front page news and fills the 24/7 news and gossip cycles. Their personal marital problems become subject to our opinion, judgment, and fodder.  It’s also apparent that there are people who get some sort of sad satisfaction knowing that even the “perfect” people and couples among us are not so perfect after all. These stories humanize them. The reality is, they deal with the same problems that many of us will face in our own relationships. The only difference is that our relationships are not typically available for public scrutiny.

Extramarital affairs are a common occurrence. Why is that? People claim all sorts of reasons: biological urges and impulses, revenge, avoidance, to get attention, a need for independence, to feel special or desired, etc… There are varied reports, but studies indicate that about 60% of married men and 45% of married women report an extramarital affair (Glass & White, 1992).  In a 2001 study, one researcher noted that 70%  of marriages experience an affair (Brown, 2001). And in case your head isn’t spinning yet, here is another statistic out there – 90% of first divorces included some form of infidelity (Pittman and Wagers, 2005).

That is staggering.

There are many variables to studies such as these, but one important component is to recognize what actually defines cheating. What it means to me doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to you. How do you define cheating? How does your partner define cheating? If you don’t know the answer to those questions, you should figure it out. Ask your partner. It’s best to be on the same page when it comes to appropriate boundaries within your relationship.

The simple definition of an extramarital affair is almost universally accepted. It is usually defined as when a partner gives his or her sexual and/or primary emotional needs to someone other than their partner. In some relationships, cheating is identified with something like flirting or having a non-business related lunch with someone from the opposite sex (or same sex depending on the orientation). On the other extreme, giving sexual or emotional needs to another party is accepted or, at the very least, ignored.  Boundaries differ in every relationship, but it’s crucial to know what boundaries apply to your own relationship. There should be absolutely no confusion between you and your partner and the earlier you talk about it in your relationship, the better. 

An extramarital affair is not always about sex. In fact, the increase in reported extramarital affairs is due to another component known as an Emotional Affair. An emotional affair has the potential to be even more devastating to a relationship than a sexual affair. Do we all give some of our emotional needs to someone other than our partner? Yes. We confide in friends. We confide in our sisters and brothers. We confide in our moms and dads. Those are typical emotional attachments. What can be problematic is when there is the potential for an emotional affair.  A heterosexual married woman might be able to confide to her best girlfriend about anything and everything, including personal confidences, and most people don’t bat an eye. But what if her best friend is a heterosexual man?  What if they regularly go out alone or communicate via e-mail or phone to discuss private matters, matters that might not even be discussed between the woman and her husband. There is no sex involved, but the woman is giving time, energy, and intimacy to another man. Would you consider this scenario an emotional affair? Many people, including myself, do.

The aftermath of exposed infidelity, sexual or emotional, is a challenge for everyone. For therapists, affairs are often one of the most complex issues to deal with in marriage therapy. At least 50% of couples headed to marriage counseling do so because of an extramarital affair. Most affairs are considered a crisis within a relationship and it is a very delicate process to work a couple through the situation. Even after the couple has addressed the affair, the issue will emerge again and again. For some couples, it is much easier for them to end the relationship rather than deal with issue. But not everyone calls it quits, at least not right away. In fact, many couples are able to work past an affair and stay together for years to come. They may eventually divorce, but the initial crisis of a revealed affair does not usually break them up.

Anything you would like to add or share? Please comment below.