How can we define infidelity? Is it just what we decide to do or not do? Or is there a more fundamental issue at stake?
Porn. Sexting. Emotional affairs. “I did not have sex with that woman!” Infidelity as a concept has never been more battered. Define infidelity? Where do you start? You would be surprised.
Well.. let’s start with what infidelity doesn’t look like. Gottman tells us that an essential aspect of all forms of infidelity is comparison theory. Some of us are comparing any sort of attractive “other”, perhaps a pixelated porn playmate, a close “friend” you share your innermost thoughts with, or some stranger you pass time with whether vitally or virtually.
Infidelity is when you are actively turning away from your partner and toward someone or something else in secret. Infidelity is not just what you do, it’s the active turning away from a stance of trust and transparency.
Define infidelity? Let’s start with betrayal. Gottman tells us that there are many kinds of betrayal. And the essence of betrayal is secrecy. Most of our clients tell us that they start keeping secrets about what they feel because they don’t want to “upset” their partner by “rocking the boat.” Research tells us that the slippery slope of infidelity begins with a subtle pattern of conflict avoidance.
It is this increasing emotional distance that sets a couple up for infidelity. Every day we choose to engage in a cascade of behaviors that either tends to keep us close and connected to our partners or tend to promote drift and distance.
Betrayal doesn’t happen overnight. It is the result of a subtle, almost glacially slow shift out of an intimate connection. When we believe our partner isn’t there for us, we can slide into slippery secrets and slowly form new attachment bonds outside of the marriage. These attachments can sneak up on us, as we allow more of our loneliness and growing despair to be attended to in extra-marital relationships.
Cross-cultural studies have revealed the fundamental fact that trust is the most important factor in healthy marriages.
It doesn’t matter if you are Mormon or Mongolian, Atheist or Armenian, Polyamorous or Polynesian, it is the fundamental need of all intimate partner bonds. Trust is a must. Trust never sleeps. Research tells us that an abiding sense of intimate trust enables us to remain vulnerable and open, able to love deeply and profoundly.
Infidelity is the result of eroded trust and the gradual increasing normalization of secrecy and betrayal.
And yet betrayal often begins as a lazy series of accommodations. Why bother to engage in conflict with your remote intimate partner? Why try to talk about your growing loneliness and sense of isolation? Gottman tells us that conflict is part of the deal with intimacy. It’s baked in the cake. Keeping intimacy means communicating the tough stuff. The hassles, hurts, and frustrations.
So when you disengage from your partner, you spare yourself short term discomfort. But you are actually investing in long-term emotional disconnection. Unfaithful men are less driven by their abiding dissatisfactions than most unfaithful women and are consequently more bewildered by their resulting predicaments.
Most men who have slid into emotional affairs complain bitterly. “How could I let this happen? How did I get into this?” I tell them that they got there one secret at a time.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.