cheating...worth ending a relationship over?

I recently went to a workshop held by leading U.S. Sex Therapist and author, Barry McCarthy. It’s common in most seminars to nod off and get a bit bored in parts, however I was kept thoroughly intrigued for the entire 7 hours with topics like fetishes, sexual orientation, trauma, affairs, erectile dysfunction, porn, premature ejaculation, orgasms, desire and eroticism…can you blame me? Wow, the world of sex and relationships is so vast and juicy! I love it!

There was one piece of information that stumped me (other than men wanting to cross dress in the bedroom, but that’s another blog article for another day!). The statistic was that 35-45% of marriages involve a sexual or emotional extra marital affair (EMA) and these are most likely to occur in the first 5 years of the marriage, especially in the first 2 years.

My reaction: wtf!?

Most people mistakenly believe that EMAs occurs after 10-20 years of marriage, or after the birth of their first child and that the prime cause is sexual boredom, however in reality sexual boredom is rarely a prime cause. I will get to that…

Barry mentioned another stat which shocked me: 70% of couples survive an affair. I had always come from the mindset that if someone cheats, that’s it! Dump their ass, kick them out, move on, more fish in the sea…NEXT! But this made me look at it from another angle since he had urged us that a marriage should not die just because of an EMA.

Barry explained that the reason behind affairs is multidimensional and there are many contributing factors. Sometimes they have nothing to do with the marriage. The most common affair (especially for men) is one that has high opportunity with low involvement, (AKA paying for a hooker, having a one night stand, massage with happy ending, weekend fling while away traveling for business). He said 25% of men will have an affair, and despite it being high involvement, the workplace is a common benefactor, providing large numbers of people with constant contact, common interests, an income to camouflage the costs of socializing outside the office, and a great excuse. He also said that “people fall into affairs rather than plan them, and they are much easier to get into than to get out of.”

cheating...worth ending a relationship over?

Another very common cause of affairs is that “people do not feel desired and desirable in their marriage, and they want to see if they can be desired and desirable outside it.” This is the most common female affair and is called a ‘comparison EMA’ where more emotional and/or sexual needs are met through the EMA than in the marriage, i.e. the women are emotionally and erotically fed by the affair. In this sense, women may use affairs as a way of “trading up” to find a more desirable partner and providing a “back-up mate” to offer protection and resources when the regular guy is not around.

And just to add to the complexity of all this new information, cohabitating couples (defacto couples living together but not married) have the highest rates of EMA’s, followed by dating couples, with married couples having the lowest rates of EMA, especially after 20 years of marriage. Interesting…

Whether you’re married, cohabitating or just dating, sadly infidelity is very common and an issue that needs to be handled and managed effectively in the situation that it does happen. Monogamy may be the norm in human culture, however we’re also only red blooded, sinful humans and therefore f&£$ up every now and again and like Barry suggests, despite it being a complex-laden issue and contrary to popular belief, an EMA should not be the sole reason behind a divorce or break up. It comes down to one word: communication. Unless the affair is effectively discussed, ideally with a mediator present, and the underlining meaning evaluated by both partners, the injured partner cannot forgive and rebuild their sense of trust and security.

According to the book Getting Past the Affair, the first step is for both spouses to recognize the huge emotional impact on the uninvolved partner. The book, encourages the partners involved to make no decisions about the future in the immediate aftermath of discovery or disclosure, and instead they ask that the cheated-on partner write a letter to the spouse describing what the hurt feels like, no matter how discomfiting it is. The cheater can’t bury their head in the sand if they want to make it work they need to listen to the injured partner and also explicitly tell their partner what happened and how they feel. It may involve explaining and discussing the following:

  • explain why you had the affair and minor details (note, divulging more detail isn’t always best!)
  • be aware of and share your vulnerabilities/weaknesses (what situation or who tempts you to want to have an affair)
  • explain what you value and need in your relationship and from your partner going forward
  • express your sexual voice and explain your preferred sexual style with your partner
  • apologise to the injured partner – write a letter explaining the situation and get them to write you a letter expressing their hurt
  • work on rebuilding healthy trust and preventing a relapse with regular updates with your mediator

In my opinion, it’s possible that infidelity can serve a eeny weeny positive role in a relationship, as a means of signalling that there are problems that need attending to. Obviously it ideally shouldn’t get to this stage, however if it does, people need to know that there is hope after infidelity – depending on why the cheating partner did it in the first place, if they actually want to rekindle the relationship and also the injured partner’s ability to forgive and move on without making them feel guilty every day of their lives. Sometimes it’s healthy that each partner goes their separate ways, or if they can’t do that, draw some ground rules for affairs (e.g. if you’re going to cheat make sure it’s over 1000kms away and you use condoms, or closed swinging like threesomes or maybe even open swinging, which is more risky). These ideas might sound crazy, but this is what it comes down to in some extreme cases and are, from Barry’s work of over 30 years in the field, actually quite common.

At the end of the day, the way I see it is that people have affairs because their needs or a specific need is not being met by their partner. According to human needs psychology, we have six human needs:

  • Certainty
  • Uncertainty
  • Love/Connection
  • Significance
  • Growth
  • Contribution

We all have two major needs that we place fist and second in relation to importance in our lives. The main reason why people cheat is because they lack uncertainty in their relationship. Otherwise known as variety, spice, diversity or spontaneity, i.e. the relationship lacks sex altogether or exciting sex, affection, attention, fun, surprise, playfulness or enjoyment. If this is the case for you, talk with your partner and ask them what their two top needs are – what they value most in their lives – and then ask them how you (as their partner) meet their needs of a scale of 1 – 10. For example, on a scale of one to ten, how significant do I make you feel? How much variety and fun do you feel when you’re with me?

By doing this exercise, you will both get back on the same page and communicate how you’re feeling and where you’re at in relationship. The reality is there are a lot of empty, fulfilling relationships out there because people tend to place a higher importance on other things like work, kids, friends or hobbies, however unless you nurture and prioritise your relationship with your partner, the rest of your life will become unbalanced. Neglecting love, intimacy and connection is the downfall of most relationships and like a plant it needs to to be watered, fertilized (oh yeh!), given sunlight and shade, and sometimes whispered sweet nothings. It’s all about striking a balance!

Over to you…

How do you feel about a straying spouse?

Could you forgive and move on?

Or is it a deal breaker?

Do you currently meet your partners needs and does he/she meet yours?

Do you communicate effectively with your partner about your needs, wants & desires?

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