To some people, “cheating” is looking at porn, chatting on the Internet or flirting in a bar. To others, an actual sexual act constitutes a betrayal, and for still others the act in question must be intercourse. Many couples do not spell out what they expect from each other. They assume their partner shares their values. This assumption is not always accurate, and it can lead to conflict over what a marriage should be.
It is hard to group all sexual attention for others into an affair, a fling or a flirtatious dalliance. I get it all: couples who are angry at each other for showing any attention to anyone else, those who have brief flings, and those who carry on more emotionally charged affairs.
The Monogamy Model — Fact or Fiction?
We do not live in a monogamous society. Monogamy is stuffed down nearly everyone’s throat—unless they refuse to go along with pressures to fit one model. Some are happily monogamous, while others have open relationships, are swingers or are polyamorous. It would be nearly impossible for all people to fit into one mold. I work with clients who choose all of these sexual lifestyles.
Most flings are not known to a spouse or other partner, while affairs usually come out. They are too complicated not to eventually be detected. Some advice columnists used to say don’t tell if you have a fling, as it may relieve you of guilt if this was not your agreement, but it is destructive to the partner and to the relationship. I agree with these columnists, but I work with those who do reveal affairs too.
Reality is a better basis for making realistic, appropriate sexual choices than a misguided attempt to fabricate, cover up and offer an illusion of what we desire and do sexually. Most of us are attracted to more than one person. Some of us flirt or look the other way, while others act on their attractions. Part of the excitement of being sexual is to fantasize and act on fantasies that aren’t likely to ruin our lives.
Everyone has to find the fine line between honesty and sensitivity, and the line between privacy and secrecy. We all deserve some privacy to be who we are in our sexual desires and fantasies.
In my affairs counseling practice, I help couples regain trust after an affair or fling has been discovered. In some cases, extramarital sex is found out by the partner from a cell phone, email or some other trail of evidence. In other cases, the partner who strayed tells his or her partner what happened.
It takes a while to regain trust. Time is a healer, but my focus is always on using any breach of trust as a wakeup call to attend more to the primary relationship—to make the relationship more vibrant emotionally and sexually. Women sometimes have extramarital sex to find affection and attention. Men often seek lust with a stranger, sometimes for money. The stereotypes for men and women are not always accurate–some men yearn for more affection and some women seek more sexual variety. It is natural to yearn for sexual variety, but our society frowns on those who even fantasize and desire others.
A Treatment Plan That Works
I develop a treatment plan that includes basic CBT, improving communication, and the insights from Dr. John Gottman’s research. I do not shame or blame the partner who went outside the relationship for some emotional or sexual purpose. I am painfully aware that many marriage counselors do this. It does not help to shame and blame.
I believe people should keep their agreements. To do this, their agreements must be clear and sensible. I also believe that marriage is a journey, and that along the journey some redesign their guidelines about what is OK and what is not OK.
I find that it helps to distinguish between a person being a good person and their behavior reflecting or not reflecting that goodness. No one is perfect. Moralizing about flirtations or some sexual attention with others does not facilitate a more harmonious, exciting and safe relationship. Since sex can mean everything from lust to love, it behooves us to focus on what an affair or fling meant, and what the marriage means in the present.
Shaming a partner who has paid some attention to others is not a healthy option. Sex addiction counselors and marriage counselors often shame the straying partner, but this does not solve problems. Instead, it creates more problems. My approach has saved and improved many marriages and other intimate relationships faced with affairs and other sexual dalliances.
My approach is to improve sexual intimacy and trust in a primary relationship. This can help minimize further temptations to get involved with others, but some of my clients renegotiate their agreements too. A comfortable relationship sometimes lacks excitement, and this void can set the stage for affairs.
Maintaining some mystique and experimenting with a variety of sexual and emotional experiences can support a primary relationship. Those who reveal every thought and behavior have relinquished any mystique, which could have made a partner more excited with them!