I remember the first time I was exposed to cheating. I was in middle school and went with my parents to visit my sister in college. We took her out to brunch at a great restaurant. As we sat down I saw my mother recognize a man sitting at the bar. She looked as if she was about to flag him down to say hello but then another look flashed across her face and her demeanor shifted. A woman had walked up and sat next to him and draped her arm around him. My mother didn’t say much but I did understand that the woman with the man from our hometown was not his wife but she looked like she thought she was and whatever that was, was bad. Wrong. And when he saw my family he almost choked so I figured he realized something was wrong too. We were three hours from our hometown and here we were running into a family friend who was having an affair.
I didn’t know what all that was and certainly didn’t get the complexity of it all back then but I received a strong message: cheating was bad. Then I started hearing more stories with friends having it affect their lives and saw things in the news and the message was clear- cheating is bad, cheaters suck and cheating ruins families.
I also knew that my mother and father were in the vein of a strict no-cheating policy in their marriage and heard more than once what would happen to him if he ever did stray. She always said it jokingly and my dad always had a funny he-would-never-do-it response but the point was made.
Cheating is bad, Cheaters are bad. Cheating ruins families.
I knew I would never cheat. I knew I would never stay with any man who cheated on me.
Then I lived my life and realized it is not as simple as that declaration.
With my work, I am privy to a lot of private things in people’s lives. One of the most common secrets people divulge to me is about cheating. I’ve heard all sides of it. Cheating on partner, being cheated on by partner, being the person someone cheats with. One night stands, emotional affairs, on going affairs. Want to end relationship, want to fix the relationship. Gotten caught, never discovered, suspicious. You name it. I’ve heard it.
I had a group of people ask me once how many people I think actually cheat on a partner/spouse/committed relationship in their lives. I replied without blinking, “80%” and there was a huge reaction. Choking, laughing, guffawing. Some were incredulous but a few nodded. Yep.
When I was pressed further, I cited the typical statistics. But I am often skeptical of studies. People lie. Samples can be skewed. The wrong questions can be asked to the wrong group of people and assumptions can be made from data that are subjective.
The numbers are way higher than published studies. I’m not completely sure how many people have actually cheated. But I am certain it is much higher than studies indicate.
Going back to that conversation, I was probed on the possibility that my percentage is off because of the work I do and because people may self select to talk to me. Short hand of that belief: people who cheat or who have been cheated on talk to me and work with me and people who don’t, don’t. Of course there is that. Yet, I also work with people who say they don’t cheat and haven’t been cheated on and we work on completely different issues. I began my work as a therapist 20 years ago and have worked all over the world and with a plethora of populations and in a large variety of settings. And I stand behind it.
Result: I still think I have a pretty accurate read of infidelity. But…..to be fair….I’ll land on 65% of people have or will experience infidelity in a relationship.
That is high.
You know what I haven’t encountered? Someone who hasn’t been affected by cheating in some way. If it wasn’t a personal relationship, it is a family member, friend, or co-worker. It is profound, pervasive and for the cheating that becomes known, the ripple effects are far reaching. Don’t be mistaken and think that those who don’t get caught don’t have rippled effects as well.
People cheat. A lot of people cheat. And I want to talk about it. Explore it.
I want to start more conversations about it. It isn’t black and white. Not much about it is clear cut.
This series will attempt to look at it from a 360 perspective. It is an enormous issue and I’m going to do my best to tackle it. Hold on for the ride. I have a feeling it will bring up a lot of reactions in people. I will be writing several articles for the series and I greatly encourage you to read all of them to get the many sides of the topic.
In this article I am going to explore the murky waters of how to define what cheating is and give an over all view of what research says about the state of affairs of people having affairs. I’m also going to share some of my experience with it.
Upcoming topics in this series will be: plan b/ emotional affairs, perspectives of those who cheat, experiences of those who have been cheated on, a possibility for cheating not being the worse thing in the world, and how a relationship can recover from cheating.
With the information/stats above, it would be an easy conclusion to discover that infidelity has entered my life. In many ways. I am not immune as well.
Cheating is an emotional laden world. It is hard for people to admit they’ve crossed a line and it is often hard for those who have been cheated to admit someone did it to them.
Cheating points to something being wrong. Within the person. Within the relationship. Or so our society says…..That sentiment is one that needs to be explored.
I’ve had some profound moments related to infidelity. A client called me sobbing having discovered that her husband had been cheating on her for years with memberships in hooker clubs all over the country while on business trips, visiting massage parlors for happy endings all over town and having many memberships with porn sites and chat rooms. Her grief was palpable over the phone. She was distraught trying to put together all of the pieces of the lies and learning that the life she thought she had with her husband was vastly different than what it actually was in reality. She found out because her teenage son saw his father walk out of one of the parlors and told her. Then she went through his phone and computer one night and discovered the rest. When confronted, he confessed, felt remorse but the relationship was never the same. They tried counseling and retreats and spicing up things and they were all band-aids.
I’ve worked with a client who was cheating on her husband. Had numerous affairs. Mostly meaningless until the last one. When she got caught. It ripped open all of her secrets, became public and she was on the butcher block with her circle of friends. She was treated like a leper and was looked at like the only one in their large circle who had done anything wrong. Ever. She was cut off socially, she lost her husband, ended up losing most of the custody of their teenage-ish three children because they knew what she had done, hated her for it and asked the judge to live with their father instead of her. She was so undone by the heartbreak of losing the guy outside her marriage, then her husband and then her kids, she had to be hospitalized and almost lost her job.
I worked with a guy who cheated one time with a friend of a friend one night at a party. They flirted, they kissed and that was it. He was completely racked with guilt and couldn’t decide if he should tell his partner or not. He pulled away from his partner, punished himself and then got over it.
I also have spoken to many men and women who cheat while on business trips and range from complete guilt and concern to not caring one bit and thinking it doesn’t really counts as infidelity and actually helps the marriage work.
The stories are endless. Endless.
I’ve been around lots of infidelity.
But then again, so have you.
So let’s talk it.
You know my caveat. I think existing research isn’t accurate. For two main reasons: there isn’t a clear agreement on what is viewed as cheating and because people are reticent to admit to cheating. Because it is viewed as bad, inexcusable and bad and only bad people do it and it is bad. Did I say it is bad? And well, who wants to admit to doing or being bad? So people lie.
(One more issue I have with all this research, it is mainly done with white, heterosexual, middle class couples. Lack of diversity always messes with results and bums me out. Just sayin’).
Alright, here are some random stats that I am pulling verbatim:
- In over 1/3 of marriages, one or both partners admit to cheating.
- 22% of men say that they’ve cheated on their significant other.
- 14% of women admit to cheating on their significant other.
- 36% of men and women admit to having an affair with a coworker.
- 17% of men and women admit to having an affair with a sister-in-law or brother-in-law.
- People who have cheated before are 350% more likely to cheat again.
- Affairs are most likely to occur two years into a marriage.
- 35% of men and women admit to cheating while on a business trip.
74% of men and 68% of women say they’d step out on their partners if they knew they’d be able to get away with it.
56% of husbands who admitted to cheating said that they were happy with their marriages overall.
Women who are completely dependent on their husbands financially are 50% less likely to cheat, while men were least likely to stray when their wives earned 75% of their income or less.
60% of adults say they would consider it cheating if their partner entered into an emotional relationship with someone else. Only 18% said that it wasn’t the same thing as a physical affair.
Cheaters spend an average of $444 a month, financing their extramarital dalliances. Surprisingly, only 32% said their spouses had noticed the added expenditures.
(creditdonkey.com And really? Credit donkey is writing about this?)
Google stats on infidelity and you’ll find all sorts of responses and ‘studies’. This is a small sampling.
What do they all mean and why do they matter?
I think there are lots of studies and there is a concerted effort to find out about cheating because of the effects of it on relationships and society at large and because people have a fear of it and want to know how at risk they are or how safe they can feel.
Cheating scares people so studies and research are conducted.
What is cheating?
You know the answer. It is like porn. Or art. You JUST know. Well, you do when you are sitting with your private thoughts and know what your intentions are and what really happened. You may not know what is cheating if you thought of your own partner or what you’d think of it with a stranger’s choices. Or maybe you are certain you’d know what it is in someone else’s behavior but things are uncertain in your own choices. See? The answer isn’t necessarily that clear.
For you, that extra long eye gaze with that woman in the grocery store crossed a line. For another that really flirty conversation with your seatmate at the airport would have made her partner upset but she knew it was nothing.
Some things are just clearly in the unfaithful arena. Others reside in the questionable circle of trust and there are a few things that are just gray and murky and will always elicit debate, pain and decent.
You need to know what you consider cheating and what you don’t. On your own. With your own values, experiences and boundaries. You need to take a good hard look at your behavior and honestly examine if you’ve ever crossed a line and if so (which I would bet you certainly have at some point to some degree) how you feel about it. Let all of those self reflections guide you to a purposeful, intentional view of boundaries, faithfulness and cheating.
You decide what is okay for you. For you to do. And if in a relationship, what boundaries you feel comfortable with so that you can communicate them to another.
Navigating the Discussion
If you are in a relationship, the most important aspect of this topic is having an honest, forthright and on going discussion about what constitutes cheating, where things fall on the continuum: what are the deal breakers, what’s gonna get some silence or WTF looks and what’s going to cause a serious riff for awhile but probably can be navigated.
You need to have these discussions. NEED TO. And I said discussions. Plural. It must be asked, explored and answered and if it is a long term relationship, it needs to be addressed multiple times throughout the relationship span. Because you change. Because your needs change. Because the relationship changes and this topic is too convoluted and fluid for a one time hit.
What I’ve learned through my clients is that most people don’t truly sit down and have this discussion even once. If the topic is addressed usually couched in ‘joking threats’ of “I’d kill you and take every dime you have.” To a discussion about someone else doing it and what you think of it with vague warnings and hints to what would happen to the other if THEY were the one to do THAT.
But purposeful, intentional, loving, realistic conversations about what is cheating and what it means to the relationship, rare. But should be common.
Here are some questions/scenarios to explore:
Flirting: What is flirting? What is okay and what isn’t?
Porn: Does your partner need to know if you look at porn? Does it matter what kind of porn you look at or how often or how much?
Having close friendships with some with the gender(s) you are attracted to: Is it okay to have friendships with others? How close is comfortable? How close is uncomfortable? Can you call and text? What do you share with each other?
Emotional connections: What does it mean if you care for someone outside of your relationship? An ex who you co parent with? A buddy from college you message with on Facebook? Do you go to him/her for emotional support and to share intimate things with? Is it okay to have gatherings that are no spouse allowed events but platonic nonetheless?
What does it mean to have your partner attracted or connected to someone else?: What if you or your partner feels a sexual attraction towards someone? Is flirting at a party with jokes and laughter okay? Can you or your partner tell another they are beautiful or hot? Can you fantasize about that person and not harm the relationship?
Privacy: Do you share passwords? Are you allowed to look at each other’s phones, texts, or FM messages?
There are many more topics or questions to explore. Ask and explore what feels right for you and relevant to your life.
You do it like this:
- Explore the questions privately first.
- Approach the conversation with love and curiosity instead of fear, accusation and anger.
- Do it before cheating is an issue on the table. If it has already happened be super tender and careful with the questions or do it with a therapist to help keep the conversation healthful and helpful.
- Allow each other to explore without interruption and condemnation.
- If there are differences, don’t freak out. Make note of it and move to another topic and come back to the ones that need negotiation.
- Be loving. Remember the conversations are about building up trust and understanding of each other.
- Work towards making clear boundaries and behavior decisions that feel in the best interest for the relationship and with each other.
- If you find you are far off of each other in a certain area or belief, take that seriously. Explore it more. Ask each other. Listen to each other. Seek help to navigate it.
Some of this may make you feel uncomfortable. Some of what I’ve written may trigger you. That’s all okay. This is a HARD topic. I’ve been working on it for months because there is so much to explore and examine.
And this article is just the start.
Take a breath. Stay curious. Let it go.
If you have specific questions or want to share your story , write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or FB message me.
Look for the rest of the series. Read them all. Tell me what has an impact.
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Much love. X oh, Dr. Juliana