The language we use to discuss cheating
"[The cheating party doesn't] necessarily want a relationship with the person they are cheating with."
Some affairs are a ‘cry for help’. They can happen because someone is unhappy with the relationship, but is unable or unwilling to work on the problems or terminate the relationship in a respectful way. Quite often, the cheating party doesn’t necessarily want a relationship with the person they are cheating with. Couples can recover from this type of affair if it becomes apparent where things went wrong and both parties are committed to making things work again.
Other affairs happen because someone wants out of a relationship, and wants to be with the person they are cheating with. In 90% of the cases, it doesn’t work out. At this point the ‘cheater’ may want to reconcile with the original partner but often the original partner has moved on.
Then finally, you have someone who wants to reap all the benefits of being in a committed relationship, but wants to have fun on the side as well. This type of affair is completely narcissistic and involves premeditated and sustained deception and the straying party is also likely to be psychologically and emotionally abusive to the partner. If someone is a “serial offender” like this and doesn’t really want to change, it would be best for the couple to separate and rebuild their lives separately.
1. When people who have cheated say to the public – or their partner “It just happened, it didn’t mean anything”. What are they really saying? And what are they hoping to communicate?
Comments such as “it just happened” or “I wasn’t thinking” often reflect people’s lack of emotional awareness. A lot of affairs start off as a friendship or professional association, so there is a pre-existing emotional connection that’s often rationalised away (‘we’re just friends) – but then it’s easy for “the line” to become blurred. Fast forward to a situation where the sparks fly for some reason (often involving alcohol) and all that emotional arousal that has been simmering under the surface is ready to ignite.
So how do you know where ‘the line’ is? It’s often when you start revealing personal information to a third party and concealing this from a partner.
Comments such as “I had a lapse in judgement” or “I made a bad decision” are to minimise, justify or contain the event, but they abrogate responsibility and invalidate the experience of the other partner, and often cause even more harm.
2. When the ‘cheater’ says “he/she meant nothing to me”, this has to be a fib, right?
It depends on the type of affair. Researcher Shirley Glass found 26% of men had extramarital sex without being emotionally involved, whereas only 3% of women said the same. When they say “he/she meant nothing to me” they often mean it in comparison for the feelings they have for a partner and it’s meant as a type of atonement, but it doesn’t work, because of course the other partner is thinking “well why the hell did you do it then?”
3. Why do people say they love their partner while they are cheating or just after they’ve been caught?
I think it’s another form of damage control, another attempt at atonement, but it’s a hard thing for a wronged partner to hear, and even harder for them to believe. Love, true love, is based on trust and respect. Both these things are destroyed in an affair.
4. What leads someone to cheat?
For most people, it’s probably something they are not even aware of. Research tells us some people are ‘wired’ to cheat more than others, depending on their attachment style. Infants attach (or bond) to a primary caregiver in the first 12 or 18 months and this is their basic “model” for relationships as they grow up. If they bond securely they learn a relationship is based on trust (most of us are securely bonded) and securely bonded people are less likely to have an affair.
If bonding is interrupted or doesn’t happen for some reason (and there are lots of them) then infants become “insecurely” bonded and are either overly anxious or preoccupied about their close relationships, or are “dismissive” and deny the need for them, or finally, need love desperately, but reject it once they have it. Someone who was insecurely attached will be more likely to have an affair, but for different reasons, depending on their style. Research shows that “dismissive” men have twice as many affairs as the other styles.
5. Are there any statistics on when a person’s mind first begins to wander? Is it two months before an affair? Is it a week? A day?
I’m not aware of any research on that but the research shows it’s more a matter of timing in a relationship. Affairs tend to happen in the second stage of a relationship, the growing apart stage that I wrote about previously. This is when you’re more likely to have a combination of circumstances where a person is feeling warmth towards someone else at the same time they are cooling towards a partner.
People are more vulnerable to affairs at certain life stages also, particularly during times of transition like having children, or retirement/empty nest, or after a serious illness. Other stages are with school aged children (usually where too much energy has gone into the kids and not enough into the relationship) and with teenagers (where conflict creates stress and the need for escape and budding sexuality and rebelliousness in a child re-ignites the same in a parent).
6. The person who was cheated on often wants to know every detail – is this healthy? And should the cheater oblige?
Finding out about an affair is a shocking and, for many, a traumatic experience. Partners will naturally want to make sense of it, so will have lots of questions. If a cheating partner has been denying the affair for some time, but the other partner has intuited and suspected it, honest answers need to be given for the sake of the partner’s mental health. This should happen in stages. Initially, in order to manage the betrayed partner’s shock and denial, the affair needs to be reconstructed. At a later stage, conversations about the meaning of the affair to the cheater will need to take place; either to come to terms with the end of the committed relationship or to repair it if that’s possible. Details of sex positions etc. can cause further trauma and flashbacks can inhibit healing, so it’s best not to disclose these details, but there are ways of managing this if it is happening. All of these conversations can benefit from the expertise of an experienced therapist who can facilitate them to minimise damage.
7. How can an affair be avoided in the first place?
Have an agreement with a partner that if either of you find you are unhappy with your relationship for any reason, or finding yourself attracted to, or developing feelings for someone else, that you will take it as a sign that you need to reconnect as partners. Periods of feeling disconnected are normal, especially in long term relationships, but we need to be aware of them and share our feelings with a partner so we can work together to strengthen the bond. This is especially important for those of us who didn’t get a secure attachment in infancy. A secure bond with a partner is our second chance.
8. Finally, how does a couple recover?
If a couple is committed to being together and motivated to do the necessary work, there is a good chance of recovery. But even with the best of intentions it is painful and difficult work and it’s best done with the help of a counselor who can facilitate the process of recovery and healing. The Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors is a good start: www.aarc.org.au.
Elly Taylor is a relationship counselor and author of the book Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together, the Essential Relationship Guide for Parents. Available through ABC shops and all good book shops. RRP $35.