Sexual Infidelties

Sexual infidelity generally creates a significant amount of relationship damage regardless of whether it is a one-time event or an ongoing affair with someone outside of the primary partnership. When most people take a marriage oath or make a decision to live in a common-law situation, being faithful typically places sexual fidelity at the top of the list as it relates to this commitment. There are many who debate the legitimacy of taking such an oath or making such a commitment and the human condition for lifelong mating; this forum does not provide the space to address such a debate. Instead, we will focus on the decision that people make in taking an oath of faithfulness and then breaching said commitment. Sexual infidelity has a broad spectrum of definition; a prime example of this was the infamous statement by past president Bill Clinton who made the now famous comment of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”…which at the time was meant to mean that there was not sexual intercourse and simply was used as a spin on words. For anyone unclear on this topic, physical/sexual infidelity ranges from hand-holding, kissing, sexual body massages, oral stimulation, to intercourse. If you believe that it is not infidelity unless you have sexual intercourse, you would be sorely mistaken in that belief.

There are numerous rationales for infidelities to occur, some of the reasons that physical/sexual infidelities occur include:

  • A consummation of an already present emotional affair
  • Seeking unmet sexual needs outside the primary relationship
  • As a response to “sexual bargaining” within a relationship
  • As a means to meet unresolved ego needs
  • As a “one-night stand” in an inebriated state
  • As a passive/aggressive response to the primary relationship

The vast majority of long-term affairs have little to do with the sexual components; most long-term affairs are emotionally driven and thus more of a danger to the primary relationship. There are some who have “affairs” that last longer than their primary relationships—they may go through a couple of marriages all the while maintaining their infidelity. No matter the rationale for the infidelity, it is a breach to the foundation of a relationship and may cause irreparable damage. It is equally important to note that a sexual/physical affair is NEVER an appropriate response or action regardless of the rationale; there are always other options available to address the issues of a relationship.

Historically, the “cheater” was ostracized by the partner, family, friends, society, and even clinicians. Over the past 20 years, significant research has been conducted to show that most infidelities are resultant and signs of dysfunctional relationships as a whole versus solely an individual issue. This statement is not to imply an equitable responsibility for the infidelity but that without exploration both sides run the risks of repetitive patterning. Primary responsibility for the infidelity clearly rests with the person who decided to take such action—for without the infidelity we are simply at individual and/or relationship problems which are less complicated than dealing with the hurts/ pains/ embarrassments etc that additionally go with having been cheated upon.

A few points about infidelities that is important to make…

  • Someone always gets hurt
  • These are a fantasy world and a non-reality
  • Affairs create significant emotional damages and for some spiritual distancing
  • Besides a partner, where children are affected there is major familial and developmental damages

We have explored the different types of infidelities (Emotional, Sexual, or Combined) and some of the rationales why each of these occur. Next time we will look at “what would be required if two people choose to rebuild after an affair” and then finally “what are the chances of an affair becoming a successful relationship”.


Rebuilding – After the the Affair

Rebuilding after an affair is a difficult, lengthy, yet attainable reality for some. The reality—most affairs will end relationships and marriages. For those that do pursue resolution they have an opportunity to have a relationship better than they ever did before. Some come into therapy requesting that “they just go back to where they were before all of this happened”; I strongly recommend against this positioning as this is what eventually lead to the affair itself. The key to rebuilding is to tear down the relationship and begin anew—new goals, new directions, new commitments, and most definitely, a new foundation.

The starting point for rebuilding after an affair is discovering the rationales for the affair—if these areas are not addressed and then rectified then the couple remains on a path for this to be a recurring reality. I remember one couple I saw years ago where the rationales for the affairs (key word—affairs, not affair) were fully presented and the partner that had the affairs was clear that they had no intent on altering the behavior. Moreover, in no uncertain terms this individual informed their partner that if they wanted all the benefits that came from being together (money, status, and a desired life-style) they would either accept this as part of the relationship or seek a divorce; I would have thought that would have been the end, yet the partner stayed. Not surprising this individual that was being cheated upon then came to see me for depression counseling; I informed the individual that given the choices there was nothing that I would be able to do to assist in gaining resolution to this depressive state given the circumstances; I then referred this individual to another practitioner. I state this because if there is no change there is a high price to pay in staying in a relationship where infidelity exists and where it is known about. I often wonder if this relationship ever sustained over the long-term.

Another important point to affairs is that the less serious the infidelity the higher likelihood for success in resolution. Affairs that are long-standing, emotionally committed, and sexually consummated are difficult to resolve—infidelities of a “one-night stand” nature are less complicated.

Below are some of the steps that can be taken to begin a process of resolution;

  • End the affair; unless the partner is willing to end the affair, nothing can be resolved
  • Do not discuss details; where no image is present all that the details will do is paint a full picture that becomes difficult to erase
  • Stay away from “blame” statements and instead explore how things went so far sideways that one partner made a decision to seek an outside emotional and/or sexual affair
  • Tear down all structures that are contributing to dysfunction in the partnership and begin to rebuild from the foundation outwards (see past blogs on these topics)

A final note; the most difficult part to gaining resolution in this area will rest on two behavioral patterns. The first is this—the person that was “cheated” upon will need to find and then live with a forgiving heart. The second— the person who committed the act of infidelity will need to live above suspicion, no matter what that will mean to their life.


Affairs to Relationships – the Reality

This is the last in a current series on relationships and today we will explore the sustainability of moving from an “Affair” to a “Relationship”. Research done in this area suggests that there is a limited ability for an affair to move into a long-standing healthy relationship. For those that have followed the previous few blogs the rationale for this is obvious and easily understood—the foundation is broken!

Affairs are a fantasy world. People that engage in this type of relationship often over-rate its significance and meaning. Firstly, it is built on a foundation of lies, deceit, and disloyalty. Once this relationship transitions into a “primary relationship”, whether spoken of or not, under the surface exist the question of “could they do this to me”? Immediately, this relationship has some significant issues around perceived loyalty, trust, and potential jealousy concerns. The person that you once “loved” and thought the world of is now having their phone checked, queried any time they go out as to where they went, who they were with, and potentially asked, “did you sleep with them too” type statements. This may not happen right at the start of the relationship but wait until problems develop (as they do in every relationship) and it will begin to run through one or both partner’s minds—the reason, you did it before so they know you’re capable of it and you were good at it; they were able to get you or you them. Both sides know that when at least one if not both parties had their previous relationships go sideways, the person’s out was to have an affair versus fix themselves, fix the relationship, or leave.

Secondly, the way a person behaves in an affair is very different from how they interact in a relationship or marriage. As stated, affairs are a fantasy world—there are no bills, no children (unless someone is really inappropriate), typically no bad moods as people get together at times when it is convenient and both are happy to see the other. Once life hits and our moods come forward (admit it, we all have them) and both people are put in front of the idiosyncrasies and the blemishes of personality it’s not nearly as much fun as the affair was so people often leave—the reason, one or both people are in the relationship for the immaturity of having ONLY fun in a relationship; they struggle with day-to-day difficulties and seek external resolutions to these rather than exploring meaningful problem resolution tactics. This is potentially one of the reasons they had the affair in the first part.

Finally, most affairs today come with one or both parties having children from their original partnership and this will become difficult when there is an attempt to move this affair to relationship status. The most difficult familial system is the “blended family”; I will not go into all the details to this area but suffice to say that the blended family unit often begins with a lot of stresses, realignments, rule negotiations, and potentially power struggles. For a “new” relationship, this is often too much to sustain and people end up going in separate directions—especially those that prefer a fantasy world to one of commitment, loyalty, perseverance, openness, and love.

As such, if you want to move an affair to relationship status then do the work first. End the affair, deal with the consequences, work on how you contributed to the affair happening, and ensure yourself that the likelihood of this occurring again is limited before moving into another relationship. Mistakes happen, affairs happen, it is not an unforgivable behavior—but do the right things to limit this ever happening to yourself or someone else going forward as the damage these create is measurable, significant, and meaningful.



After exploring the many facets to relationships and marriage, today we will take a brief look into the world of separation/divorce. Given that 50% of all marriages go this direction it’s a meaningful issue that deserves attention. It is probably best at the outset that I state my leanings in this area as they heavily influence my perceptions and thus my opinions/directions—I am pro-marriage, I understand completely the rationales for divorce (having gone through one myself) but I believe this truly needs to be a last resort option. Being pro-marriage may seem hypocritical to some, given that I have been once divorced. However, it is important to note that I have always been pro-marriage which is likely why the divorce I faced was especially painful and provided me some meaningful experiential insights that when combined with my educational training afforded me a window into this area that I believe to be beneficial at times to others. It also made my second marriage selection a very cautious and thoughtful process, as I am also keen to the fact that second marriages have an even lower success rate than first ones!

To recap some of the previous information about separation, it is an event often influenced by poor selection, immature relational skill sets, commitment issues, fidelity breaches, foundational problems, and/or poor communication/conflict resolution skills. The good news is that most of these issues are resolvable with short-term psychotherapeutic interventions.

Separation is difficult; the best descriptor ever given to me by a patient was that “separation was akin to surgery without anaesthetic”. For anyone considering separation, know that this is what you are approaching; anyone who has sugar coated this experience or suggested “it is the best thing you can do” may be simply over-compensating or stating this as a means to rationalize their own experience. Separation requires cautious and thoughtful exploration to ensure that this choice is in fact the only option left for your marriage. I can no longer count the number of people who have sought a separation and followed through with divorce that have returned to see me stating “that it was the worst decision they ever made” and wished they had simply done the work in their marriage. Some of these made the assumption that they would just cut ties with one relationship and automatically replace this with something wonderful—what they found was that there isn’t a lot of wonderful out there, that they are still with themselves (so their issues remained), and that with an investment into their own marriage they would have been a better partner and likely had the partner they wanted.

This is not to say that I am naive to separation. I am aware that there are situations where separation is likely the best course of action; where both partners have truly and meaningfully worked (not tried) to alter their relational behavior to no effect, where situations of abuse exist and this abuse is of an ongoing nature, where there is threat of life, or where this is ongoing infidelity with no sign of this ending.

As a psychologist, it has been rare that I have ever recommended separation, as I believe this to be a very individual and personal decision and one where clinicians’ need to be less involved. The situation that presented to me though was a couple that came to see where one of the partners was awoken with a knife in their chest due to their partners anger—this was clearly time to separate and look at whether this could ever be resolved!

Next week, more on the features of separation and divorce.


Separation – Consider the Factors

Separation is something that needs to be cautiously explored and entered into only after clear consideration of the impacts and consequences. Clients’ that I have seen over the years that are comfortable with this decision have done a few things before separating–

  • They pursued EVERY avenue for relationship resolution
  • They were not leaving to pursue another relationship or alter the status of an affair
  • They were keenly aware that they contributed to the termination of the marriage and they were prepared to do the work needed before they entered another relationship
  • Where there were children involved, they took every step to reduce the impacts—this was not pursued impulsively
  • Their decision was not made out of anger or hatred

Here are a few of the key areas with respect to separation/ divorce…


NEVER, I repeat—NEVER, threaten separation or divorce in a marriage. If you are beginning to have thoughts of terminating your marriage seek the counsel of good friends (ones that have healthy marriages preferably), talk to your priest or pastor if you have one, seek professional assistance, and/or rationally discuss this with your partner. The threat of separation is not a pleasant or fair “fighting” tool in an argument or a conflict. The only time separation should be brought up in a marriage is when this is clearly a thought out, fully considered, current pursuable option. To use this as a threat causes instability and often fear of intimacy—who wants to risk getting close to someone that keeps stating that they are leaving? The threat of separation is often counter-productive; the person making the threat is often seeking altered behaviors in their partner in a positive direction…what is creates is distance, fear, anger, and sadness.

Trial Separations:

Trial separations are just that—a trial run at becoming single again! Very few marriages sustain trail separations and often create cyclical patterns of being together and being apart until the relationship eventually dissolves. It is often the “cowards” way out. Instead of facing the true reality of their intentions and the current degree of dysfunction in the relationship, they ask for a trial separation. They often believe that this will “soften the blow” when the real separation papers are served—it does not. Individuals that enter trial separations often send numerous mixed and conflicting messages about their commitment to the relationship. Additionally, once a separation occurs (either trial or otherwise) it alters the marriage in a very significant and meaningful manner—there is now an alternate option to resolving issues, that option…one of us will just leave. As such, I would recommend people stay together, continue working on their issues, and separate only when you know there is no alternative to this choice.

This week we will continue to explore the other factors to consider with separation/ divorce—Children, Amicability, Mediation, and Finances.


Separation – Focus on the Children

If you are considering separation and you have children, please ensure that they become the focus of your attention and actions. There are thousands of studies related to the impact of separation on children; many of these are complimentary and many are incompatible with each other. To summarize these studies it is safe to say that separation affects children—plain and simple. Even if separation is clearly the only option left to your world and you proceed down this path, know that there are impacts to your children…many of which can be offset or addressed if the parents can conduct themselves appropriately and remain focused upon the needs of their children throughout the process.

Unfortunately, most people do not conduct themselves in anything close to appropriate fashions and thus inflict many atrocities upon their kids. Before looking at these atrocities, let us first explore the many positive steps parents can take when going through a separation…

Firstly, talk to your children about the separation together as parents ONLY when this decision has been made and you are moving forward upon it; do not discuss “possible separations”. You will still need to maintain a parenting role with your children and this message needs to be clear. By talking to them together in a calm and rehearsed manner, you are able to remain on the same parenting page and show that neither side will be pitted against the other for advantage or influence. Albeit that you are separating your relationship, do not separate your parenting—you need to present as a single entity. If this has never happened in your relationship, seek appropriate counsel to discover ways for this to occur.

Secondly, make sure that new partners are not introduced into the children’s lives until they have healed from the separation/ divorce themselves. They need time to re-set their lives too and the least number of “other” life changes, the lesser the impact. Beyond other partners, attempt to ensure as many of the other life areas remain the same or as close to it—living situation, schools, access to friends, and especially important, access to both parents.

Finally, watch for major alterations to their behaviors that may be indicators that they are experiencing problems processing and dealing with the separation. These changes include but are clearly not limited to changes in sleep or appetite patterns, alterations to school or extra-curricular activities, differences with friends, and/or the use of substances (smoking, drinking, and drug use). Many people watch for negative changes; it is equally important to explore for positive changes that may be potential indicators of over-compensation. Changes and alterations for children are a normal part of the process; allow them to process this event up to any changes that would harm them. Do not unnecessarily involve them in counseling unless it is required to offset potential damages. Children placed in counseling due to normal responses to a major life change may internalize this as something being wrong with them, which can create problems that are even more significant.

Here are just a few of the things to avoid with children when going through a separation

  • Making them your emotional resource or surrogate partner
  • Talking about the other parent in negative or derogatory terms
  • Involving them in the details of the separation
  • Withholding them from the other parent as a bargaining tool
  • Unnecessarily uprooting many aspects to their lives because you need a change
  • Introducing new partners too early in the separation and suggesting they call them “mom” or “dad”
  • Allowing new partners an immediate say in parenting and discipline of the children