Infidelity: What Is It, Anyway?

Copyright © 2010, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

At first blush, this may seem like a silly question. We all know what infidelity is, right? It means being unfaithful to your partner. After all, the dictionary definition of infidelity is "the quality of not being faithful". But when you stop to think about it, perhaps it's not so clear, after all. One person may believe it applies strictly to sexual intercourse with someone other than his wife, while someone else may feel her husband is unfaithful if he has a habit of being highly flirtatious with other women. The problem is compounded when the two members of a couple don't agree on the definition of infidelity and therefore have different standards for how they should behave.

Even professionals disagree on this question. A well-known radio psychologist once remarked that there's no infidelity if no body fluids are exchanged! While most therapists would likely take a more conservative view, they, like the general public, might have different perspectives on what constitutes infidelity. Probably all therapists would classify intercourse and oral sex as infidelity. But what about an enthusiastic kiss at an office party? And, does it matter if alcohol is involved? And then there's the vast territory of "emotional infidelity." Does it simply mean falling in love with someone other than your spouse, or could sharing intimate details of your life or your marriage with a neighbor of the opposite sex also be considered infidelity? And what about sexual fantasies about a coworker?

The internet, of course, has opened up countless opportunities for infidelity. Dating sites (some designed specifically for married individuals looking for affair partners), chat rooms, social networking sites -- all afford easy and relatively private ways to connect with others and develop extramarital relationships. And then there's pornography. While again, there's no consensus on whether the use of pornography constitutes infidelity, to many whose partners do use it, it can feel like a betrayal. Many women report feeling that their husbands prefer the images they see in videos or online to them. This can result in diminished self-esteem and marital satisfaction.

Beyond sexual and emotional infidelity, a new category is now being discussed -- financial infidelity. This refers to deceptiveness in areas of household and personal finance. In other words, when partners aren't being honest or forthcoming about their spending habits or their level of credit card debt, for example, they might be considered to be financially unfaithful. It can also involve violating marital expectations about money, whether secretly or openly. For example, a pattern of overspending on discretionary items, like eating out, or a single large purchase, such as a big-screen TV, might be considered financial infidelity if the purchase is made without consulting one's partner and it drains off money from a child's college fund.

What's the common denominator in all these cases? How are sexual, emotional and financial infidelity alike? They all involve violation of the expectation we have about how our partner will behave. When we marry or enter into a committed relationship, we assume, based on our own past experience, that our partner will act in certain ways. For example, we probably expect that he will contribute in some form to the running of the household, whether it's through earning a salary, cleaning and maintaining the house, etc. When children are born, it may be expected that both parents will diaper and feed the baby during the night. In areas such as child care and running the household, spouses generally engage in some sort of dialogue and perhaps negotiation as to who does what. In the more significant arena of the couple's emotional life, however, preferences and concerns may never be openly addressed. Each may assume that the other will, of course, behave in a certain way. Meanwhile, the other may be operating under a very different set of assumptions.

Imagine the potential for confusion and hurt when husband and wife don't agree on what's acceptable behavior at the office, social events, or online, for that matter. The wife may think it's fine to regularly go to lunch with a male coworker, while her husband thinks it's inappropriate and inviting trouble. A wife may find her husband's use of online pornography while he masturbates offensive. She may feel he compares her to those images of women and that she fares poorly by comparison. She may think engaging in online chat is a harmless pastime, but he feels threatened and worries that something serious could come of it. She thinks he should have given up going to strip clubs with his guy friends when he got married. The list goes on and on.

Psychologists refer to these behaviors as "expectancy violations". We have a particular set of expectations for how people should behave in a marriage or committed relationship--and, just as important--how they should NOT behave. When expectations aren't discussed prior to marriage, however, the stage is set for a violation. After all, if your husband doesn't know that you dislike him going out for drinks after work, he's not likely to understand that he has violated your expectation that he come immediately home after work and spend time with family. When these expectations are violated, we may feel shocked, angry, disappointed, anxious, depressed, or all of the above.

The second attribute shared by sexual, emotional and financial infidelity is secrecy, or some level of deception. When treating couples whose lives have been impacted by infidelity, therapists often hear that the lying and the secrecy are even more distressing than the physical or emotional aspect of the adulterous relationship. The individual with the secret is, in essence, leading a double life, one shared openly with the partner and the other containing information to which the partner doesn't have access. And this secret or hidden information equates to power in a relationship. A spouse who is unaware that her husband is involved with someone else doesn't have access to critical information that could impact her health status. If her husband is not practicing safe sex in the extramarital relationship, she may be at risk for contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Similarly, a husband who doesn't know that his wife has amassed a large amount of credit card debt may be shocked and angry when he realizes that money set aside for a well-deserved vacation will now have to go toward paying off that debt.

So, what do you do if your life has been turned upside down by a partner's (or your own) infidelity? It is possible for couples, who are highly motivated to repair a relationship, to do so. It does, however, take time, patience, and, in most cases, the help of a competent, experienced mental health professional. There are strong emotions to be sorted out, trust to be restored, new ways of communicating to be learned, and new visions for the relationship to be shared.