What Is Infidelity?

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I am big on definitions because I believe it’s the first building block in any attempt to examine, understand, and make sense of the things around us. In addition to that, laying out a concrete definition helps to draw clear lines between true acts of infidelity versus other problematic behaviors that impact couples which can manifest through acts of infidelity.

One of the main challenges of coming up with a single definition to the issue of infidelity is the fact that people come from various backgrounds and experiences, which contribute to having various ideas and definitions of what infidelity means for each person and each couple. The definition of infidelity not only differs from one member of the couple to the other but also differs from couple to couple based on what type of relationship lifestyle they adhere to.

An example of how the definition can vary within members of the same couple can be something along the lines of members of the same couple having different opinions on a particular “gray” behavior and whether or not it meets the threshold of infidelity such as the example of flirting with others or watching pornography.

Another example of how the definition of infidelity can differ from one couple to another can be seen in what type of relationship boundaries or lifestyle the couple adheres to. For example, the definition for a couple who practices an alternative lifestyle, such as swinging or polyamory, will have a different definition from another couple who practices traditional monogamy. This means that I had to come up with a definition that is flexible enough to accommodate the various world views of my clients without compromising the need of a clear, agreed upon framework for the concept of infidelity.

The definition I developed was created to take into consideration the different cultural, spiritual, and world views of my clients who happen to have different standards for relationships and expectations of one another. This is a definition that accommodates the individual needs and expectations of all couples regardless of their background.

This definition is built on my theoretical and clinical view of relationships as bonds that we seek to build with other people to fulfill emotional and physical needs. This premise dictates that such a bond lends itself to the same concept of any kind of partnership. When we commit to a relationship, there should be an agreed upon set of expectations that define what and how each one of our emotional and physical needs should be met by our partner. Any deviation or exception from that agreement without the consent of your partner constitutes an act of infidelity.

Simply put, infidelity is a conscious breach of a contract of exclusivity with your partner. It’s engaging in any need-fulfilling behavior with other people other than your partner without his or her consent. I am talking about the behaviors that are motivated by the desire to fulfill emotional or physical needs that are supposed to be fulfilled exclusively by your partner based on the expressed and implied expectations that the two of you have of each other. This breach of contract manifests through having emotional, physical, and mixed affairs.

Types of Affairs

The specific type of needs driving the act of infidelity is what dictates the type of affair people have. Since there are two main categories of needs in all relationships, we can end up with three different types of affairs: physical, emotional and mixed. Keep in mind that due to our dual physical and emotional nature as human beings, we can never truly rule out an affair as purely physical or emotional, but the next best thing is to look for what was more of a primary drive.

Physical Affairs:

In this type of infidelity, the motivation behind the act is the fulfillment of unmet physical needs. In my clinical experience, I’ve noticed that this type of infidelity seems to be more prevalent with males than females. The attachment in those affairs is primarily physical, and the main goal is the fulfillment of sexual needs, desires, and fantasies. This can take the form of single or multiple one night stands or an ongoing arrangement with one or multiple sexual partners. Even though the motivations are physical, the unfaithful may experience the emotional benefit of feeling good about their ability to attract the physical attention of others as well as the satisfaction of fulfilling those needs.

Emotional Affairs:

Here the primary motivations behind the affairs are emotional. Based on my clinical experience, this type of affair is more prevalent with females than males. It usually starts when people are feeling unwanted and or desired by their partner. Not everyone starts emotional affairs with the intention of getting emotionally attached to someone else. A lot of the time, it starts with wanting to experience excitement through flirting which evolves into blurred boundaries. It’s noteworthy to mention that emotional affairs often lead to physical affairs, even if the physical needs were not an issue that was lacking in the first place.

Mixed Affairs:

These types of affairs may have started primarily as physical or emotional, but went unchecked. In this scenario, the unfaithful’s motivation behind the affair went beyond the fulfillment of unmet physical or emotional needs and they are now beginning to see the person they are cheating with as a surrogate for their partner or an idealized version of the relationship they want to have with their partner. Healing from those affairs can be more challenging due to the fact that, for all intents and purposes, we are dealing with two relationships: one that the unfaithful has with the betrayed and one that the unfaithful has with the person they are cheating with (the third party). One of these two relationships will have to end in order for the couple to move forward with their lives.

Published in Personal, Relationship, Sex Therapy
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