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Deal with an Unfaithful Mate
Infidelity happens when two parties agree explicitly (e.g., “We are going to be emotionally and sexually monogamous,” or “We are together,”) or implicitly (e.g., We kissed, had sex, shared secrets, etc. without verbal agreement) agreement to not engage in the same behavior or emotional interaction with another person. Infidelity is relative to the person. For example, you may believe that a person cheats when he/she engages in oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone else but feel that sexting an ex-partner is playful flirting. Understand that if you and your partner have not talked about your actions and consented to those actions beforehand…it’s cheating.
Forms of Infidelity
I consider infidelity to be a deflection of intimacy where individuals choose not to address issues that exist in their relationship. So for example, imagine getting into an argument with your partner. You argue for hours until you decide to retreat to another part of the house. You play video games, surf the internet, etc. with someone else, drinking, gambling, or eating and you still have not resolved the issue of cleaning out the garage. With any of the above activities you physically, emotionally, and intimately “check out” because you choose not to deal with the issue or have not developed a communication skill set to address what is really going on between the two of you. These activities serve as deflections in that they may keep you and your partner from sharing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with one another and being as close as you may want to be.
When some people are unfaithful, they may be unsettled or unsure about how to deal with their feelings about being in a committed relationship. Understanding the fluid context of cheating, the unfaithful person may engage sexually (e.g., in real life or virtual) with another person (e.g., acquaintance or stranger) or develop an unrevealed emotional attachment to someone other than his/her primary partner. During this time, the cheater may experience a range of feelings for the other partner including relief, guilt, confusion, safety, anxiety or love. At the same time, sentiments towards the primary partner may include anger, frustration, confusion, ambivalence, and even love. Becoming intimate with another person only complicates matters because the person who he/she is spending time with cannot effectively resolve any issue that exists between the unfaithful person and his/her primary partner.
Primary Partner Enduring the Trauma
When spouses find out (by discovery or disclosure) that their partner’s behavior has negatively moved beyond the initial relational expectations, it can be devastating. Most people who want a healthy relationship do not anticipate their partner betraying them and when it happens, it can be confusing, unsettling, and oftentimes traumatic. Spouses may find themselves angry at one moment and possibly amorous a few minutes or hours later as they try to construct meaning from the betrayal and manage themselves emotionally. Some partners may fear abandonment, further betrayal, or the possibility of cheating themselves. Other partners may sever the relationship altogether and find themselves emotionally unavailable to anyone else in the future.
What to do?
Six safe suggestions about how to reduce the possibility of infidelity and how to handle it if it occurs:
- Spend time talking with your partner about your relationship status and the emotional, sexual, and intimate expectations at the beginning and throughout the relationship.
- Accept and understand that people change over time as well as their interpretations of relationship.
- Have a constructive in-depth discussion about honesty, disclosure, forgiveness, and relationship history.
- Be patient and understanding when you and your primary partner talk about previous relationships that were traumatic or unfulfilling and develop solutions to not make the same mistakes.
- Be willing to listen to one another if trauma exists in your current relationship.
- Talk about unresolved relationship issues.
Dr. James Wadley is an Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Human Services Program at Lincoln University. He’s a licensed professional counselor and marriage, family, and sexuality therapist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. His website is at drjameswadley.com.