Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Is it an affair? Is it a betrayal? .... is it cheating? How do we define the wound in a marriage?
I like Esther Perel's triad definition of an affair: Secrecy + emotional involvement + sexual alchemy = affair. In this definition, the deception is an important part of the defining factor. In defining an affair, the ongoing secretive and deceptive nature of the relationship is a huge part. When a spouse finds out about an affair, the most common first reaction is pain and anger over the deception itself.
"The fact that you could text me about meeting me and the kids at the playground, and also be texting HER at the same time makes me sick to my stomach," one if my clients in Brooklyn Heights, New York tearfully told her husband after discovering his affair with a co-worker. Time and again I see that for a betrayed spouse the actual facts about the affair are secondary to the enormous marital wound of dishonesty and deception.
Tacked on to the secretive nature of an affair are emotional involvement and sexual alchemy. These can vary in degrees depending on the depth and duration of the affair relationship. But, underneath most affairs are an emotional connection to the affair partner (a sense of loyalty, care, a desire to maintain the relationship somehow), and sexual intimacy (actual sex, heavy flirting, suggestive exchanges, and everything in between).
Let's now talk about betrayal. An affair is a form of betrayal. But betrayal in a marriage is its own beast. I think of an intimate betrayal in a marriage as more incidental than prolonged. If its prolonged it usually falls into the affair category. But a sexual or emotional betrayal is usually more of an isolated incident. One of my clients down in Palm Beach discovered that his wife had exchanged a brief handful of flirty and suggestive texts with another dad following their kid's recent soccer tournament. Nothing else transpired. My client felt betrayed. And the text exchange was indeed a betrayal. It was inappropriate and hurtful. Could it have turned into an affair if the two continued texting this way? Absolutely. But they didn't, and so we dealt with the betrayal as an isolated incident and worked out what it meant for the couple.
I want to add something important here: betrayal takes many forms in a marriage. Yes, sexual betrayal and intimate betrayal is a painful wound. But betrayal can also look like: being chronically emotionally unavailable; habitually criticizing your spouse; speaking to your spouse with contempt; turning away from your spouse in a moment of need, to name a few. You see where I'm going with this. Underneath many intimate betrayals are other betrayals in a marriage that have created a sense of loneliness and hurt. Talking about all the ways we betray our spouses can be so helpful in healing and finding empathy for your partner's intimate betrayal.
And finally, cheating. Well, I suppose cheating is always a betrayal. But it's not always an affair. When you have an affair you cheat. But the term "cheating' to me feels like a kindergarten definition for something too significant for that. Its too superficial of a word for the deep wound created by stepping outside your marriage. So what is cheating? I'd say in its most basic form we can call cheating any sort of isolated or ongoing sexual behavior outside of an agreed-upon monogamous relationship. Maybe it's paying for sex. Maybe it's the random blow job after the work party. Maybe its visiting a chat room online for kicks and thrills. To me, saying "he/she cheated" feels incomplete and unclear. I'm not a huge fan of this terminology. It is far more helpful to get under the surface. We need to understand the transgression clearly and explore what it is providing to the person doing it. Sex? Control? Freedom? Is it a compulsion? The details are important.
I hope that exploring these definitions of infidelity has been helpful. I strongly encourage couples to get quality professional help when dealing with affairs, betrayals, and cheating behaviors in a marriage. Whether you heal together or end up healing alone, the support and compassion from counseling and consulting with an expert can make all the difference.
Lauren provides boots-on-the-ground lived experience combined with invaluable professional expertise working with infidelity. She is committed to helping individuals and couples deal with and heal from marital affairs in a highly effective, yet warm and judgment-free style.
Lauren's articles help share much-needed information, and reduce the stigma and shame around the common experience of infidelity. Contact Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about working together.
Lauren, Affair Specialist