There is plenty of evidence that we are hardwired to stray, that the human species like most others is not naturally monogamous. With that said, let’s shelf the biology and focus on the psychology. In working with couples who have experienced infidelity, there usually is a process of deterioration in the relationship that culminates in cheating by one or both partners. Let’s take a closer look at that process:
Emotional dishonesty. Emotional dishonesty is not being open with your partner about your feelings. If something is upsetting, then it is your responsibility (to yourself, partner, and relationship) to share your feelings. When you keep feelings to yourself, your partner will continue to be in the dark about how you feel, and an opportunity to be heard, validated, and comforted is lost.
Relational distance. With enough emotional dishonesty, comes emotional distance. If you feel you can’t talk to your partner about your emotions, the distance between you and your partner will grow. The more you withhold your feelings, the more likely you are to feel confused, resentful, and alone.
This distance is exacerbated when the response to shared feelings is dismissive, critical, or lacking empathy. In session, couples regularly talk about how a major issue in their relationship is the mutual inability to accept how each other feel. The result is one or both individuals feel unheard, uncared for, and unloved.
Sense of void. Once the distance is large enough, it becomes a void. This usually occurs after months or years of relational dysfunction, and it’s one of the most challenging parts of couples therapy. Usually this void is accompanied by sadness, anger, and hopelessness. The individual shifts to self-preservation mode, fully believing that they are alone in the relationship.
Novel excitation. Emotions are stirred by someone outside of the relationship. Happiness, excitement, and positive emotions are experienced that have been long absent in the current relationship. The "new" person highlights what is lacking in the current relationship. Usually those who are unfaithful describe the encounter as fulfilling what was perceived to be missing in life.
I’m guessing most have picked up on (maybe ad nauseam) of how emotions were mentioned in almost every sentence. That was for a reason. Emotions are the foundation of any relationship. I've never had a couple come into my office and say they are as happy as ever, but are having problems and need couples therapy.
Some may read this post and think I am condoning cheating. My aim here was to provide perspective on why someone might stray from a relationship. I will say that whenever a couple talks about infidelity, a part of therapy (with me, at least) is exploring the role each person played. The goal is for each person to better understand how each impacts the other.
Lastly, it’s important to check in with your partner regularly about your relationship. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!