Revised January 27, 2020.
How do you define infidelity? Is it just what we decide to do or not do? Or is there a more fundamental issue at stake? Porn. Sexting. Emotional affairs. “I did not have sex with that woman!” Certainly, infidelity as a concept has never been more battered. When you attempt to define infidelity, where do you start?
Let’s start with the word itself. The word infidelity comes from the Middle English infidelite, which in turn was borrowed from Middle French infidelité, which borrowed from Latin infidēlitāt-, infidēlitās “faithlessness, inconstancy,” from infidēlis “unfaithful, disloyal.”
So we have been defining infidelity for well over a thousand years…because it is an incredibly common human experience.
So how do we define infidelity today? Gottman tells us that an essential aspect of all forms of infidelity is comparison theory. Some of us are comparing any sort of attractive “other”, perhaps a pixelated porn playmate, a close “friend” you share your innermost thoughts with, or some stranger you pass time with whether vitally or virtually.
Infidelity is when you are actively turning away from your partner and toward someone or something else in secret. Infidelity is not just being in another romantic or sexual relationship.
It’s the active turning away from a stance of trust and transparency with your committed, chosen partner.
Define infidelity? Let’s start with betrayal.
Gottman tells us that there are many kinds of betrayal. And the essence of betrayal is secrecy.
Most of our clients tell us that they start keeping secrets about what they feel because they don’t want to “upset” their partner by “rocking the boat.”
The fundamental bedrock of any romantic relationship is adhering to previously agreed-upon relational boundaries. It matters less what these negotiated rules and boundaries are, but their clarity is essential to maintaining lasting romantic bonds.
Research tells us that the slippery slope of infidelity begins with a subtle pattern of conflict avoidance.
It is this increasing emotional distance that sets a couple up for infidelity. Every day we choose to engage in a cascade of behaviors that either tends to keep us close and connected to our partners or tend to promote drift and distance.
Betrayal doesn’t happen overnight. It is the result of a subtle, almost glacially slow shift out of the agreed-upon boundaries of our intimate connection.
When we believe our partner isn’t there for us, we can slide into slippery secrets and slowly form new attachment bonds and romantic relationships outside of the marriage.
These attachments violate our shared understanding, as we allow more of our loneliness and growing despair to be attended to in extra-marital relationships.
Cross-cultural studies have revealed the fundamental fact that trust is the most important factor in healthy marriages.
It doesn’t matter if you are Mormon or Mongolian, Atheist or Armenian, Polyamorous or Polynesian, it is the fundamental need of all intimate partner bonds.
To define infidelity is to examine the result of eroded trust and the gradual increasing normalization of secrecy and betrayal.
And yet betrayal often begins as a lazy series of accommodations.
Why bother to engage in conflict with your remote intimate partner? Why try to talk about your growing loneliness and sense of isolation?
Because Gottman tells us that conflict is part of the deal with intimacy. It’s baked in the cake. In the same way, keeping intimacy means communicating the tough stuff. The hassles, hurts, and frustrations.
So when you disengage from your partner, you spare yourself short term discomfort. But you are actually investing in long-term emotional disconnection.
Unfaithful men are less driven by their abiding dissatisfactions than most unfaithful women and are consequently more bewildered by their resulting predicaments.
Most men who have slid into emotional affairs complain bitterly. “How could I let this happen? How did I get into this?” I tell them that they got there one secret at a time.
You can also define infidelity as the careless drift of attention. If you feel entitled to gaze at attractive others, and flirt openly, the time will come when you will feel compelled to cover your tracks. In our modern age of social media, infidelity often has a transcript or a Facebook Page.
Social Media is re-defining infidelity. our attention drifts and we impulsively engage. Within seconds we are crossing boundaries.
So let’s return to this question, How do we define infidelity? I’m going to describe a series of dimensions along which acts of infidelity operate.
You move through the world with little or no boundaries. Use the “stop” exercise.
We have a conscience for a reason. Sometimes it invites us to stop or slow down. Workplace Sexual and Emotional Affairs would fail to thrive if environments were less permissive. In other words, having a sense of definitive boundaries may have to be internally generated.
You fail to conserve your erotic energy wisely. Are some of your erotic energies discharged in Romance Novels, Porn, Paraphilias, or other non-partner distractions? What you pay attention to expands. If you’re paying attention to something other than your partner, you may meet the definition.
What defines actual infidelity? Some therapists take a hard line. They argue that the simple act of confiding in anyone, other than your spouse, is infidelity.
According to research women are far more concerned with their spouses having emotional affairs, while men are highly reactive to their wives being sexually involved with someone else.
So as you can see, the definition can be slippery. But an essential aspect of defining infidelity is in how partners compare attractive others to their current spouse.
If your partner can’t easily dismiss, downgrade, or discount the attractiveness of others, it is a significant indication of relational instability.
Trustworthy, faithful partners are less captivated by the beauty of others. We’re not necessarily discussing conscious behaviors, we’re talking about a split-second, gut reactivity.
You spot a cheater by noticing the quality of attention they bestow on attractive others.
You‘re invested in keeping secrets from your spouse. They can be any kind of secrets; financial, social, or sexual. If you have a secret side to your life, and you fear disclosure, you meet the definition as well.
You cultivate a stance of deep ambivalence because you don’t want to tip your hand. You may be engaged in an exit affair, or might otherwise be thoroughly disengaged from your marriage. There may be any number of valid reasons why someone may take such a stance and it may be an informed, conscious choice.
Coming clean may be a complicated option. I’m not sure this is being “unfaithful” as much as it might be transitional, but context informs this particular stance. I would call this intentional, strategic infidelity.
You do not put your partner’s desires as equal to your own…or maybe you even put their desires behind someone else’s. When you can’t put your committed-to partners needs as equal to your own, and/or be reliably counted to stand by your spouse in their time of need, you might meet the definition.
As I said earlier, Infidelity is more of an emotional stance toward our partner than a specific list of inappropriate behaviors. We now understand from very new research that a tendency to be unfaithful runs in families. When you are actively turning away from your partner and toward someone or something else in secret, you’re probably being unfaithful.
So infidelity can also be understood as a way of being in the world that we learn in our family of origin. As John Gottman has described, there are many kinds of infidelity.
Infidelity can be sexual, emotional, or even financial. We need to define infidelity in a way that is both broad and measurable. Acceptable behaviors in one relationship could be infidelity in another because secrecy and transparency are the most important variables.
How do you define infidelity?
Infidelity is not just about what you do, or don’t do. It’s the active turning away from a stance of trust and transparency with your committed, chosen partner.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.