Definition for Infidelity

Infidelity refers to breaking a commitment or being unfaithful. That might be an agreement of exclusivity in a romantic or sexual relationship. It requires acting without consent or your partner’s knowledge. 

It can take various forms, including physical affairs, emotional affairs, online relationships, or even secret flirtations. It can have significant emotional, relational, and psychological consequences for everyone involved. Cultural, societal, and personal beliefs and agreements impact infidelity definition and boundaries.

I love the late Frank Pittman’s succinct definition. He said,

“Ask your spouse.”

And in that three-word answer, he summarized the heart and soul of most affairs that aren’t narcissistic or compulsive. Forget the labels; affairs are all about loneliness, distance, ambivalence, and breach of trust.

As a matter of fact, we want to know what constitutes infidelity in order to determine whether we or our partner did it. Or perhaps we have been in an argument about whether either of us was unfaithful or not.

You will find all types of opinions about affairs and their causes. I’ve seen all of them as a psychologist and couples therapist for three decades.

You will read about different “types” of affairs. Some put the relationship between the married couple front and center, such as the “screw you” revenge affair or the “out the door exit,” or the “conflict avoidant” affair.

As a result of the event, some refer to the act as an accident, one-night stand, or a split self-affair that may last for a lifetime or an “accidental or one-night stand.”

Some speak strictly about the impulse control or narcissism of the involved partner, using terms like “the sex addict/philanderer affair,” “the love addict affair,” or “entitlement affair.”

Others focus on the attachment to the affair partner. In this case, it is called a “romantic affair.” This can be a sexual affair or strictly a “best work buddy” affair. In contrast, “online cyber affairs” are the modern version in which you share your words, fantasies, or perhaps your body with masturbation tossed in.

Our Primary Relationship

I don’t see couples who have decided to divorce after discovering an affair. I typically see those wondering if they can recover.

When an affair is discovered, the relationship is full of emotional energy. Sometimes people sleep or eat little. We’ve found a “secret life” that doesn’t involve our spouse.

In truth, the hurt partner learns that no matter how many intimate details s/he extracts from the involved partner, it doesn’t bring them closer together. Because for many of those multiple “types” or descriptors, infidelity happened because secrets weren’t shared within the marriage. Emotional intimacy was painfully absent. And if there were any close friendships, it typically didn’t involve the spouse.

Signs of an emotional affair

For many couples, if the hurt partner missed all the signs of an emotional affair, s/he either wasn’t paying attention or didn’t want to know. This may not be true across the board.

It is certainly not true of narcissistic entitled affairs because the narcissistic partner was never there in any true emotional sense. But for others, not noticing the emotional distance created by affairs is noteworthy.

Marriage, by its very definition, is the process of sharing emotions. We meld sexual and emotional attachment into the word “intimacy” because, while some believe that romantic partners are an invention of the troubadours, romantic love has been with us for a long time.

Some cultures discourage it, I’ve learned. There are cultures where even married couples live in gendered arrangements. However, it doesn’t stop men or women who fall in love. They bear the scorn to be together.

So the first thing to do if you suspect emotional infidelity is to take a deep breath. Ask yourself if you feel deeply loved by your spouse. Forget about checking phone records, credit card receipts, or condom wrappers. You have everything you need to know right there in your chest.

The Act of Infidelity

Some will claim that affairs happen because people get sloppy. They argue that men don’t keep their guard up, so they break the rules and develop an inappropriate connection.

You don’t hear this argument about women. Somehow women, it’s argued, keep a neater interior emotional environment. According to this argument, women have fewer “accidental” affairs.

This is not true of women in the vast majority of cases.

While affairs can seem sudden and unexpected, that’s not true. They are a series of hundreds of minor decisions. Minor breaches in honest disclosure are justified by telling ourselves, “She wouldn’t understand” or “I don’t want to upset him.”

When we trace back the story of how the affair came about (and I work with one couple over a weekend, so that’s actually possible), these many decisions become obvious.

Double Life Affairs

Don Draper, the character in Mad Men is an apt example of a person who engages in a double life affair. He’s truly a man who can’t integrate his life and has stopped trying.

The split is within him, not in the three wives and 19 mistresses he engages. Today we might say he was a sexual addict. Like a large percentage of sex addicts, he was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused as a kid. And for most people leading a double life, the internal split happens early.

Older adults typically have these affairs. They can last a lifetime. The affair partner gets the cereal, and the wife gets the box. The cereal is messier than the box but has more substance. The box is pretty, but only rodents will eat it.

Both are necessary to keep the involved partner’s life together. The “proper” spouse is brought to social events and college graduations. You can share your inner soul with the mistress…or at least as much as possible.

These long-term double-life affairs are difficult to recover from because the spouse has traded their soul, thinking, “This is as good as it gets.” They assume that their spouse is emotionally stunted. Then they learn that they’ve made a devil’s bargain.

Often the involved partner wants to be sorry the entire affair happened but can’t muster the feelings. Their integrity is undermined if they fake their emotions.

He misses his affair partner and is not sure about ending it. If he is really experiencing a crisis, he can’t help but let that show.

In therapy, if the wife is angry at him, instead of grieving for herself, she’s missing an ideal opportunity for valuable introspection. She might have told herself that her husband wasn’t capable of more than he gave her. Now she realizes it’s not true. He’s capable of sharing, just not with her.

It is an encouraging sign if they both grieve for themselves over a weekend with me instead of their marriage. That relationship died long ago. After grieving, they might decide to start over with their union over a intensive therapy weekend. For others, it takes much longer to resolve.

Exit Affair

I find these weekends extremely heartbreaking. The hurt partner learns that not only have they been betrayed, but their spouse doesn’t even want to work on the marriage. The involved partner often brings the spouse into therapy to soften the blow. They know the news will be devastating.

They know the goal is to demolish their marital house while the spouse still lives in it. That is the sum of it. That is the plan.

Before the BIG BIG Book, it was a mystery treatment where I was left to figure out if there was any possibility of salvaging the relationship. I’d inquire here and there, and weeks would pass by. At a certain point, with timing I wasn’t not privy to, the involved partner would announce that the marriage would never work. And they are leaving.

Now I can know the truth after asking 800-1000 questions upfront. I then suggest discernment counseling (not couples therapy), where I can learn about the affair while keeping their complete confidence.

Most of the time, it is clear to everyone that this affair partner is not their “true love.” The affair partner is a bookmark.

Guilty but Unashamed

Sometimes, however, I can see that what looks like an Exit Affair is actually a brain on drugs…the drugs that pore in with “falling in love.” They want to get out of the marriage, and fast, but there is some reluctance.

Some part of them knows, or senses, that they might be married to a decent person who genuinely cares for them. The weekend, for the involved partner, is split between the heartache of a love affair and the nagging spot in the back of their brains that maybe they are blowing up their life. My job is to try to move that tiny spot forward in their neocortex.

But, for most other Exit Affairs, the involved partner is not ambivalent. They are guilty but not ashamed.

The Spouse That’s Left

And the hurt partner is forced to alternate between wanting to swallow their outrage so that they can try to convince them to stay and embracing the fact that they have been two-timed, in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. They have been double-crossed because of the affair and because they are being left in the ugliest way.

Revenge of the Hurt Partner

Recently, one of my matter-of-fact predictions came true. I told this man, candidly and without malice that leaving his marriage this way would not end well for him. When it came to pass, he ignored my efforts and preceded with the divorce. He was stunned by what his otherwise sweet wife was capable of.

I offer this same advice to those of you considering an exit affair. Do it in the right order: divorce, then an affair (that no longer is an affair, it’s just a relationship).


Most people who don’t make a living in ‘heartache’ will be pleasantly surprised to learn that many people seeking help from a knowledgeable science-based couples therapist benefit.

Most assume it will be a torturous weekend with gnashing teeth and hair-pulling. That is hardly ever the case.

There is the heartache that comes with the business, but now it’s felt for a purpose. No matter what “type” of affair couples present with, the pair can look plainly at the personal side of their lives.

For some Involved Spouses, the pain comes from the damage they have inflicted on their spouses. For others, they recognize the damage that they have done to their own integrity.

As for the hurt partners, I’ll leave you with the words of one wise woman when I asked her what she needed to heal. Her answer stayed with me. She said:

“I don’t need the passwords to his phone or social media accounts. I know they can be worked around. I don’t need his promises never to do it again. I’ve learned what his promise is worth. I need time, and I need to learn to trust my gut and my heart and never to allow myself to be misled. The biggest betrayal I did to myself. I felt something was wrong, and I trusted his words instead of my heart. That will never happen to me again.”

To those of you who ask, “What kind of affair was it” or “How can I tell if s/he was unfaithful?” I’ll echo the words of that hurt spouse:

Trust your gut, not someone else’s words.