How would your relationship stack up on a health test?
It’s a personal question, I know. But when it comes to a person’s wellbeing, a relevant one.
Any assessment of overall health would be incomplete without an inventory of personal relationships – how authentic they are, and the extent to which they provide the right environment to bring out the best in each individual.
The most important relationship – of course – is the one you have with yourself. We are told time and time again that we must love ourselves before we can do a decent job of loving someone else. It can be a fair bit of work just dealing with that – but doing it does make other relationships a whole lot easier.
And then there are our romantic relationships. As well as being a source of joy, these relationships can cause a (sometimes brutally swift) upwards trajectory of self development.
And the recent Ashley Madison hack has reminded us of one of the biggest boat rockers of them all – infidelity.
Infidelity is perceived as the ultimate relationship-spoiler. Sometimes, that’s as it should be. But not always.
We all know of couples that have not only survived an affair, but have emerged from the ordeal stronger and more in love than before it happened.
But what factors predict the likelihood of a couple making it through following an affair, and actually experiencing emotional growth because of it? Better still perhaps, how can we stop our butts being cheated on in the first place?
Affairs can happen in any relationship
There are factors that make an affair more likely (more on that below) – but affairs can happen in any relationship.
Existing statistics suggest that affairs affect almost one third of all relationships. It’s probably more than that considering that this is a research area that doesn’t exactly lend itself well to honesty.
Research by Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier, who studies relationships and infidelity at the University of Montreal, estimates that the chances of someone cheating while in a committed relationship range from 46-76 percent.
So common is infidelity, that soon it might not even be called ‘cheating’ anymore.
Despite this, a lot of us have a “nah it won’t happen to us” philosophy on infidelity. As a result, we don’t expend too much mental energy speculating what we would do if it actually happened. That’s probably a mistake.
If we actually got real about the possibility of infidelity by talking openly about it with our current partners, it might (only might) help us to prevent it from occurring. Relationship expert Esther Perelthinks so. According to Perel, changing the conversation around fidelity helps us to “create a safe space for productive conversation, where the multiplicity of experiences can be explored with compassion.”
We’re all capable
There are multiple layers of cheating. It could literally mean anything we’ve done and thought “I can’t tell my partner about this.”
Sexting. Staying active on dating sites. ‘Harmless’ flirting at the gym or office.
You might not consider some of those things as cheating. The point is, if you’re a human with a pulse, there’s most likely been at least one time in your relationship that you’ve felt the need to explore some type of external, stimulating experience outside of your committed relationship.
That awareness is useful as it means we can conceivably avoid vulnerable states of relationship in the first place.
Why we cheat
So why do otherwise good people break their commitments to each other?
There seem to be lots of reasons. Because we can. Because we’re weak. Because we get tempted. Because it’s fun.
Here are some of the top theories – from experts, anecdotes and research:
- A need to feel desirable.
- Boredom (sexual).
- Genetic reasons.
- Because one or both of our parents had an affair.
- Feelings of being undervalued.
- Unmet expectations of relationship/feelings of disappointment.
- Drunken or otherwise impaired decision making.
- Weakness (or in other words, poor impulse control or a poor ability to delay gratification).
- Cognitive dissidence.
- Sex addiction.
- Because of dopamine.
- Because we think it will make us happier.
- Because of the length of our index finger.
- Because of power.
- (If you’re a guy) because you have performance anxiety.
- To save a marriage.
- (If you’re a guy) because you’re financially dependent on your woman.
- If the man earns more money.
- When we have a risk taker personality.
- Because we aren’t hard wired to be monogamous.
- Because we got infatuated with someone else.
- Because you’re a man.
- Because you’re a woman.
- Because sex has become a casual pastime to help with stress.
A few things might strike you about this list:
- None are to do with the person being cheated on.
- There are a lot of them.
- The reason might be useful information for a couple deciding whether to stay together after an affair.
One thing seems abundantly clear: monogamy is nothing to do with love.
Relationship vs individual vs circumstantial reasons
The reasons why we cheat have been further divided into three categories: individual reasons, relationship reasons, and situation reasons. Nothing’s hard and fast, but here are some examples:
Individual traits: Lack of self awareness, impulsive nature, unbalanced gratification/approval seeking.
Relationship traits: Unhealthy communication, high amount of conflict, apathetic behaviour.
Situation: Prolonged periods of separation, tempting environments.
What are the cheating risk factors?
From the above, we can deduce that there are certain risk factors that could be a precursor to an affair. For example:
- Where there is poor communication in the relationship.
- Lifestyle factors, for example, one is working away from home a lot.
- Certain personal character traits, for example, a high degree of approval seeking, a tendency towards avoiding responsibility, an over-inflated need for significance, a lack of self awareness or a lack of impulse control.
- If one had a cheating mum or dad.
- Being a man.
- Being a woman.
- A happy relationship. Yes, you read that right. According to UK counselling service Relate, “A happy fulfilling relationship is not an insurance policy against infidelity. At best it’s a helpful deterrent.”
Is it possible to affair-proof?
And so it’s possible to see that all of our relationships are vulnerable to affairs/infidelity. This awareness doesn’t need to be depressing. If we truly embraced it, we would be more proactive in keeping our relationships healthy. So how do we do that?
Perversely, experts say that infidelity is almost never about sex. Rather, it is about intimacy and unmet needs. To better our chances of helping to meet our partner’s needs (which according to relationship expert Harville Hendrix is the whole point of them anyway), we can learn how to keep their love banks full. Of course, we need to understand the importance of meeting our own needs primarily (our partners aren’t responsible for that), which takes a degree of self awareness.
We can also attempt to make better choices of partner. If we have a high value on fidelity over freedom (for example), we can select partners who share those values.
Perhaps the best preventative strategy is setting high standards for ourselves in relationships, particularly of integrity and communication. That helps because we tend to attract those with similarly high standards.
Finally we can be realistic with ourselves that, despite our best efforts, affairs might happen anyway. Imagining ourselves in the position of dealing with infidelity increases our chances of a constructive psychological response, should they occur.
When affairs happen: the fork in the road
If an affair happens, it’s going to feel shitty.
The depth of the shitty feeling will largely depend on the scale and circumstances of the infidelity, as well as our levels of resilience. Those things will also help to determine whether it is something that the couple can move on from.
If you have found out that your partner has had an affair, then after any practical necessities have been taken care of, damage limitation might involve:
- Delaying making any long-term decisions.
- Managing your physiological state – through exercise, adequate sleep, good nutrition and yoga/meditation.
- Not resisting emotions (feeling them).
- Being selfish – not talking about it with anyone you don’t want to.
- But finding at least one person you trust to talk it through with. Men, definitely do this.
- Being aware of when your thoughts are slipping into the past and the future. Someone wise once said there isn’t any pain in the present moment.
- Making sure you get enough human touch. Massage is useful.
- Using mantras.
The aftermath of an affair need not entail a prolonged period of suffering. Following a grieving period, we can actually make a decision to learn and grow – either with or without our partners. An affair can be the catalyst for a new awesome relationship – with your current partner, yourself or someone new.
In her brilliant Ted Talk on the subject, Esther Perel says: “Every affair will redefine a relationship and every couple will determine what that legacy will be.”
Post break-up scrutiny
Reflection should be part of the ‘clean up’ for any kind of relationship ending or crisis point – not just where there has been an affair.
A period of positive introspection following the end of a long-term relationship (or a stage in your relationship) enables you to create an emotional clearing for an even better next one.
A great tool of reflection and self healing is letter writing. The letter doesn’t need to be sent; its an avenue for your greater understanding and closure.
Many of us find reading to be beneficial. In addition to reading uplifting content, we can take the opportunity to learn about our primary drivers in love. In her thought-provoking book, In the Meantime, Iyanla Vanzant says:
“Everything that happens to you is a reflection of what you believe about yourself. We cannot outperform our level of self-esteem. We cannot draw to ourselves more than we think we are worth.”
Different perspectives can sometimes give us new and important insights. As someone somewhere once said, we don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on experience.
For couples that turn their crisis into an opportunity, they will need to redefine their relationship. Essential elements of moving on from an affair are (1) forgiveness and (2) effective communication.
For the former, both individuals might have some work to do. Forgiveness doesn’t come easy, but there is no peace without it. People achieve forgiveness through multiple avenues. Often it takes learning new ways of being. For a really great read on why forgiveness is so important, I would highly recommend ‘Letting Go’ by David Hawkins.
In terms of communication, that might involve some serious stepping up (as if an affair has happened, you may have already became a bit unstuck in this area).
One well known technique from highly esteemed relationship expert Harville Hendrix is the Imago Dialogue. The Imago Dialogue is an enhanced way of communicating which essentially involves only saying the things that sustain a relationship.
Dr Hendrix says there are two aspects of a Conscious Relationship (Imago Dialogue is the second):
- Remove negativity. When we are negative about our partners, this is just a way of us regulating intimacy (both our greatest fear and our greatest desire as humans). Ultimately, removing negativity involves moving to the acknowledgement that our partners are not ‘us’ – and not to see that as a ‘bad’ thing, but rather seeing the ‘otherness’ as different, rather than bad.
- Begin a new dialogue. Problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness at which they were created. We form our ideas about relationships in our connection to our parents, and when our needs aren’t met, we experience what could be called a wound, and we create a defence against being wounded again, such as withdrawing emotionally or escalating our demands. Breaking free from that takes awareness of both ours and our partner’s backgrounds. Although it’s not possible to be ‘everything’ for your partner, knowing the role your backgrounds play in the relationship helps us to move from “What’s your problem?” to “How can I help?”
Moving on, just you
If a couple or a person decides that the relationship is over, they’ll want to ensure they are healthy going forwards. As well as doing the introspective work discussed above, you may want to:
- Write a letter to your partner. This will take courage and it’s painful, but worth it because of the catharsis.
- Write a hello letter to your new life.
- Get clarity on how you want your next relationship to look. List its main attributes. This list might help in formulating it.
A note about resilience
Just as forgiveness might be the most important factor in a couple moving on, the most critical to an individual moving on is resilience.
One definition of resilience is being like a bouncy ball – as in being as unaffected as possible by our life experiences. We need to avoid holding future partners accountable for the actions of previous partners – it only helps to create more of the same. You’ve heard the saying – what we resist, persists.
When affairs keep happening
If affairs keep occurring in your relationships, then it could be time to (without blame and with a ton of self compassion) examine any underlying limiting beliefs that you have around love.
It is said that a thing keeps happening until we learn a lesson we need to learn. Just something to consider.
Are we even supposed to be monogamous?
There are no studies that truly prove that mammals are naturally monogamous or non-monogamous. We can look at our history as primates to justify our behavior either way.
Do we have the capacity to fornicate with people outside of our primary partnership, because at heart we are just animals? Yep. Do we have the capacity to make higher functioning decisions because our brains have evolved since the time we lived in caves? Yep.
It could be more accurate to say monogamy is challenging for the average person (we are just too terrible at choosing partners, and lovers too for that matter). But hey, who ever aspires to be average?
Changing the way our relationships are defined
A new category of relationship is emerging – the polyamorous – where couples choose to define their own structural forms of monogamy.
Traditionally referred to as an ‘open relationship’, sexual fidelity is not what keeps these relationships monogamous, but rather it is the emotional connection that defines the monogamy.
Couples in these types of relationship, which comprise around 4-5% of the heterosexual population, report greater relationship satisfaction than more traditional couples. They have less jealousy, and more exciting and satisfying sex lives. It is not clear if these couples are in general less jealous and were more sexual before they negotiated their open relationships.
What does a long-term relationship have to offer?
Whether sexually exclusive or not, relationships can be amazing experiences for helping us to learn and grow at an accelerated rate. Our intimate relationships work as mirrors for one another, allowing an opportunity for self-awareness, and allowing each person involved to experience progressively deeper levels of love through the building of trust and intimacy. That’s a key benefit of committing to a long-term relationship.
Committing to one person for an extended period of time can even allow us to experience higher states of awareness. On the flip side of that, the trusted space can become a space of dull, uninspired love for people who are not being conscious of their wants and needs.