It is generally believed that between 10 percent and 20 percent of men and women in supposedly monogamous long-term relationships (such as marriage) do not uphold their vow of fidelity, choosing instead to seek a bit of extracurricular sexual and/or romantic satisfaction elsewhere. In other words, they cheat. This fact has become clearer than ever in the wake of this summer's Ashley Madison hack and data dump. (In case you've been living under a rock, Ashley Madison is a website/app created to facilitate extramarital affairs. The company says it has more than 40 million members, with new members signing up every day despite the now infamous security breach and the many problems it has caused.)
Admittedly, there is a lot of debate about the percentage of AM's membership that is genuine versus fake -- particularly the female portion of that demographic. There is also a lot of discussion, both cocktail and clinical, about what the "real" members are seeking and doing after they've set up a profile. However, it is clear that at least some AM users are actively looking for and finding various forms of adulterous satisfaction. Even if we're only talking about one in 10 members (and I'm guessing that's a relatively conservative estimate), that's still around 4 million people who are actively cheating via this service. And AM is not alone in the world of hookup apps. Millions of other men and women use Tinder, Skout, Coffee Meets Bagel, OkCupid, Grindr and the like.
Generally speaking, the men and women who cheat on their primary partners via digital technology are seeking one of two things: a purely sexual experience, or emotional connection.
For many cheaters, sexual satisfaction is the goal. The other person is a sexual object -- no more, no less. Of course, there are a whole lot of variations to this. Objectified sex can be found through pornography, mutual masturbation via webcams, casual and/or anonymous in-person sexual encounters, hookups with people who don't self-identify as prostitutes but nonetheless expect expensive gifts or trips in exchange for their physical presence and sexual participation, sensual massage, sex with escorts and traditional prostitutes (who, these days, tend to advertise their services on hookup apps instead of street corners), and more. Sometimes people go online looking for kink-type sex that they've fantasized about but don't get in their primary relationship; BDSM, homosexuality, transgendered, chubby chasing, and the like are all readily available online.
Generally speaking, people who seek purely sexual affairs don't view these liaisons as a threat to their primary relationship. They seem to think: It's not really cheating because I never even thought of leaving my significant other. This is especially true of men, who are typically much more able than women to emotionally and psychologically compartmentalize certain behaviors. In other words, men are often able to separate sex and emotional attachment, which enables them to rationalize their sexual infidelity. That said, women are also perfectly capable of having purely sexual encounters.
Typically, emotional affairs are more potent than purely sexual affairs, and much more damaging to an existing long-term relationship. For one thing, because the cheater is emotionally as well as sexually connected to his/her affair partner, it is much more difficult to break things off. Making matters worse, quite a lot of collateral damage to the primary relationship occurs because as the cheating partner connects more and more deeply with his/her affair partner, he/she steadily loses the intimate connection with his/her spouse. Over time, the affair becomes as meaningful, with as much emotional intimacy, as the primary relationship. Sometimes even more so.
This can occur even before the affair crosses over into the sexual arena, especially if the cheating partner is keeping secrets about this "friendship" from his/her spouse. Most of the time, people in emotionally charged affairs will say, looking back, that they crossed the line into infidelity long before things turned sexual. Telltale signs include:
- The cheating partner confides more to the other man/woman than to his/her spouse.
- The cheating partner starts talking negatively about his/her marriage to the other man/woman.
- The cheating partner keeps secrets from his/her spouse about time spent with the other man/woman.
- If the cheating partner thought about it, he/she would realize that his/her spouse would be uncomfortable with his/her level of attachment to the affair partner.
- The cheating partner's "friendship" is tinged with sexual tension. He/she and the other man/woman touch one another differently in private than in front of others.
Essentially, emotional affairs occur when the cheating partner starts to have as much or more intimacy with the affair partner than with his/her primary partner.
Life After Infidelity
Regardless of whether infidelity has been purely sexual or emotionally charged, cheating indelibly damages a primary relationship. The loss of relationship trust can never really be regained. However, healing can occur, and a new, more realistic version of relationship trust can be built.
This process is not easy, of course. Generally it requires couples' counseling, setting boundaries and abiding by them, and rigorous honesty on the part of the cheater for at least a year. That said, couples who choose to stay together -- and the vast majority at least make an effort -- often find that their relationship is stronger, with better intimacy after they've embarked, together, on this process of healing and rebuilding relationship trust. These couples find that they are able to be more open, more emotionally vulnerable, and more intimately connected with each other than ever. More information on this process can be found here.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S, is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health, where he has created sex addiction treatment programs at The Ranch in Tennessee and a women's substance abuse and intimacy disorders program at The Right Step in Texas. As a well-known expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among others. For more information, please visit his website.