Infidelity And How It Affects Marriage, Children And Families

Infidelity And How It Affects Marriage, Children And Families

An estimated 40 percent of married couples in America experience at least one incident of infidelity. Why people cheat, how extramarital affairs affect the whole family and understanding the consequences of infidelity.

An estimated 40 percent of American marriages experience at least one episode of infidelity. Studies show more men than women cheat, but they often do it for the same reasons. While infidelity is a factor in many divorces, half of American marriages survive an extramarital affair. New social science and medical research is contributing to understanding the causes of infidelity. And it's helping therapists guide couples who seek to repair a damaged marriage. A discussion on what drives people to cheat and how infidelity can affect children and the whole family.


Dr. Scott Haltzman

clinical psychiatrist and author of several books on marriage and families.

Carolyn Hax

advice columnist for The Washington Post.

Lindsey Hoskins

marriage and family therapist; president-elect of the Middle Atlantic Division of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

Ask An Expert: Listeners’ Questions On Infidelity

Dr. Scott Haltzman, a longtime therapist and expert on infidelity and marriage, addresses your questions about relationships, why people cheat and how to rebuild trust after an affair. Some questions have been edited for space and clarity.

Q: What are some of the most common reasons why people who have been cheated on stay in a marriage (after they find out)? – from Salomé via Facebook

A: Factors that affect whether a person chooses to try to repair the marriage include the social and economical conditions, the welfare of the children, the expectations or the culture, or the fears of the affected person about being alone. Love for the spouse and respect for shared history also affect someone's decision to stick in there. The other variable, of course, is the actions of a partner once he or she comes clean about the affair. If they dismiss it or refuse to talk about it, act like it's the other spouse's fault, or still insist on having their own private lives, it increases the risk that partner cheated on will just get fed up or hopeless.

Q: I am curious what your panelists think about consensual polyamory or “swinging,” as a way to accommodate wandering sexual urges in a marriage. It seems like a very healthy way to handle a very natural desire. – from Alice via email

A: Some people enthusiastically view swinging as an alternative to having to be with the same sex partner for life; they claim it works for them. In my experience, usually one partner is much more gung ho on engaging in this lifestyle, which increases the sense of isolation, confusion and even sense of unattractiveness in the spouse who reluctantly agrees. Even in the rare case that both partners are equally in favor of this lifestyle, the basic premise is faulty: that you can separate sex from emotional attachment. Having sex with someone triggers attraction and bonding, which can lead to partners falling in love with their new sex partners. This interferes with the solidarity of the marriage.

Q: Infidelity seems to be defined quite differently by many cultures. There are a multitude of cultures in America. How can any survey measure infidelity rates if the definition is so broad? – from Phil via email

A: This is one of the main limitations on any research on infidelity: how to define it. Additionally, to complicate things, people lie about whether they are having affairs or not. One study that compared face-to-face interviews with computerized surveys showed a six-fold increase in people who admitted to affairs. The spouse with the broadest view of infidelity generally ends up setting the tone for the marriage. For example, if one spouse defines watching porn as "cheating," then the partner who is comfortable with porn has to respect his or her partner's preferences.

Q: When a husband cheats and brings a STD into the marriage, can this ever be repaired? - from Teresa via email

A: When a husband cheats, he already brings "disease" into the marriage; and whether STDs are present or not, it still takes a lot of work to get a marriage back on track. STDs reflect an even higher degree of disrespect toward the marriage and the spouse. So many factors play to into whether marriages stay together or fall apart, though. That and STD isn't a de facto death sentence to the marriage.

Q: Should children be told of a parent's infidelity? I was crushed when my mother told me about my father's infidelities after he had been dead for over 30 years. – Name withheld by request, via email

A: Knowing that your partner cheated on you while everyone else glorifies that person can be a difficult emotional load to carry; the problem is, it then becomes everyone else's load. In your mother's case, it sounds like she needed you to see him the way she did. Your being "crushed," may reflect what she experienced when she found out. Now you know! Did that help you? Maybe not. Did it help her? Probably.

You may also want to check out my blog post on whether children should know you’ve had an affair.

Q: How, if at all, does social media play a role in infidelity? Does it increase the chances that someone may be unfaithful? Does an online relationship that remains one-dimensional count as infidelity? – from Kristen via email

A: Social media and e-communication has dramatically increased infidelity, not only because of the increased risk of meeting someone for the first time through the Web, or reconnecting with someone from the past through social networking sites, but also as a means, to perpetuate a potential affair. If 15 years ago you meet a friend from hundreds of miles away, the relationship is likely to die out because you can't very well keep calling and writing to each other without being discovered. Now, between Facebook, emails, and texting, people can maintain and intensify what, in the past, would have been "near misses."

Q: Aren't men "programmed" (for lack of a better word) to spread their "biological fitness"? Is this true? What's answer for men? – from @BMwalt via Twitter

A: Evolutionary biologists make a strong argument for a man to have multiple female sex partners as the best way of propagating DNA. A woman has to wait nine months between being able to produce one offspring with her genes, and at a cost to her biological well-being. A man can be involved in having hundreds of offspring in that time (if he can find that many women). But there's a biological reason for men to stay with women too. After all, if the jumps from woman to woman, when his progeny is born, he won't be able to protect it from some other man who might kill off the baby in order to eliminate the first guy's DNA from the gene pool.

The bottom line here is "human nature" is not an excuse to have an affair. We have instincts to do all kinds of things, from punching out bosses, to pushing people out of lines at airports, to taking the really cool Ferrari in the neighbor's driveway out for a spin. Part of being human and living in society is the capacity to control instincts, and not have them control us.

Q: I've been involved with the same woman for the past 11 years (not married), we are in a committed relationship and live together. I just found out that she has been involved with another man. How do I cope with this? What can I do to not let my imagination/mind get the best of me and obsess about this? It's very upsetting to me and I don't trust that I am getting the whole story. – from Scott via email

A: At this point, Scott, the ball is in your girlfriend's court in terms of giving you the tools to deal with this. If she is willing to end the relationship, be open with you and answer all of your questions without reservation, then you can begin to get you imagination in line with reality. That will help give you the information you need to figure out what you want to do next. 
My book, “The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity" was written to help couple sort though this, but if it's not sufficient, then seeing a therapist may help.

Q: Is masturbation infidelity? – from Mario via email

A: Depends who you ask. I personally don't believe so, and most secular therapists view it as a healthy adjunct to a sexual relationship, so long as it is not related to porn addiction or detracts from participating in sexual liaisons with a spouse. Many therapists who use scripture as their source of treatment feel that masturbation is a form of infidelity. Recall Jimmy Carter's famous confession that he sinned in his heart because he even thought about other women.

Q: I was wondering if your guests could address work spouses, a unit where two colleagues in the workplace engage in a non-sexual relationship to gain some sort of benefits. Is this considered to be infidelity? – from Jared via email

A: If you have a close working relationship with someone, hold no secrets with them, make it clear the extent to which you adore your spouse and your family, leave no openings for any inappropriate words or acts, and share fully the nature of all collegial interactions with your spouse, then it's off my radar screen for "infidelity."

Q: My ex was proud that he didn't physically stray, but he had two emotional affairs. To my mind it is equally damaging. We could not get past it. Thoughts? – Name withheld by request, via email

A: Many people (particularly women) feel the emotional affairs can be just as damaging as physical affairs. In the beginning of the interview, I spent some time defining infidelity, because not everyone sees it the same way. If your husband is willing, this gives you a chance to have a discussion about your definition of what constitutes an affair and see whether, rather than "agree to disagree," you can, instead, get a commitment to adopt your definition. If holds fast, then it's time to go to a counselor, and agree to accept the definition of an informed third party. Before you go to the therapist, be prepared to follow the advice. You have to be ready to hear that your definition is too strict and the therapist may tell you to ease up, or your husband may hear he has crossed the line, and he has to be willing to change ways.

Q: Do counselors ever acknowledge the possibility that repeated infidelity may be a sign of someone's legitimate polyamorous tendencies? Perhaps part of healing may be admitting that loving more than one person can be healthy, rather than viewing such feelings as destructive to a loving relationship. Also, at what point does jealousy become emotional abuse? Denying a partner the opportunity to make new human connections may be symptomatic of a desire to control and manipulate. So, can such extreme jealousy actually be more damaging than so-called infidelity? (I think this is especially important to consider when we find ourselves restricted very early in a relationship.) – from Chris via email

A: Who can understand human nature; we may all be born with polyamorous instincts. If people want to live that way, they shouldn't forge a marriage contract that pledges monogamy. Some people enthusiastically view swinging as an alternative to having to be with the same sex partner for life; they claim it works for them. In my experience, usually one partner is much more gung ho on engaging in this lifestyle, which increases the sense of isolation, confusion and even sense of unattractiveness in the spouse who reluctantly agrees. Even in the rare case that both partners are equally in favor of this lifestyle, the basic premise is faulty: that you can separate out sex from emotional attachment. Having sex with someone triggers attraction and bonding, which can lead to partners falling in love with their new sex partners. This interferes with the solidarity of the marriage.

I do agree that denying sexual liaisons between a spouse and someone outside of marriage may be a form of control, but much of marriage is about control, everything from a text that says "meet me at the market in 10 minutes" to insisting that you don't wear that 20-year-old Hawaiian shirt to your in-law's Thanksgiving party. I do think that restricting all kinds of connection or friendships with anyone who might be a potential threat my be overly controlling, but I'm OK with my spouse excerpting control over some aspects of my behavior, including who I have sex with (and where I'm permitted to wear a Hawaiian shirt).

Q: What is the impact on a family when a spouse has had an affair with someone and has brought that person into the home, and who is a person who is involved with the activities of the children at school related activities? – from Amy via email

A: The impact is huge, because the betrayal extends not only in the direction of the spouse, but to a trusted friend or associate as well.

Q: Why do you suppose we place so much emphasis on physical/sexual indiscretions? Is it because it is more "concrete" and easy to identify where emotional infidelity can be so vague to determine? How did we get to confusing physical to mean emotional? – from David via email

A: I agree that it's difficult to define an emotional affair; even among people who have been through affairs and are in the process of healing, it's still not clear when one partner has gone too far. The easiest remedy is to have a see-through marriage. That requires, on one hand, openness in communication. On the other hand, it requires the ability to ask questions, explore and address concerns without becoming overly judgmental or emotionally overwrought.

Q: The assumption that underlies the entire discussion on today's show is the claim that the connection to another person outside of the marriage is "cheating," or infidelity (all such words which note a moral failing). Please address why this type of behavior is deemed "wrong." – from Tim via email

A: Please see my blog post about this topic.

Q: How is it possible to be both a realist and be fully trusting of one's spouse, especially being relaxed about opposite-sex coworkers and friendships when opportunity is such a big factor in whether someone strays? I have no reason whatsoever to doubt my spouse, but one never knows. – from J. via email

A: The energy between two opposing forces can stimulate marriages; this issue of trust/realism is one of many such paradoxes in having a spouse and raising a family. By recognizing this challenge, you can foster communication between spouses and generate proactive problem solving to help "make sure" an affair never happens. And when you're done securing what you can, you still never know for sure.

Q: Infidelity implies dishonesty--is the transgression the lying. Is it cheating if the transgressor is honest? Also, what about the increasingly fashionable idea marriage contracts which spell out and tailor expectations? – from @bitterdivorcee via Twitter

A: There are many transgressions associated with infidelity: Breaking marriage vows, lying, robbing a family and spouse out of time and emotional energy that is rightfully theirs. Even after affairs are discovered, there are layers of deceit that must be dealt with. Unless marriage vows don't include sexual exclusivity, then all extramarital affairs are, contractually speaking, breaking a promise. Whether an open marriage is considered lying I'll leave for philosophers to figure out.

Most couples can't, won't or don't set out all the limitations on their relationship at the time of their wedding vows because they believe that their love will result in shared values and perceptions ever-after. No matter what you do or don't spell out in advance, you run the risk of someone saying "well, that was how I felt then, and when I wrote it I could not have anticipated that I would feel this way now, so I no longer feel compelled to do it." In my view, the simpler the vows the better: get the rock solid core of marriage, and let the relationship iron out the details over time.

Q: What does forgiveness look like? – from Sharon via email

A: First, if you have a chance, check out my blog post about apology. Forgiveness is a necessary last step in healing before a couple can begin to move their marriage forward. Sometimes it can take a long time, if ever, to materialize. It's the voluntary choice to relieve someone of the emotional weight of their act—despite the recognition that you have been wronged--so that they may be free to grow and heal. It looks like: "Honey, I'm very hurt about all the things that have happened over the past X-months, not only about the affair, but about all the things that came before, during and after. But I know our relationship can't go on unless I forgive you. Saying I forgive you doesn't take away the wrong of what you've done, but it says I'm ready to move on with you to a better place. You're forgiven."

Amazingly, even though forgiveness is a gift you give your spouse, it's a gift you give yourself, too. Holding on to anger and resentment builds up inside you, acting as a poison both to you and the marriage. Studies show people who can forgive are happier, healthier and less prone to depression.

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