Relationship Therapy for Couples & Individuals

Tony Davis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Category: Uncategorized

WHAT, EXACTLY, IS CHEATING?

Of all the issues that bring couples into therapy, cheating seems to be in the top five. Despite the frequency with which it happens, it seems that relationships are not prepared to respond when it does. Contributing to this lack of preparedness is the widely held belief that “It could not happen to us.” What is going on here? Is this a case of simple denial that we have the tendency to stray, or is there an element of human sexuality and relationship that we don’t know enough about?

No one will argue that cheating destroys trust. Less subject to agreement is what exactly constitutes cheating. Defining it is not so simple, because to do so requires taking into account culture, generational trends, gender, value systems, and more. Cheating is not just the act of having sex with someone outside your relationship; the parameters change all the time, so the definition is fluid. But despite evolving mores and influences, there are consistent qualities running underneath all the definitions that can help us to make choices about what works for our relationships.

Let’s take a look at what those consistencies are, whether cheating can be prevented, and if a relationship can be repaired once cheating occurs. But first I want to explore why there is so much confusion around cheating, and how to lessen that.

DO YOU HAVE AGREEMENTS?  When a couple comes in to my office because of an infidelity, I always ask what their agreements are concerning sexual/emotional needs being met inside and outside the relationship. You know what I usually hear? They have none! If they do have an agreement, it is usually not of their making–instead it is the “implicit” rule of marriage/commitment that states that you will only have sex with your partner for the duration of your time together. In other words, instead of agreements, they have assumptions.

These assumptions would be just fine–if they worked. Sadly, they rarely do, or else everyone pretends that they do. Now there are couples who successfully remain sexually monogamous to each other, but often they are supported in this commitment by their religion or culture. This does not mean that they don’t struggle privately with the commitment, but often their private doubts are overruled and pushed aside by their public beliefs. But with so many younger couples moving away from their religion and culture, where is the support for their relationship commitments?

Support needs to come primarily from within the relationship in the form of agreements. Agreements can change over time (and will!), but I find them absolutely necessary and helpful in making sure that partners walk a parellel path together. What issues might they benefit from discussing in order to form agreements around sexual fidelity?

  • Whether sex outside the relationship is allowed (and what constitues “sex”)
  • If masturbation is okay at home, either with or without the partner
  • Flirting/Having crushes on others–is that okay?
  • The role of porn either alone or together
  • Online activity: chatting with others randomly vs. having a regular communication with someone
  • Needs that are not being met by the other, sexually and emotionally; needs that we want the other to meet
  • Frequency of sex together/making time for it/satisfaction levels
  • Fantasies, new interests and curiosities

As you can see, there a lots of things to talk about that often are never talked about until they cause trouble. Why wait until then? Now let’s look at what cheating actually is.

WHAT IS CHEATING?  If you ask the average person on the street what cheating is, they might answer that it is having sex with someone other than your partner. This is true if sex with others is not part of the agreements, but that does not mean that that is all there is to cheating. But since this is the most common betrayal, let’s explore what makes sex with others cheating? It depends on how you define it. I define cheating as any action of intentionally breaking the relationship agreements in a deceptive or secretive way.

The key words in this definition are: intentionally, deceptive, and secretive, and to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article, they are the consistent qualities behind every act of cheating. This definition, you may notice, does not specify an action–so cheating could be sex with others, and it could also be chatting online or watching porn alone–it all depends on what the agreements specify. This is why having them in place is so important!

Intentionality holds so much weight because any actions that come from it are either for or against the relationship. The Gottmans like to say that we are always leaning in or leaning out of the relationship. Intentional actions that lean out of the relationship aren’t necessarily cheating, but cheating is always leaning out of the relationship. Similarly, deception and secrecy are actions that lean out, not in. If you have ever been with someone who deceived you, you will need no convincing of this!

Deception and secrecy, when they are intentional and meant to hide the fact that an agreement has been broken, are betrayals that are difficult to repair, but it can be done with the help of a skilled couples therapist.  Let’s explore what the repair might look like.

CAN IT BE REPAIRED?  Repair is not all I do for relationships where betrayal is present, rather it is just one approach. Often, repair is not possible, and the couple has to explore starting from scratch. This is work, but it can also be more invigorating than it sounds! Many times, relationships have long ceased to be “alive”, and starting fresh can literally feel as though you are in a new relationship. Whether you want to repair or restart, willingness on both sides is essential. If one partner is not at least willing, the process will be a bumpy road that leads to a dead end.

Regardless of whether the intention is to repair or restart the relationship, it is important to first address the “betrayal” itself, and the effect that it has had on the one who was betrayed. Couples therapy cannot progress until this is attended to, because the hurt feelings will sabotage the work. Apologies are not the answer here–what is needed is an empathic understanding of how the betrayed feels. This can be difficult and painful work, but without it the wound will fester and infect the entire relationship. An apology cannot be issued until there is full understanding by the betrayer of how the betrayal affected their partner. Any attempts to apologize before that will come up empty and only increase resentments.

Once this step is accomplished, the couple can talk to each other to understand how the problem appeared (a shared description), and how it worked to push them away from each other and into betrayal. These conversations are best done with the guidance of a skilled therapist so that defensiveness and criticism don’t derail attempts to understand each other. With perserverance and intent, a couple can emerge on the other side of cheating into a more respectful and loving version of relationship. Couples who stick with this work report having better marriages–more honest and caring, with less taking each other for granted.

CAN IT BE PREVENTED?  Ideally, cheating will never happen, but there are no guarantees in any relationship. Nevertheless, there are ways to prevent cheating for the most part, and the good news is that these actions are fun and will bring you closer together. What can you do to keep cheating out of your marriage?

  • Don’t just have sex–TALK about sex. Discuss satisfaction levels by focusing on what is working well and making requests for what might make it work better. Instead of telling your partner what you don’t like, guide them toward what you do like–help them to get to know your sexual body and your erotic self. Remember, anything goes behind closed doors–as long as there is shared consent.
  • Have discussions about what your agreements are, and check in to see how they are working. Be frank–let your partner know if you are bothered by anything from porn viewing to phone use–but talk about how it bothers you rather than criticizing or judging the person doing it. Ask questions if you need to understand what you don’t understand or are not familiar with. That leads us to the next tip…
  • Be curious! The moment you assume that you know everything about each other is the moment the relationship stalls–make space for new interests and fantasies to be introduced, and accept that your partner is going to change, just like you are. Replace judgement with curiousity and you will improve your marriage immediately.
  • Admit that you will each be attracted to others, and that you may even want to have sex with others. This does not mean that you have to act on these feelings, if your agreement is that you don’t but pretending that it won’t happen is a surefire way to “tempt the devil”, as they say! Just because you find another attractive does not mean that you no longer find your partner attractive–it just means that you are alive!
  • Don’t get bored with yourself. Cheating is often a quick fix for feeling dull, unattractive, and bored–if you don’t work to feel good about yourself, how do you expect your partner to feel good about you? This is not just about working out at the gym, but also about trying new things, exploring your interests, challenging yourself, making a game out of “routines”.
  • Be loving to each other every day. The Gottmans are known for emphasizing the importance of positive interactions, especially during conflict–they say they are essential to having a strong healthy relationship. Loving actions can be small or large, it doesn’t matter, but the key is that they come from love–you want your partner to feel cared for by you. It does not take much, but the payoff is tremendous. Loving actions and words pave your relationship road with trust and closeness so that you can have those challenging discussions more easily.
  • Be respectful! This last tip could be the headline for all the others, since respect ensures that you remain interested and don’t run the risk of “missing” one another. Respect will motivate you to cherish who your partner is, who they are becoming, and who they have been, and respect will have you cherish these same qualities in yourself. Respect will discourage you from judging how you are different, recognizing that “being right” is one way to lean out of the marriage. Loving another person is not easy–honor the one who chooses to love you, and you won’t need to cheat. What you will do instead is talk and listen to each other, and adjust your agreements to better suit who you currently are both together and individually. This is respect, and in my opinion it is more important to keeping a relationship together than love.

Remember that cheating is not just about sex–that it is a betrayal of shared agreements and an act of disrespect toward your partner and yourself. And it doesn’t “just happen”. If cheating happens, you can use it as a sign that something is not being attended to between you–or you can make the other the villian and give up. Cheating is not the ultimate betrayal, it is just one form of betrayal, and it could be seen as a symptom of a shared problem. This does not let the cheater off the hook, it just keeps them from being strung up on the hook for life–a mature marriage will process the hurt and betrayal, and work together to unearth the problematic shared dynamic.

It is sad to see an otherwise good relationship end because of one instance of infidelity. It is time to reconsider how we think about love, sex, and marraige, and I am not the only one saying this. Love is not enough to keep someone from cheating on you. Love is just one element in the complex mix that makes up a relationship.  By attending to all the elements, you stand a better chance of being in a living, secure partnership–one where the love is earned and cherished and not just based on fantasy. Trust me, the effort is worth it!

TRAVELING WITHIN YOUR RELATIONSHIP

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Europe visiting ancient sites and eating wonderful food. This trip was special, as I don’t usually travel outside of California, so I really got a chance to see and do things that I don’t normally do. Since it is summer, you might have had a similar experience with your own travel adventures lately–and you may have even chosen your destination with “doing something different” as the goal.

My trip got me thinking about travel, both without and within, and as a couples therapist I could not help but wonder how the idea of “travel” might apply to the work I do. Many couples go on vacation together, but I know just as many who purposely go on separate vacations without their partners (including myself)! This used to puzzle me–but I get it now–we need to nurture the individual. I also started to think more about how we can move around without actually going anywhere–traveling within the relationship. And I thought I would share my thoughts about this as we enjoy the summer vacation season.

What does it mean to travel within the relationship, and what is the purpose of doing so?

TRAVELING TO GET AWAY: Most people think of traveling as a chance to “get away” from our lives for a spell–away from work, home, and the daily routine. I like to think of it as a chance to get away from ourselves, at least as much as that is possible. Wanting to get away from oneself does not mean that we don’t like who we are–I am referring to it in the context of wanting a different experience of ourselves than the usual.

Is it okay to want a different experience of ourselves in our relationships? Of course it is! Part of my work is helping couples talk to each other about how they are developing independent of the other: changing, growing, and learning. This is often an uncomfortable conversation, as people are worried they will be judged or rejected by their partners if they change. I help with the understanding and acceptance of this, because if there is one thing we can all count on, it is that change is inevitable!

Traveling to get away within a relationship is not something to be afraid of, as long as it benefits both the individual and the relationship. For example, let’s say that one partner decides to take a dance class on their own in order to explore something that has always interested them. This example of “traveling away” can be great for a couple if the goal is to a) create some healthy distance in the relationship; b) get excited about yourself in a new way; and c) bring the excitement of a new experience back home. You might find that if you support your partner’s individual explorations, you will never get “bored” with who they are. Besides, spending time away from each other gives you space to miss and appreciate each other!

TRAVELING TO GET PERSPECTIVE: Esther Perel has written a lot about how healthy distance elevates passion and interest in relationships. I would like to add that it also gives perspective. Perspective is valuable because it can change how we feel. When couples spend too much time together or share every activity, it can result in staleness. Some couples can be together a lot and thrive, but that is usually because they are extremely well-differentiated, so they retain their one-ness despite living in the two-ness!

Getting a new perspective applies both to how we see our partners and how we see ourselves. There is an exercise for couples where one of them goes to a bar alone and interacts with others, and then the partner comes in later and watches the interactions from a distance before joining the “game”. For extra fun, I will have the joining partner compete with others for their partner’s attention! I will often hear that excitement levels were high, and the joining partner “forgot” how attractive their partner is until they saw others interacting with them. This experiment incorporates the concepts of “risk and the forbidden“, which are two of the key elements of passion. Of course, I am talking about taking a risk, not being reckless!

TRAVELING WITHIN: We can get bored with ourselves at times, too! Daily life can feel like a routine with little change, and many of the tasks we do we are only “half-conscious” for, because they don’t require our full attention. I like the “Zen” way of thinking that says if we can’t be see value in the process, how can we see value in the reward?

Traveling within a relationship is a way to “refresh” yourself, to bring new energy and attention to days that seems just like the ones that have come before. This “traveling” is often done internally–through meditation, journaling, quiet contemplation, therapy, time in nature–where we can be in communication with ourselves and our intentions. I teach partners how to help each other travel within by asking questions about their inner emotional world. Being curious about the other can stimulate curiosity about ourselves, leading to discoveries we were not previously aware of. In a way, we are constantly traveling within, we are just not aware of it!

***

At the end of my recent travels, I was ready to come home, and excited to get back into “my life” here. I don’t travel to “get away” from my life, so I always look forward to coming back, but I do enjoy having a new experience and a new perspective. I find that these experiences resonate within me long after the vacation is over.

I encourage you to try out some travel this summer, whether it is around the world, around the block, or within. You might find that it creates changes in small but wonderful ways. We all need a break, even from what and who we love! See what traveling within relationship can do for you–you really don’t have to go too far at all.

GET INTERESTED IN EACH OTHER!

What does it mean to be interested in someone? Well, it depends on who you are asking and when you are asking, but for this article I would like to focus on “interest” as it shows up in romantic relationships. While you might wonder why this topic needs to be addressed, I can assure you that interest, as we know it, is often not the type that builds safety and security between two (or more) people.

Remember falling in love? Remember how interested you were in the other person? How you found their every word and action utterly fascinating? If you have ever had that experience, then perhaps you also experienced the interest fading over time–perhaps you started to feel that the things you were most interested in at the beginning are now annoying!

What happened?

In order to understand what happened, it is best to understand what interest in another is, and what it is not.

WHAT IT IS NOT: That obsessive interest we have in another during the infatuation stage is not really interest in them, it is interest in how great we feel when we are with them. How could it be true interest in them? Many times, we know very little about the other during those first days and weeks. What we do know is that our bodies are charged and our focus intensified when we are with our new love–and that we don’t want it to end.

Another way of saying it is that during this time, we become re-interested in ourselves! New romance makes us feel attractive, desirable, smart, energized, and yes, interesting. Our time at the beginning is usually spent trying to maintain that way of feeling, and we reinforce it by showing curiosity about how the other is just like us. Rarely do we investigate our differences, and if they come up, our brains tend to “disregard” them as it has one goal in mind: to bond with the other.

WHAT IT IS: I want to state that there is nothing wrong with the process described above, as long as you know that this is what is going on! So what is interest then, and why is it essential to relationship health?

Interest is the highest form of caring, in my book. What does that mean? It means that the elements we usually associate with caring: love, sex, patience, compromise, etc., are actually frosting to the “Interest Cake”. In my work, interest is defined as being curious about who the other is and what goes on in their inner emotional world. In question form that would look like this: “Who are you?” “What are you feeling about what happened/what I did?”

Many people associate this type of interest with therapy, but I always say to my clients that the work I do is not a different language, just a way of talking that we don’t do with one another anymore, for some reason. Our culture over the years has become increasingly self-involved, resulting in less actual conversation and more reports being traded back and forth. People often come into therapy simply because they don’t feel cared for by others in their lives–a sad state indeed!

WHAT TO DO: The good news is that you can learn how to do this with people in your life, and they can learn to do it with you. The benefit of showing interest in the other is that it diffuses defensiveness and criticism, and creates connection rather than disconnection. Interest is the cornerstone of healthy conflict! What is healthy conflict? It is when someone is upset, expresses vulnerability by talking about what they are feeling about what happened, and then is responded to by the other with curiosity, interest, and caring. That creates empathetic connection, the base of a safe and secure relationship.

This can be hard to do. We have not been taught to have this level of interest in another, so this is why I teach couples to practice it in the room and at home. As I said, this is not doing therapy, it is showing interest and care (which, by the way, is what therapists do!). When practiced regularly, it can change the dynamic in your relationships, and also prevent the staleness that can happen in a long term coupling.

The truth is that we are always changing, both individually and relationally. Being curious about those changes in someone you care about can go a long way toward ensuring that your love continues to live and grow. All it takes is a little interest!

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