A Look at the Many Faces of Marital Infidelity

Statistics about marital infidelity are notoriously difficult to verify, with estimates ranging from five-percent to 50-percent of marriages. A reputable, long-term study by Blow & Hartnett (2005) puts the likelihood of infidelity in a marriage, in any given year, at around six-percent, rising to 25-percent over the lifetime of the relationship.

Reasons for marital infidelity are diverse and complex. There is no one reason why someone is unfaithful to their partner. The reason given for a marital infidelity may be isolated to a single, identifiable reason. However, more often than not, infidelity occurs for a number of reasons, and it’s important for couples to be honest with each other about the infidelity, and investigate together why their relationship took this turn.

What is marital infidelity?

When one thinks of someone being unfaithful to their partner, or “cheating,” the common assumption is that someone has had a secretive, sexual relationship with someone other than their partner. The secret relationship could be long-term or even a one-night-stand.

There is much more than sex to marital infidelity and sometimes the infidelity doesn’t even involve a sexual relationship, in the strictest sense. Even sexual infidelity can be defined differently than before with individuals having the ability to email and text message sexual photographs and have video conversations without even being in the same room together. In fact, these actions are probably better classified as sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity in today’s world of communication.

“Non-sexual,” emotional marital infidelities have also become much more common with email, cell phones, phone texting, and social media, and they can be every bit as damaging to a relationship as a sexual affair.

Let’s look at a broader definition of marital infidelity, a definition that includes crossing emotional as well as physical boundaries.

In her book, Not “Just Friends,” Dr. Shirley Glass asks the following questions to investigate if a friendship with someone other than your partner has crossed the boundary to an emotional affair:

  1. Do you confide more to your friend than to your partner about how your day went?

  2. Do you discuss negative feelings or intimate details about your marriage with your friend but not with your partner?

  3. Are you open with your partner about the extent of your involvement with your friend?

  4. Would you feel comfortable if your partner heard your conversations with your friend?

  5. Would you feel comfortable if your partner saw a videotape of your meeting with a friend?

  6. Are you aware of sexual tensions in this friendship?

  7. Do you and your friend touch differently when you’re alone than in front of others?

  8. Are you in love with your friend?

Give yourself one point each for yes to questions 1, 2, 6, 7, and 8 above, and one point each for no to 3, 4, 5.  If you scored near 0, this is just a friendship. If you scored 3 or more, you may not be “just friends.” If you scored 7-8, you are definitely involved in an emotional affair, according to Glass. Elevated scores on this brief quiz indicate that you may be on a slippery slope to further emotional involvement with someone outside your marriage, which puts you at risk for possible sexual involvement, too.

The commonality in emotional affairs and sexual affairs is that they are secretive and withheld from your partner, and your attention, emotional attunement and connection are being directed to someone other than your marital partner. If you are not attending to your connection with your partner, your marital relationship suffers. When you ‘cheat,’ you deceive your partner and violate your mutual trust.

What are some of the faces of marital infidelity?

Social media has created the ability to reconnect with family and friends in a way not previously possible.  An online friendship (think Facebook and other social media sites) that your spouse is unaware of can be a warning sign. Maybe your online friendship is with someone you’ve never met before, or maybe it’s a high school or college sweetheart that you haven’t heard from in years. Your new or renewed connection may be harmless and truly nothing more than friendship. But, if you are sending private messages to this person without your partner’s knowledge, or you withhold from your partner all or selective parts of conversations you have with your friend, or if you justify not sharing details of the friendship with your spouse because you think he or she “won’t understand,” you might want to evaluate what is happening in your relationship with your friend, and in your relationship with your spouse.

A relationship with a co-worker or business associate that falls outside the realm of work is also a red flag. Glass calls the workplace “a fertile breeding ground for affairs.” Think about it. Men and women often work side-by-side to complete projects, work cooperatively to meet company benchmarks, and may even travel together for their work responsibilities. This kind of “togetherness,” and working to meet common goals, can easily cross the line to having more intimate conversations, having contact with each other by phone, text, and social media, and spending more time together than is required of the work relationship. 

Marital infidelities can be present in relationships in other ways, too. Infidelity is not limited to sexual and emotional affairs. Financial infidelities can be another problem in marriages. If you and your partner have an understanding that your finances are joint, is there some part of your financial world that you are keeping a secret from your partner? Do you have a credit card or credit card debt your partner doesn’t know about? A separate checking account your spouse is unaware of? Are you spending money and trying to hide the expenditures? Financial infidelity can also be devastating to couples. Again, the secretive and hidden nature of activities are what classify an infidelity, and lead to a fractured trust between you and your partner.

How to protect yourself and your relationship from marital infidelity.

First, understand that attraction to another person is normal. Just because you are married and committed to your partner doesn’t mean that you’re dead! But feeling attraction to someone else, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to act on it. Being attracted to another person also doesn’t mean that you are married to the wrong person. Commitment to your spouse means that you do not allow yourself to be distracted from your marital relationship.

Dr. Glass also suggests that if you find yourself attracted to someone other than your partner, don’t allow yourself to fantasize about someone else. She states that “affairs begin in the mind.” Don’t flirt either, because you are signaling that you are available and interested in someone else. Avoid risky situations. Late nights at the office with a co-worker you’re attracted to, coffee alone with “a friend” who feels like more than “just a friend” are situations that heighten risk for infidelity if you are attracted to the person.

Healing Your Relationship After Marital Infidelity

Marital infidelity does not mean your relationship has to end. Couples who work with a qualified marriage counselor after the discovery of marital infidelity can come through the challenge and sometimes have an even stronger relationship than before. There is no doubt about the anguish that is felt when a marital infidelity comes to light. Contacting a qualified marriage counselor and working together as a couple is the first step toward healing your relationship.  Exploring the reasons the marital infidelity happened and how to prevent it in the future can help get your relationship back on track and headed in the right direction.