A Challenge to Prevailing Attitudes
Historically, society has used language that has served to minimise infidelity and its consequences. ‘His few indiscretions’, ‘she strayed’, ‘he made a mistake’. These terms lead one to conclude that infidelity is a small interpersonal issue with no collateral damage. The assumption that infidelity can be compartmentalised in such a way that the unfaithful spouse can still be a decent husband/wife is also widespread.
Technology Can Facilitate Infidelity
The rise of technology and universal access to the internet/smartphones has led to effortless engagement with sexting, chat lines, pornography, dating websites for the married and easy access to individuals working in prostitution. Therapeutic intervention for sex addiction has become a growing industry, while the call to personal responsibility and accountability is constantly diminishing.
Infidelity is Abuse
Reducing infidelity to sexual incompatibility or relationship issues and labelling ongoing extra-marital sexual relations as sex addiction - a sickness to be treated - ignores the fact that infidelity itself is abuse and ignores the role that infidelity plays in a larger pattern of abusive behaviour. Inherent in the act of infidelity is chronic lying, scheming, manipulation, blame shifting and duplicity which are all psychological patterns of abusive behaviour. In addition, the unfaithful spouse may be depleting the family bank account to pay for gifts and dinners for affair partners or for pornography and paying people who work in prostitution (financial abuse).
Furthermore, the unfaithful spouse can be routinely and negligently choosing to risk their marriage partner’s sexual health by potentially exposing them to sexually transmitted infections (physical abuse) with long term physical consequences, for example, HIV. This behaviour also knowingly takes away the faithful partner’s right to make decisions around their sexual health or actively practice safe sex.
This abuse of power (through secrecy) and control (through lies and manipulation), denies the faithful partner the ability to make their own informed choices. It also points to the unfaithful partner’s sense of entitlement expressed through their complete disregard for their partner’s wellbeing: blocking their partner’s prerogative to leave a faithless marriage, and tricking faithful partners into participating in a happy family pretence - a sham, a lie. The unfaithful partner knowingly remains in the one-up position, while the faithful partner ignorantly remains subjugated.
The Reality of Infidelity
While the unfaithful partner may have a public reputation that is beyond reproach, the reality is that infidelity rarely happens in a vacuum. It is frequently associated with diminishing and devaluing a spouse (emotional and verbal abuse) which often occurs in the tension building phase of the cycle of abuse. The unfaithful partner might want an excuse to engage in extra-marital sexual activity and so they may repeatedly provoke, pick fights or set up their spouse in such a way as to actively create conflict, purposefully fostering conditions that allow themselves to feel justified in their unfaithfulness. Years of living through this level of continuous stress can create physical and emotional ill-health on the part of the faithful spouse.
Abuse Thrives in Secrecy
Extra marital sexual behaviours can go on for years. The patterns of emotional, psychological, financial and physical abuse can also go on for years resulting in the faithful partner struggling in a fog, feeling diminished and disrespected, without truly understanding what is going on. Abusers may feel entitled to a double life to fulfil their wants and needs. They feel that the fulfilment of their needs outweighs the importance of their partner's and/or their children’s well-being. In addition, it is common that the unfaithful partner will subtly encourage the isolation of their partner/family so that their behaviour is not identified nor challenged by others. This isolation simultaneously removes potential support from the faithful partner.
When found out, the unfaithful partner may not take responsibility for their actions and may not feel that they should be held accountable. The habitual mental justification required to continue being unfaithful has now become solidified. They may well shift blame and gather allies (friends, family, helping professional ) to their side by subtly or overtly leaving the impression that their partner is unstable, hard to live with or has insurmountable failings. The aim is always to gain sympathy from others and capitalise on society’s unchallenged acceptance that infidelity is mutually created by partners - in hopes that their allies will then overlook the abusive nature of their behaviour.
Rethinking the Issues
Infidelity is being normalised within society. The abusive behaviour involved is overlooked, the consequences minimised and unfaithful partners are rarely held to account or challenged to take responsibility.
The patterns of abuse involved with infidelity can have long term effects on a faithful partner’s sexual health, physical/mental health and emotional well being. The consequences of infidelity go way beyond the common simplistic description of “hurt and betrayal”. The road to recovery starts with acknowledging the abuse in the first place.
If you feel that you might be in an abusive situation, help is on hand. You can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, or speak to Refuge using their online chat function. You can also get in touch with our Survivors' Network - we're not an emergency service or helpline, but we can stand alongside you as you access the support you need.