Chantelle Otten is an award-winning psychosexologist who is passionate about empowering people to feel great about their sexual health, self-esteem, communication and education.
One of the common questions that I receive from followers on my social media is around cheating. And I hear of the heartbreak, the loneliness, the anger and the pain. There’s always pain. And interestingly enough, the pain comes from both sides.
Infidelity happens. It’s not uncommon. However it can happen in more forms then the typical narrative of hooking up with someone else. In fact, people can cheat in many ways. Whether it be passion, texting, liking someone's pictures, flirting, it’s really dependent on the boundaries of your relationship.
And yes, infidelity is agonising. It is extremely painful for the betrayed. It’s not just a violation of trust, but it damages the grand picture we have of love and romanticism. The act of infidelity makes us question our past, our future and even who we are as an individual.
It can bring up such huge emotions. In-fact, many psychologists who treat in the infidelity realm have to use trauma training to be able to treat and comfort the patient. Symptoms of trauma include disassociation, inexplicable anger, panic, rumination, hypervigilance and apathy. All very strong emotions.
What I find interesting is the narrative that affairs are typically undertaken by the penis owner. However we know that all genders participate in affairs. With vulva owners tending to lean towards more emotional affairs, usually more thoughtful and premeditated. Penis owners tend to be more opportunistic, engaging while away from home.
Whenever I see someone who has experienced infidelity, they often tend to ask their partner: ‘Why did you do this? Why me? Was I not good enough? Don’t I treat you well?’
When the question should be: ‘What did this affair mean to you? How did it feel? Why this person? Why now? Did you initiate it? Did you try to resist? How did you feel?’
Affairs are painful and destabilising, but they can also be an opportunity to grow and learn. Understanding both sides is crucial, regardless of whether a couple chooses to end the relationship or intends to stay together to rebuild.
Affairs happen in good relationships and bad relationships, and happy people cheat. The way that our relationship is constructed in 2021 is very different to the narratives that were constructed hundreds of years ago. There is so much pressure on relationships these days, our partner has a huge label attached to them, as ‘the one.’
They are our best friend, our confidant, mother or father to our children, work buddy. There is so much pressure we put on our partners. We are conditioned to believe that infidelity should never happen, and that our relationships should have the perfect balance of freedom and security. However affairs occur because of many reasons.
To list a few reasons: Opportunity, wanting variety, unmet needs within the relationship, a chance for self discovery, revenge, lack of boundaries, commitment issues, or the opportunity to feel like someone else. I couldn’t name them all.
It’s a good idea to really think about the fact that infidelity is poorly understood. It is omnipresent, and the fact is, most people who cheat are in happy relationships, but might be experiencing something within themselves.
But let’s talk about how couples can move forward from an affair
There are 5 major stages a couple need to go through in order to fully recover from an affair:
1. The affair must stop. The partner engaging in infidelity must cease contact with the outside person if they want their current relationship to survive and rebuild.
2. Emotions must be expressed: The betrayed partner needs to be given the opportunity to express the way they feel about the affair, and the betraying partner must listen, validate their feelings, and reassure them on their commitment to rebuilding.
3. Rebuilding trust: The partner who has cheated must take on the responsibility of rebuilding the trust within the relationship by being transparent and accountable. They must be able to be open to being more transparent, having an open phone and email policy and be willing to go the extra mile to repair the relationship.
4. Finding meaning: Both partners need to explore why this affair has happened, the meaning behind it, the reason for timing, how it felt… so that it doesn’t reoccur again in the future, but also so the relationship can pivot and rebuild to include what was previously missing.
5. Forgiveness: The cheater must be deeply sorry for what they have done, and have high levels of empathy for the hurt they have put their partner through. There also needs to be a commitment to a better future together, and actions to match commitment words.
6. Restructuring the relationship: Couples need to actively focus on fixing the concern and restoring and growing a healthy culture within the relationship, so that the couple feels stronger than before. They must be playing on the same team.
For those who choose to try and rebuild, it’s not an easy journey. Couples therapy is almost always needed. But in doing therapy, it is possible to heal and re-establish a relationship, if not a stronger one before. It will just take time.
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