If you’re dealing with a third-party situation in your marriage or intimate relationship, you have so much online information screaming for your attention that it simply boggles the mind.
Despite all these voices speaking out about unfaithfulness in relationships, however, the average person’s understanding of the issue is just as fragmented as ever. Ask the average person about cheating, and you will get an angry response full of judgment, shaded with religious overtones.
It really isn’t any wonder. Survey the online and printed literature on infidelity, and you will find most sources to be heavily tilted in one of several popular directions. This can be very confusing when you are the one in the situation and you need help, fast.
There’s the biological point of view, in which therapists boil cheating down to chemical reactions in the brain.
Certainly simple brain biology plays some role, but you can’t look at work like that of therapist Jonice Webb, who draws a compelling picture of how childhood emotional neglect creates distance decades later in our marriages, and distill all affairs to neurons and synapses.
Even popular writer and former pick-up artist Neil Strauss discovered, when he entered a sex addicts’ rehab program, that a lot more of his own issues had to do with childhood than he thought.
There’s the religious point of view, which holds that God made the marriage and expects the couple to stay together no matter what, and any deviation from that is sin.
There’s the view of the polyamorists, who believe that homo sapiens never evolved to live an entire life with only one partner.
Then there’s therapist Vikki Stark, whose own husband inexplicably detached from their decades-long marriage and ran off (and was later discovered to have moved in with someone else.) The entire thrust of her book is that the problem is entirely the cheater’s.
While her book, Runaway Husbands, might empower some women to rebuild their life, there’s no attention at all given to the idea that there might have been danger signals in the marriage for years. What looks like a sudden emotional cutoff, in many cases, is a marriage that has really endured despite that cutoff for much longer than that, and in these cases, both partners contribute to that cutoff in equal measure.
Then we have a great classic like Janis Abrahms Spring’s After the Affair, which goes into those dynamics in great detail, but doesn’t talk very much about those cases where a partner cheats because of deep-seated personality issues like borderline personality disorder or strong narcissistic tendencies.
Ross Rosenberg and Pia Mellody do a great job with codependent dynamics, but leave out spouses who are less emotionally damaged.
Even the therapists I’ve seen who do try to discuss all these reasons people have affairs tend to do so in dribs and drabs. Narcissistic abuse is treated separately from childhood issues arising in midlife (or earlier) to sully a marriage, yet infidelity is a common occurrence among both groups of people.
And those cheating in order to have love in their lives while caring for a severely ill spouse, such as those suffering from Alzheimer’s, you hardly see addressed at all … except for the occasional controversy-provoking headline.
Even when a blockbuster author like Esther Perel tries to present a comprehensive overview of infidelity, she’s often cherry-picked.
News and media writers looking for a new take on a topic that’s been with us since marriage was invented jump on a chapter title like Even Happy People Cheat, and now it’s widely misunderstood as all Perel has to say about cheating. (It isn’t!)
The reason you won't see all of this when you're desperately searching for information on infidelity comes down to one flaw in the human mind: The word, ME.
Everyone who’s ever experienced infidelity or even been tempted, along with every infidelity writer and researcher, is blinded by the word, me.
If you’ve spent years getting a Ph.D. in the brain chemistry of addiction, your book is going to be largely about that. You aren’t going to present a balanced view that includes the people with personality disorders and the people caregiving Alzheimer’s patients.
You are going to downplay childhood emotional neglect even though it affects hundreds of thousands of people. You aren’t going to talk about how our culture sets people up to cheat, even though a sociologist like Marie Murphy, Ph.D. can tell you all about it.
When a person who’s married to someone whose emotions are blunted because of severe childhood neglect (Jonice Webb’s specialty) meets someone who knows how to connect with them emotionally and fireworks go off, the guy who writes the brain chemistry theory is going to pay a lot of attention to the fact that the affair partner is sparking off dopamine in their brain.
He isn't going to say much about the learning and self-concepts from childhood that have gone on for decades in that person’s life, that give rise to all these chemical fireworks in the first place.
We know religion has an axe to grind. There’s also a movement of defiant cheaters these days glorifying cheating and teaching others how to cheat and not get caught, who definitely have an agenda. Those cherry-picking Esther Perel are trying to sell magazines and headlines.
Even writers like Janis Abrahms Spring, in trying to reach those non-addicted, non-personality disordered people with the will and the capacity to work on their marriages, give short shrift to all the other cases. Narcissists and other personality-disordered people can’t handle the news that they need to work on themselves and won’t read their books.
These writers know that the band of cases they write about aren’t the only infidelity cases to talk about, but you don’t see that discussed as anything but an aside.
Read individual accounts of people affected by affairs, and it’s all the same. Anyone who’s been cheated on is here to tell you that anyone who cheats is just a selfish bastard, and “I know it’s true because it’s my experience! And you can’t tell me anything different!”
So, when you go looking for information, you can find yourself very confused and disappointed, depending on which school of thought you stumble over first, because every person writing or speaking is blinded by this affair-related Cult of Me.
Every source writes with the tone, intentional or not, that “My experience or expertise will tell you the only real reason people have affairs!” … when it isn’t.
It’s like a bunch of blind people trying to describe an elephant. This person has the ear, so the elephant looks like a pancake. This person has the trunk, so the elephant is like a snake. This person has their hand on the foot, so the elephant is a lot like a tree.
If you are lost in the wilderness of dealing with an affair, or you know someone who has had an affair and you want to rush to judgment, what you need is the entire picture of the whole elephant.
And almost no one is giving that to you. (Even John Gottman doesn’t mention the narcissistic cheater in every piece about cheating, and if he does, it’s given a few sentences. Maybe.)
What you need, in dealing with infidelity, is a model that looks like the globe, because what we really have is an entire world of cheating.
If you picture infidelity as looking like planet Earth, you will see that there are seven continents, separated by oceans. There may not be much going on at the poles, but on this continent, here, we find all the narcissists and the borderlines, and the spouses suffering cheating and other abuse at the hands of people with serious hardwiring problems.
These folks don't achieve any insight into why they do what they do. They are impulsive and out for kicks, and they cannot feel any empathy for your suffering.
On this continent, you will find the caregiving cheater. These are the folks with seriously ill spouses, struggling to deal with the demands of caregiving and holding down a job, and just trying to keep their heads above water.
Then there’s this continent over here, where the folks actually are dealing with addiction problems that are showing up sexually. Maybe brain chemistry is a very big determinant for these people.
Then here’s this continent, where emotional lessons of speaking out and telling truth, or feeling confident sexually, or accepting influence from a spouse, or knowing how to approach all these things in a constructive way weren’t learned in childhood.
Some counseling could prevent affairs here or at the very least, heal them.
Now on this continent, those problems from childhood were a lot worse.
Here we have the spouses who literally haven’t had sex in ten years, whose relationships are impersonal, more like a business for raising children and paying bills than anything else.
We have spouses tempted to cheat here because they have been deeply, painfully lonely in a marriage to a spouse who has been shut down for years.
Maybe we have spouses living here who are too defended to look at the problems or even accept that there are any.
The folks living here need to roll up their sleeves and do some very hard, very painful work … or accept that their spouse does not want to do so, and they may have no recourse but to leave if they want a better relationship.
And all of these continents full of different kinds of relationships and different kinds of cheaters belong to the same world, “Infidelity.”
The fact is that all infidelity writers are saying something valuable. The problem is that no one presents an overview of it all under one umbrella.
Every writer shows us a piece of the puzzle, but nobody talks about the whole picture.
When we don’t see that, it fosters unhealthy attitudes and prejudices about infidelity, and a lot of rigid judgment that doesn’t help.
And writers need to do better, because some statistics say 80% of people will deal with this issue in our lifetime.
The sooner you know this, the easier it will be to figure out which continent you're living on. That will help you find information about your unique situation and what you might need to do about it.
If more people saw this, there would be so much less moralizing and judgment flying around.
You would feel freer to do what you need to do to handle your situation in the best way for you, including big steps like divorcing, not divorcing, or even opening your marriage, without fear of condemnation or being ostracized by longtime family members or friends.
Relationship writers need to leave the Cult of Me and acknowledge that there’s a lot wider world out there in terms of fidelity issues than any of us have imagined. And be more responsible when we write about infidelity, too.
For your part, just be cognizant that a lot of infidelity writing is slanted and might not be about you. You might have to do a lot of digging to find the resources that address your specific situation.
Don't be depressed if you've found a lot of writing that doesn't seem to fit what you yourself are going through. Keep looking, because someone who gets you and your situation is out there.