There are more ways to cheat on your partner today than even the wildest 1970’s “player” could have imagined. For starters, we’ve got the old-school standards like affairs, one-night-stands, sex workers, strip clubs, and the like. Plus we’ve got the continually evolving array techno-sex options – hookup apps, porn, webcam sex, social media flirtations, sexting, VR sex games, teledildonics, and more. So basically, this means that in-the-flesh sex is no longer required for infidelity; all sorts of other activities (both online and off) also qualify.
During my almost three decades as a therapist specializing in sex and intimacy issues, I have counseled hundreds of couples who’ve been shaken to their core by infidelity. And I have seen all of the behaviors listed above (and plenty more). I have also come to realize that cheating, regardless of the specifics of the behavior, typically falls into one of three categories.
Category 1: Sexploration
- What it looks like: When asked to picture infidelity, many people, men, in particular, will immediately envision sexploration – purely objective sex lacking any type of emotional intimacy or connection. We’re talking about strip clubs, porn, prostitution, anonymous sex, and the like.
- How we pretend it’s not infidelity: Sometimes sexplorers (especially the men) think that because they don’t feel an emotional connection to the other person, what they’re doing doesn’t count as cheating and their partner shouldn’t really care about it. However, betrayed spouses (especially the women) tend to feel differently. Generally speaking, this gender gap stems from the fact that most men are able to separate and compartmentalize sex and emotional connection, while most women cannot. Basically, men are able to view extracurricular sex as unrelated to their primary relationship, but the women in their lives don’t understand this because they’re just not wired to think that way. For the women, sex and emotional bonding tend to be deeply interrelated.
Category 2: Booty Calls
- What it looks like: Booty calls are where two people occasionally get together for sex, but only when it’s convenient. They enjoy each other’s company, and they may even grab dinner and a movie before hopping into bed, but there is not a deep emotional connection. Basically, they like each other and they enjoy the sex, but they’re not in love and they have no interest in leaving their primary relationship for their booty call buddy. Usually, these relationships are ongoing but very casual in nature, and they are based more on sex than anything else. Typically, both parties are aware that the sex is not exclusive.
- How we pretend it’s not infidelity: Booty callers, like sexplorers, sometimes think that because they don’t feel a deep emotional connection and they’re not thinking about leaving their primary partner, they’re not really cheating. If caught, they defend themselves with statements like, “It wasn’t a real affair. It was never anything more than sex. She/he/they mean nothing to me.” As with sexploration, betrayed partners usually feel differently about the matter. As far as they are concerned, cheating is cheating.
Category 3: Longer-Term Affairs
- What it looks like: Long-term emotionally connected affairs are exactly what they sound like – two people experiencing a deep emotional bond that has turned sexual, despite the fact that one or both of them is already in a supposedly monogamous committed relationship. They have strong feelings for each other, and often they believe that it’s true love.
- How we pretend it’s not infidelity: It is very difficult to pretend these relationships do not count as infidelity. A cheater in a long-term affair has to be deeply in denial to think that what he or she is doing is not harmful to his or her primary partner. Usually, these individuals are well aware of the fact that they are cheating, and they simply try to cover it up. Often, they tell themselves (and others) that “What my significant other doesn’t know about can’t hurt her/him.”
Which Type of Cheating Causes the Most Pain?
For betrayed spouses (both male and female), longer-term, emotional affairs tend to feel much more potent and hurtful than casual sex or even recurring booty calls. This is because the more deeply a cheater connects with an affair partner, the more fully the cheater moves away from his or her mate – both emotionally and physically – no matter how much the cheater might deny this. And betrayed spouses sense this. Even if a cheated-on partner doesn’t know about the affair, she or he knows that something is wrong in the relationship.
Couples counselors often use “walls and windows” as an analogy for relationship health. Dr. Shirley Glass explains this as well as anyone in her book, Not Just Friends, writing, “You can have intimacy in your relationship only when you are honest and open about the significant things in your life. When you withhold information and keep secrets, you create walls that act as barriers to the free flow of thoughts and feelings that invigorate your relationship. But when you open up to each other, the window between you allows you to know each other in unfiltered, intimate ways.”
This analogy is useful when helping cheaters understand what their betrayed partners are thinking and feeling, especially if the infidelity was emotional as well as sexual. In such cases, with the spouse, windows become walls; with the affair partner, walls become windows. Once people begin to confide in, rely upon, and reach out to someone other than their primary partner for emotional connection and understanding, especially if they are doing so in ways that they don’t with their significant other, they start the journey away from their primary relationship and into infidelity. This is true even if the “friendship” hasn’t turned sexual, particularly if the cheater is lying and keeping secrets about the amount of and/or ways in which time is spent with the other man/woman.
Basically, with an emotional affair, the walls and windows slowly but steadily shift away from the spouse and toward the affair partner. And the longer the cheater and the affair partner engage in the play, the banter, and the fun of the affair, the more powerful and ingrained this shift becomes. Over time, cheaters find themselves turning to the affair partner to work through their fears, asking that person rather than their spouse to meet their needs and to help them resolve their confusing moments. This shift is incredibly painful to the cheated-on spouse.
This is not to say that sexploration and booty calls are not hurtful. They are. Regardless of the nature of infidelity, being cheated on is a powerful form of emotional trauma. Typically, betrayed partners feel as if they were just hit by a truck – only emotionally not physically. There is no avoiding that, even when cheaters think that what they’ve done is not a big deal because they didn’t feel emotionally connected. The simple truth is that a betrayed partner’s pain generally stems less from the sexual act(s) that took place, and more from the loss of trust wrought by the secrets and lies used to cover up the cheating. So even if the cheating was purely sexual or casually connected rather than deeply meaningful to the cheater, the painful sense of betrayal and loss of relationship trust still occurs.