Treating Infidelity, Cheating, and Affairs in Couples Counseling

Infidelity is defined as any action that threatens or breaches the intimate relationship contract in regard to how both partners choose to conduct themselves around other people outside of the intimate relationship.  The problem I witness from the lens of a therapist, is that the majority of couples entering counseling have failed to write down or make clear what their relationship guidelines are.  I share with couples that when they purchase a car or home, they take the time to commit to paperwork outlining the standards of a loan. Establishing an intimate relationship should be no different than entering any other formal contractual agreement. Developing an agreement of standards that outlines what both partners need to feel, safeguards both parties from misunderstandings. Intimate partners can protect themselves from the onset of the relationship by properly communicating and documenting what they expect. Each partner is responsible for communicating their own unique perspectives around what they believe constitutes as infidelity.  Moreover, each partner needs to have the freedom to update or make changes to the agreement based on future relationship experiences.  For example, if two heterosexual intimate partners consent to having opposite sex friendships at the initiation of the relationship, this standard may change if one partner is caught engaging in an act that threatens the binding relationship agreement.  This could look like one of the partners choosing to send inappropriate text messages or social media corresponds to an opposite sex friend.  When the other intimate partner reads the exchange, they may ask that the relationship agreement exclude the ability to sustain opposite sex friendships until their trust is restored. They may even go as far as viewing the act as grounds for terminating the entire intimate relationship all together.  Choosing to be with a specific intimate partner is always a choice and people need to choose wisely.  Once that choice is made, the next step is to design an agreement that lists a set of standards that protects each other’s investment of time.  When I share this in sessions with some couples they question if developing a relationship contract will distort their natural flow.  My reply, accountability does not eradicate spontaneity or creativity.  Instead, security increases the possibility of more spontaneity because it provides a  playing field for both partners to feel safe. In order for intimate partners to feel safe and prevent the onset of infidelity, they have to establish agreed upon rules that define how they expect each other to conduct themselves with others outside of the intimate relationship.


Common Types of Infidelity

The two types of infidelity are emotional cheating and physical cheating. Affairs are the combination of emotional and physical cheating that occur over multiple interactions with the same person or several outside partners.  All forms of infidelity are rooted in the act of breeching intimate relationship standards of physical and emotional conduct, defined by the betrayed partner.  The betrayed partner is the individual who experiences sorrow, anger, and distress often followed by grief, after learning their partner broke the intimate relationship circle of trust.  Since every person is different, some partners find it harder to forgive certain acts of infidelity over others.  In my work with couples who bring issues pertaining to infidelity into therapy, affairs are always the hardest to treat because both partners are simultaneously experiencing grief and loss.  The offending partner, or cheater, is coping with the end of a relationship they established that was meeting needs outside of their primary intimate relationship. The betrayed partner is dealing with the loss of security which is stripped away after learning they have been sharing their partner with another person.  Although the thought might be that the cheating partner should not have any room or empathy to feel pain, since they initiated the betrayal, a good couple’s therapist understands both partners are dealing with loss. To support the work that has to be done in therapy, I suggest that each partner speak to their primary care doctor or a psychiatrist to inquire about the need of a prescription to cope with their emotions.  This is highly recommended when either partners ability to function is threaten for an extended period of time. Couples who decided to do the painstaking work of rebuilding an intimate relationship after infidelity, should start the process expecting to feel an unsurmountable level of emotional pain.  This is due to the fact that in order for couples to rebuild, they have to process what happened and why it happened.  This can look like the betrayed partner choosing to know every detail of the affair and if the cheating partner fails to be descriptive or leaves out information, trust will never begin to be reestablished.  The greatest satisfaction I receive from doing couples therapy comes from working with partners who are able to rebuild a better relationship after infidelity. These couples are some of the most resilient human beings I have ever met, and it is always an honor to be a part of their healing and rebuilding process.  At the onset of therapy, I inform couples treating infidelity they will never get the same relationship back, but they can choose to build a stronger, better relationship.  I use the metaphor of a house fire, in that the original home was burned down and no matter what they do it will not come back. Hurt partners never forget the infidelity happened but they can choose to rebuild their relationship on the same lot.  Not all is lost, because couples can cipher through  the ashes of their old relationship and find things that still work so they take them into their new union. I recall, working with a couple who before and after the infidelity they did a great job co-parenting, sharing household responsibilities, and providing financially for each other and their family.  These characteristics were not only transferred into the new marriage but served as the motivation they both needed to successfully do the hard work required to rebuild a stronger relationship after infidelity.

The Four Primary Types of Infidelity

  1. Cheating: Engaging in any forms of emotional or physical contact with another person live or via the use of technology, that your intimate relationship partner may deem as inappropriate, hurtful, or disrespectful based on the agreed upon committed relationship standards you both defined.
  2. Affair: Allocating resources such as money, time, and attention toward sustaining a secretive physical and emotional secondary intimate relationship designed to fill a void that is not currently being met by your primary intimate partner.
  3. Exploring: Operating in any manner that appears to be an attempt to establish a secretive romantic connection with another person outside of your intimate relationship.
  4. Engaging: Sustained contact with any person that your intimate partner has requested you end all communication with because your involvement with that person makes them feel unsafe.


Written by Chris A. Matthews, LMFT