Most people agree that a sexual affair counts as infidelity, but what about sending a flirty text? What if your partner takes out several loans and acquires a large debt without your knowledge? Does engaging in virtual sex with someone other than your partner, connecting with an ex on social media or maintaining an online dating profile even though you are already in a relationship count as betrayal? The answer depends on how the people in the relationship define infidelity.
A recent study commissioned by Deseret News found conflicting answers when 1,000 people were polled about what constitutes “cheating.” The majority of respondents (71%-76%) said that physical sexual contact with someone outside of the relationship would always meet the threshold for cheating. However, a slimmer majority thought that maintaining an online dating profile (63%) or sending flirtatious messages to someone else (51%) should always be considered cheating. The lines on whether following an ex on social media constituted a betrayal were even more ambiguous: 16% said it was always cheating, 45% thought it was sometimes cheating, and 39% answered that it never was.
As this poll illustrates, how one defines infidelity is subjective. Thus, Talal Alsaleem, a leading expert in the field of infidelity counseling and author of Infidelity: The Best Worst Thing That Could Happen to Your Marriage: The Complete Guide on How to Heal From Affairs, stresses the importance of clearly defining infidelity in session. “A lot of therapists make the mistake of not putting enough attention into defining infidelity,” Alsaleem says. “From the first session, if we don’t agree on what to call it, we cannot go any further” because correctly identifying the problem guides which counseling interventions will be used.
If counselors set the stage poorly from the beginning, they risk alienating one or both parties, he adds. For instance, referring to infidelity as “inappropriate behavior” risks minimizing the betrayal. On the other hand, clients and counselors could exaggerate an issue if they refer to something being infidelity when it really wasn’t.
Alsaleem, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice at Happily Ever After Counseling & Coaching in Roseville, California, points out that when defining infidelity, research often relies on heteronormative values, which excludes any relationship that does not fit the “traditional” model (read: a heterosexual, married couple). To account for the various types of relationships that exist and people’s microcultures and macrocultures, Alsaleem developed a flexible definition of infidelity that can work for all of his clients, including those who are LGBTQ+ or polyamorous.
“All relationships should have a contract — whether verbal or written — that stipulates the number of the partners in the relationship … the emotional and sexual needs that are expected to be fulfilled in this relationship, and to what extent those needs are exclusive to the partners in the relationship,” Alsaleem explains. “So, infidelity is a breach of contract of exclusivity that you have with the partner(s) … and it’s outsourcing those needs to others outside the relationship without the consent of the partner(s).”
Although having a relationship contract is helpful, it is much less so if the partners maintain implicit expectations of each other that aren’t covered in the contract or if they allow the contract to become static, says Alsaleem, founder of the Infidelity Counseling Center. “It’s very crucial for people not only to have a clear contract in the beginning but also to continue to have those discussions [about their relationship expectations] on a regular basis,” he says.
Alsaleem believes his definition of infidelity not only works for clients of various backgrounds but also provides counselors with a buffer from their own biases about what infidelity is. When it comes to infidelity counseling, “therapists tend to confuse therapeutic neutrality with thinking that they don’t have a role to play,” he says. He asserts that his definition allows therapists to remain neutral without minimizing accountability.
Technology has provided new frontiers in infidelity because it offers higher accessibility, greater anonymity and opportunities for cyber-infidelity, says Alsaleem, who presented on this topic at the 2020 conference of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), a division of the American Counseling Association. In fact, technological advancements such as virtual reality pornography and teledildonics — technology that allows people to experience physical tactile sensations virtually — are adding new layers of complexity to infidelity and relationships.
People can use technology to escape real-world problems and reinvent themselves, Alsaleem notes. One of his clients suffered from erectile dysfunction. Because of the shame and stigma associated with his condition, he turned to virtual sex as a way to accommodate for the deficit rather than dealing with the issue with his wife.
“Because [technology] is a new frontier, it’s an unchartered territory. Not too many people can agree on what’s appropriate or what’s inappropriate online infidelity behavior because we don’t have a reference point for it,” Alsaleem says. “That ambiguity makes it easier for people to cross those lines because in their minds, they’re not doing anything bad.”
Alsaleem worked with another couple who were in a happy relationship, but their sexual intimacy had decreased because of common life stressors such as work and parenting. Rather than talk to his wife about it, the husband started watching pornography, which evolved into virtual sex. When the wife discovered this, she felt betrayed, but the husband didn’t think his actions constituted an affair because it wasn’t happening in the real world. He considered virtual sex to be an acceptable alternative to “real cheating.”
Situations such as this one further emphasize the need to clearly define infidelity and establish a relationship contract, says Alsaleem, who points out that the good thing about his definition of infidelity is that it applies to both real world and virtual world affairs. Using his definition, counselors could work with a couple to help a partner realize that virtual sex is a form of infidelity by asking, “Was there an agreement between you and your partner that all your sexual needs would be fulfilled by them only?” If the partner acknowledges that this agreement was in place, then the counselor could ask, “Is what you did derivative of sexual needs? If so, did you outsource this need to someone else?” This form of questioning would help the partner realize that he or she did in fact breach the contract of exclusivity.
Transcending relationship dissatisfaction
Relationship dissatisfaction is a common cause of infidelity, but it is far from the only cause. Alsaleem recommends that counselors consider three categories when working with infidelity.
The first is dyadic factors, which are any relationship issues that lead to the couple not having their sexual or emotional needs met by each other.
The second category is individual factors — each partner’s personal history and overall mental health. Counselors should ask about clients’ family history and previous mental health issues, not just their relationship history, Alsaleem advises. He points out that some mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder and narcissistic, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, may increase the likelihood of infidelity.
People who experienced sexual trauma at an early age are also more likely to engage in infidelity as adults because the trauma may have affected their attachment, sexual identity and the type of relationships they have in adulthood, Alsaleem adds.
The third category is sociocultural factors, including a person’s job, culture, family, friends, lifestyle, environmental stressors, etc. Survey data taken from Ashley Madison, a website that helps married people have affairs, reveal that certain careers and occupations are more correlated with infidelity. These careers typically involve frequent travel; expose people to trauma; feature long, stressful hours; or offer unhealthy work environments (among the examples provided were military personnel, first responders, nurses, police officers and people in sales). This finding illustrates how one’s sociocultural factors can facilitate infidelity behavior, Alsaleem notes.
Treating the trauma
Sometimes clients who experience a partner’s infidelity meet the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Gabrielle Usatynski, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and founder of Power Couples Counseling in Boulder and Louisville, Colorado. In fact, because the emotional response to infidelity (e.g., ruminating thoughts, sleep problems, erratic behaviors and moods, health problems, depression) can mirror responses to other traumatic events, some therapists have started using the term post-infidelity stress disorder to describe this parallel.
“If you pull up the DSM-5 and look up the PTSD criteria and change the word traumatic event to infidelity, it’s almost going to be picture perfect in terms of the symptom criteria,” Alsaleem points out. “There will be triggers, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance behavior, and manifestations related to the knowledge about the affair and everything related to the affair.”
The fallout from infidelity can also spill over into other roles that people occupy, such as being a parent or a professional. This can lead to guilt and shame if they are not performing well in another area because they are preoccupied with the trauma of the betrayal, he says.
Despite having worked for a while with couples in crisis, Alsaleem found that none of the counseling tools he had acquired over the years adequately dealt with infidelity. If counselors use a generic trauma-informed approach with infidelity, they may have a strategy to handle the sensitivity of the issue, but they won’t have a clear understanding of the obstacles and the steps needed to overcome them, he says.
Alsaleem started jotting down observations of his clients dealing with infidelity and discovered several struggles that these clients shared regardless of the type of relationships they had, the length of their relationships, or their cultural or religious backgrounds. These shared struggles included defining infidelity, handling the emotional impact of infidelity, and navigating the significance of the affair narrative. Alsaleem’s observations led him to develop systematic affair recovery therapy (SART), which provides counselors with a treatment method for helping couples process and heal from the trauma of sexual and emotional infidelity.
SART describes seven milestones clients go through as they heal from infidelity:
- Setting the stage for healing
- Getting the story
- Acknowledging the impact
- Choosing a path
- Creating a plan of action
- Implementation and healing pains
“Your role [as a counselor] is to help them process what happened, to make sense of it, so this trauma does not define the rest of their lives, whether as a dyad who are rebuilding the relationship or as individuals who have decided to separate and move on to other relationships,” Alsaleem says.
He warns that the process isn’t easy because clients often come in with knee-jerk reactions about what they want to do. Counselors must help clients resist making impulsive decisions and instead encourage them to make up their minds after completing the proper steps and understanding why they are making their decision, Alsaleem says.
With affair recovery, Jennifer Meyer, an LPC in private practice in Fort Collins, Colorado, finds it helpful to have couples write down their feelings and emotions, which can be intense. From the beginning, she asks couples to share a journal and write their feelings back and forth to each other.
After the couple has had time to identify and process the cause of the infidelity, Meyer asks the partner who has been unfaithful to write an apology letter and to read it to the injured partner in session. In this letter, the offending party conveys that they understand the pain they have caused and feel remorse for their actions. Even if the couple decides not to stay together, the letter helps repair the damage caused by the infidelity, and the partners can move forward (and, eventually, into new relationships) without carrying the pain and trauma with them, Meyer says.
Navigating the affair narrative
Some therapists avoid having clients share details about the infidelity because they fear it will create more harm or retraumatize clients, Alsaleem says. He argues that narrating the affair is a painful yet crucial part of recovery that can help facilitate healing if done with the right level of disclosure.
Alsaleem dedicates an entire day in his SART training program to teaching counselors how to help clients share their affair stories without retraumatizing both parties (by sharing too much or too little information) and without minimizing or exaggerating what happened. With infidelity counseling, “every mistake counts,” he says. “When people are coming in after the discovery of infidelity, whether it’s recent or from the past, they are very fragile, so that’s when you need to be strategic and adaptive and plan each intervention and how to respond to the outcome of the intervention.”
Meyer, a member of both ACA and IAMFC, often finds that clients want to ask the offending partner multiple detailed questions about the intricacies of the affair. Meyer is aware that the answers to these questions have the potential to create even more hurt and trauma for her clients, so she is honest with couples about this possibility and guides them through the process.
Alsaleem provides a brief example of how counselors can determine the appropriate level of disclosure when clients share their affair stories (but he advises clinicians to seek further training before trying this approach). He first asks the offending partner to be proactively transparent when sharing the affair story. They shouldn’t hide anything, he says, and they should go out of their way to show the injured partner(s) the unpleasant truths that led to the affair. This is done not to traumatize, he emphasizes, but to show the offending partner’s capacity to be open and honest.
Alsaleem also tells injured clients that they can ask anything they want about the affair. But before they ask, he helps them determine whether the question will help them understand what type of affair it was or why the affair happened. If so, then it is a fair question, he says.
For example, a client dealing with a partner’s sexual infidelity may want to ask, “What specific sexual activities did you engage in?” If the partner who was unfaithful is dealing with a sexual addiction (an individual issue), then the specific sexual activity is not important to understanding the motivation or what went wrong in the relationship, Alsaleem says. However, if the infidelity occurred because of a compatibility issue (a dyadic issue), then that would be a fair question because the betrayed would discover in what ways they are no longer fulfilling their partner’s sexual needs, he explains.
“The need behind the question [can be] healthy and appropriate, but sometimes [clients are] not asking the right question because they don’t know how to address that need,” Alsaleem adds. He advises counselors to ask clients what they are trying to learn about the story with their questions and help them figure out if these questions are the best way to obtain that information while avoiding further traumatization.
Affairs can evoke intense emotions in session, especially when discussing the affair story. To ensure that emotions don’t escalate to an unproductive level, Meyer uses a preframe such as “You seem calm at the moment, but this is difficult, and I want to ensure you can both talk without being interrupted. If things get out of hand, I’m going to ask for a timeout. You can both ask for a timeout as well.”
Meyer also uses her own body language — such as scooting up in her chair or standing up — if clients start yelling uncontrollably, or she physically separates them for a few minutes by having them take turns going to the restroom or getting a glass of water. These subtle changes help clients calm down and not get stuck in fighting, she explains.
Creating an imbalance to facilitate healing
Usatynski, an ACA member who specializes in couples therapy, approaches infidelity counseling differently from couples therapy where betrayal is not the presenting issue. In ordinary couples therapy, she strives to keep therapy as balanced as possible, focusing equally on the complaints of both partners and the unresolved issues that each brings to the relationship. But when infidelity is involved, she intentionally creates an imbalance of power and initially allows the injured party to have all of the power. The offending party, on the other hand, does not get to bring any of their complaints about their partner or their relationship to the table until they have successfully addressed the injured partner’s distress. This treatment works only if the offending party expresses true regret for the harm they have caused their partner and expresses a genuine desire to rebuild the relationship, Usatynski adds.
Usatynski’s approach comes from a psychobiological approach to couple therapy (PACT), which is a fusion of attachment theory, developmental neuroscience and arousal regulation developed by Stan Tatkin. When betrayal is the presenting issue, this method requires that clients move through three phases as they process and attempt to repair their relationship.
The first phase addresses the trauma the injured client has experienced by allowing them to express all of their emotions about the betrayal. “It’s when people feel like they have to hold back [emotions] or they can’t get angry or there’s nobody there to listen to them that actually creates trauma or at least makes it worse,” Usatynski says.
The partner who was betrayed can also ask any question they want about the affair during this phase, and the offending partner has to answer honestly. Many therapists who work with betrayal are concerned about the injured partner being traumatized by finding out the truth, Usatynski says. She admits this is a valid concern, so therapists should support the injured partner throughout the process. However, she advises that therapists not shy away from the truth coming out because, as she explains, the only way to repair the relationship or build something new is with total transparency.
If clients are hesitant to ask about the affair, therapists need to explore this hesitation with them. The injured partner may say that they don’t want to know what happened out of an inability to deal with feelings of loss and the practical implications of the relationship ending, Usatynski adds.
During this initial phase, the offending partner has no power to negotiate. They must simply sit and endure the rage and inquiry of the person whom they betrayed, Usatynski explains.
The second phase of PACT involves the offending partner providing the betrayed with whatever support is needed to correct the injury to the attachment bond between them, Usatynski says. This phase could involve declarations of commitment, appreciation or praise, as well as loving actions on the part of the offending partner. However, only the injured partner can decide what behaviors are reparative, she explains. The goal of this phase is resolution.
During the third phase, the injured partner lets the offending partner out of the “doghouse” and, together, the couple decide the new rules and new relationship contract they will have going forward, Usatynski says.
According to PACT, the dysregulation of one’s nervous system (such as during states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal) may lead to discord between the couple, Usatynski says. Thus, counselors should not only track clients for signs of dysregulation but also teach couples how to track each other’s nervous systems.
When Usatynski notices a client showing signs of dysregulation (e.g., changes in skin color, posture or vocal tone), she will ask the other partner if they recognize the change. For example, she might say, “Did you see how your partner’s skin color just changed when he or she said that? What do you think is going on with him or her right now?”
The goal is interactive regulation — the couple learning the specific strategies that soothe, regulate and excite each other, Usatynski notes. “These tracking skills are particularly important in the aftermath of betrayal because … [they help the offending partner] develop a greater awareness of how their behavior affects their partner. These skills also boost sensitivity and empathy,” she explains.
A silver lining?
Alsaleem compares infidelity to a heart attack for the relationship. “It’s a critical wake-up call,” he explains. “It forces [clients] to really lay all the cards on the table and make an informed decision.” Do they commit to fixing all of the deficits and work toward having a better, stronger relationship, or do they end their relationship and find new, healthier relationships?
Alsaleem says several of his clients began therapy devastated by the trauma of infidelity, but by the end, they admitted they were almost glad it had happened because it ultimately led them to having the relationship they always wanted with their partner. For some people, infidelity is the catalyst that ultimately allows them to get unstuck, he explains.
When clients decide to repair their relationship, Meyer helps them develop a new, explicitly stated contract regarding the rules in their relationship moving forward. She asks them to write down their agreement about these new relationship rules (including how quickly they would inform their partner that they experienced a compromising situation and what constitutes infidelity going forward) and ways they could be vulnerable to future affairs.
“As counselors, we can’t assume every couple wants or needs strict monogamy,” Meyer adds. So, this new agreement can take many forms depending on the relationship. For example, partners in a committed relationship may agree that being involved with another person sexually is OK as long as they discuss it first with their partner or keep everything in the open.
Of course, clients in infidelity counseling may also decide to end their relationship. Even so, by showing up to counseling, clients have taken the first step toward ensuring that infidelity does not define the rest of their lives, Alsaleem notes.
“Infidelity is an awful event, but it doesn’t have to be devastating. It actually has a silver lining. Infidelity — as awful as it is to experience, as awful as it is to happen — can actually be a good thing to help people change their lives,” Alsaleem says. “If treated appropriately, it can actually enrich people’s lives and make them more resilient and make them better in the long run.”
Related reading: An online companion article to this feature, “Helping clients rebuild after separation or divorce,” provides strategies for helping clients to process their grief and start over.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.