Defining Infidelity

Esther Perel recently published a new book called “The State of Affairs” which both Paula and I think is great and recommend highly. It’s got both of us thinking about how we work with infidelity and this is the first of a series of blogs on the topic – something of a warmup for our workshop on the topic in September

In the book, Perel offers “a new definition” of infidelity saying:

“…infidelity includes one or more of these three constitutive elements: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement…. These are not three rigid criteria; rather a three-sided prisim through which to view your experience and assumptions” (p24)

As someone who normally is pushing for more nuanced responses to complex relationship issues, I find myself in the very unusual position of arguing for a LESS nuanced position than Perel offers when it comes to defining infidelity.

First let me stress I whole-heartedly endorse the exploration of all the nuances that Perel elucidates as something for therapists to ponder and be aware of as they enter into the highly–charged arena of dealing with the fall-out from infidelity. However, I think it can be helpful to make it more simple when it comes to defining infidelity, by focusing on the secrecy piece.

Ask yourself these two questions:

Did they hide what they were doing from their partner?

Was this motivated by knowing (consciously OR unconsciously) that their partner would view it as a breach of their relationship agreement (even if this agreement was implicit or unspoken)?

I would suggest that if the answer to both those questions is “Yes” then you are dealing with an infidelity.

The beauty of this approach is it sidesteps the arguments about whether a relationship was or wasn’t “an affair”. The woman who was meeting with a co-worker for coffee and lunch and talking about personal things may honestly believe it wasn’t “an affair”. As a therapist you can cut through the denial and minimisation and point out that the fact that she never told her partner about it (because she knew the partner wouldn’t be OK with it) means she knew she was breaking their contract. And that’s an infidelity – not keeping to the agreed contract. The meetings may NOT have had what Perel calls “sexual alchemy” and maybe her partner is unreasonably jealous (what Bader & Pearson call a “lie invitee”), but going behind her partner’s back instead of having the partner on about their jealousy means she was unfaithful to the arrangements they have in place.

The same criteria can easily be applied to online interactions or casual relationships or commercial sex etc.

Focusing on “fidelity to the contract” also usefully expands the definition beyond sexual infidelity. In my decades of practice some of the most devastating betrayals I can recall working with have had nothing to do with sex and intimacy: The man who gambled away his wife’s inheritance; the woman who was secretly smacking their children when the husband was vehemently opposed to corporal punishment. None of these could be described as “an affair”, but they were devastating betrayals of trust in areas of great importance that rocked those relationships to their core in much the same way an affair does.

Perel provides a very useful division of post-affair recovery into three phases (which totally match my own clinical experience): Crisis, meaning-making and visioning.   By helping couples cut through pointless arguments over whether the secrecy and contract-breaking was “an affair” or not and focusing on the the lack of fidelity I believe we can help couples get through the messy crisis stage more quickly and with a modicum less pain.

Nic Beets