Infidelity – deception is even more exciting than sex

beach 3Cheating – why do people do it?

Actually, perhaps the word ‘cheating’ sounds a little bit old fashioned, so let me put it another way: Why do people go behind the back of a negotiated relationship? Even if the relationship involves multiple partners and freedom to explore sexually?

And why do people do this even when the secret sex isn’t that good – and even when there may be no sex going on at all?

As a relationship therapist, I reflect often about what makes people seek something beyond the current boundary of their romantic partnership(s).

A popular subject for study

There are many theories about nonconsensual non-monogamy. This 2010 paper, Infidelity – When, Where Why? is a thorough roundup of a number of studies on the subject, covering everything from improving the gene pool; poaching a ‘better’ partner; unhappiness in the current pairing, whether due to insufficient sex, care or support; attachment style; boredom; dissatisfaction; and entitlement. There are also a large number of self-help books that attempt to address the issue.

This piece covers one aspect that has been on my mind for a while.

I suspect that, for many people, the urge to secrecy is even stronger than the sexual drive

This may not sound very logical on the surface. We are all supposed to be obsessed with sex, worrying about it all the time, chewing over about who is ‘getting’ more than we are. We spend loads of money on our appearances and fall easily into what I call ‘sex toy capitalism’, the endlessly evolving supply of slightly variant and increasingly expensive tools, of somewhat varying efficacy, which are sold as ways to enhance sexual pleasure. (This mirrors the encyclopaedic numbers of barely distinguishable (or pointlessly athletic) positions used to fluff out magazine articles, eg ‘The Wheelbarrow.’)

Sex is supposed to be the most important thing ever. Only money has more significance in terms of taking our attention and symbolising our social success to others.

So who would care about secrecy?

Ok, think about all the times you have been lied to. Well, there will have been so many of them that you won’t be able to. And then think about all the times you have lied to someone else. Much of the time people claim to hate the idea of lying, (and children are frequently warned against it) but when someone comes along and states the truth to you very brutally, you may well wish the untruths had continued.

So most of us have a shifting wall of defence available to us at the drop of a hat, when social needs arise. How many times have you told a person you were fine when you were not? Secrecy, of which this relatively innocuous exchange is an aspect, protects us from others and protects others from our real selves.

The excitement of a double life

It is very easy to fall into ways of living that do not feel fulfilling or exciting. We can easily forget the importance of excitement and fulfilment when we only have one life to live and we have been told over and over that we must live it in a certain way – through getting a job and a mortgage, and being married to one person, and having children. We may have had very good reasons for doing these things, and they can be very fulfilling in themselves. But perhaps we gradually stop testing ourselves, stretching our capabilities, until we have no idea what we are capable of. In that light, secret sex is a very quick way to reassert a lost, and intoxicating, sense of risk. And our suddenly dull-seeming partner, still stuck in their pyjamas, is unaware of our adventures, and momentarily we become more alive.

Secrecy is power

Secrecy is also control. Doing a thing that another person doesn’t know you’re doing gives you space. It gives you a chance at another identity, even for a few brief hours. It gives you space where you are less known and fewer assumptions can be made about you.

Secrecy is a form of individuation

If we are in any way unsure about who we are, no amount of sex will give us a solid sense of ourselves as individuals. If we find the presence of others encroaching despite our urge to bond with another; if being very close to another person risks us being truly known by them, we may seek to find outlets where we feel we can breathe, away from the main figure in our lives. Lies are like oxygen when the space you occupy with another person is overwhelming.

Response to a parent?

I could take this further and say it is an intrusive parent that we escape from when we do something secretively behind a partner’s back. An intimate partner can become an all-seeing eye – our instinctive response is to rebel.

Secrecy – not all bad

A person may have good reasons to have secret sex – perhaps they are caring for a partner who is incapacitated. They are not going to abandon them, but would like a sexual outlet.

I float this idea as a way of interpreting something I see very often. It is, of course, open to discussion. If anything in this post is relevant to what’s going on in your life and you would like to explore it, please contact me.

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Trying to fix your relationship ? Change does not have to equal loss

Flames

As a therapist working with couples, one of the most persistent issues I see is fear of change.

However challenging things have become for both partners, and however untenable the relationship in its current form, people have an incredibly strong urge to cling to what they know, because the alternative terrifies them.

The will to hold on sometimes feels even stronger than the will to actually fix the relationship and make both partners happy.

I’m repeatedly astounded by people’s drive to remain connected in the way they always have, as if any form of adaptation will destroy everything that came before and erase all the happy memories.

People will stay together even when there is ongoing anxiety, constant sparking off each other, endless transferences and overreactions, and frequently calling the other out over tones of voice, events from the past and other points of conflict, and when sex has been adversely affected or become non-existent.

In other words, constant stress. And yet when I suggest a gentle reframe, and paint a picture of what the relationship might look like if they pushed the structure around a bit, there is panic. Because for so many of us, change automatically equals loss. Even just the thought of adapting to new conditions can put someone into a grief process.

Pre-mourning

You could call this sadness ‘pre-mourning.’ And I well know myself that it’s very hard to accept that change might actually make things better – enabling both parties to preserve the connection and eventually re-create happiness.

Fear of failure

It’s the same mindset that calls the ending of a relationship a ‘failure’. By this standard, all relationships that end have by definition automatically failed. (I wonder what kind of ending would not count as a failure – both partners actually dying?)

I have written before about the cultural primacy of a very particular kind of coupling, and the idea that to be a fully actualised person you must have been publicly chosen by another, and this must be seen to be the case in your family and community. To tell others that your coupling is in fact not working the way the world expects it to is a source of shame. You feel that you will be pitied or laughed at, and are left wondering if people said ‘How long do you give this one then?’ when you first got together.

There are more options than you think

The normative view of relationships that they are both binary and linear. If they are not one thing they must be another, and that they must follow a certain direction and ascent or they are not valid, or just weird. If you are in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, for example, you will find little public support for alternative ways of being together, except what creates lurid headlines: ‘We tried swinging and have never looked back!’

In fact, there are many ways that a relationship can be reframed or rebuilt, but these options are rarely spoken about as viable options. Like so much in society, if you aren’t doing it in a very specific way, there is something wrong, something lesser, about your choices. Needless to say, this is rubbish, but can be very hard to get past without support, whether therapeutic or from your community.

Some ways to reframe a relationship that is struggling

In the early days of relationship conflict, you may well have worked on behaviour and communication skills. Here I am talking about further down the line.

(1) Decide to live apart, if you cohabit. (Needless to say, the more financially you are tied together, the more this will affect your decision-making. But the decision to live together in the first place should not be undertaken lightly, and ideally never for purely financial reasons. If you have children, the issues are multiplied.)

(2) See each other less often but perhaps for longer each time, or varying contact.

(3) See each other less often full stop.

(4) Figure out the sex, if it was part of your relationship previously. (If it’s gone, can it be rekindled? Do you want/need it to be? You need to be realistic about the consequences when you both assert your needs around it.)

(5) Have some time apart with a timescale on it. (This one scares people a lot as there is a lot of conventional wisdom that says ‘break=ending’. Sometimes it does – but you can only find out by trying.)

(6) Open up the relationship up to other people. (This one scares people even more, often with good reason, and it should not be undertaken without a lot of negotiation and research. There has to be mutual consent.)

Love – or helpless attachment?

The tie that binds here is a thread of what is called love, but may be more akin to helpless attachment. I cannot say for sure what is love or what is not, but if the pain and fear are outweighing the good times, you may be closer to the other.

What if it’s really broken?

It hurts when it’s broken. So the feeling of acceptance is often welcome. I am divided over whether true acceptance can really be worked on, or whether you can only invite it in, to appear when you are ready.

If you’re experiencing difficulties in a relationship and would like to explore things with a therapist, you can contact me here.