Cheating is cheating, right? I mean, if you make a commitment to monogamy and then you break it, you’ve cheated, and the specifics of what you did, who you did it with, and what you felt when you were doing it don’t really matter, do they?
Well, yes and no.
There are three basic categories of infidelity, and betrayed partners may or may not feel more deeply wounded depending on the type of cheating.
Confused? If so, read on.
Sexploration is purely sexual cheating, with no emotional component. Usually this involves anonymous sex and/or casual hookups. You get off and go home. Sometimes cheaters who engage in this sort of “sport f*cking” don’t even feel like they’ve cheated, because there was no emotional connection.
In their mind, this sort of activity doesn’t affect their primary relationship at all. It’s roughly the equivalent of mountain biking, a trip to the casino, or going to the beach—an activity that’s engaged in for fun, relaxation, or distraction.
2. Recurring booty calls.
Some cheaters have a sex partner (or several sex partners) that they see regularly but only when convenient. They may even have an occasional formalized date—like dinner and a show—before they hop into bed together. Usually, these sexual partners are liked but not loved. In other words, there is friendship and hot sex but not any sort of deep emotional connection.
Yes, these relationships are ongoing, but they are still casual, based more on sex than anything else. Nearly always, both partners are fully aware that the sex is not in any way exclusive and that one or both of the partners is married or in some other type of serious, supposedly monogamous long-term relationship.
3. Emotionally connected affairs.
These are typically longer-term relationships in which the partners feel a deep emotional connection (i.e., love). Sometimes these relationships were never intended. The two parties were simply going about their business, being nice to people and making friends as they went, not worrying too much about those friendships because one or both were already in a committed relationship.
But somehow, over time, a platonic relationship that began in the workplace, on social media, in the neighborhood, or wherever, unexpectedly blossomed into something more, and the line between innocent friendship and infidelity was crossed. Emotionally connected affairs can also be quite intentional, but much of the time they “just happen.”
All cheating hurts. And typically it’s not the extracurricular sex that causes the most pain. Instead, it’s the lying and the keeping of secrets. In other words, long-term, committed partnerships don’t usually end because one partner had sex with someone else; they end because he or she repeatedly lied, covered up, and kept secrets about that behavior.
That said, a quartet of factors can exacerbate the emotional pain and loss of trust wrought by cheating:
1. Who you cheated with
For instance, sleeping with your spouse’s best friend is a much bigger betrayal than sleeping with a total stranger. If you’ve been sexual with someone your spouse knows, that’s double the trouble. And if that person happens to be someone that your significant other liked and/or trusted, the betrayal is doubled yet again. Each layer of connection increases your betrayed partner’s pain.
2. How the cheating is uncovered
If you cheated on your mate and he or she found out about it during a doctor’s visit after being diagnosed with an STD (contracted from you, of course, because you’re the only person that he or she has been sexual with), that’s a lot worse than if you voluntarily tell your partner, “Honey, I’m really sorry, but when I was on that business trip in Ontario last month, I hooked up with someone I met in the hotel bar. I feel terrible about it, and I can’t keep it secret from you.”
3. How long it went on
If you cheated once and once only, your mate can probably forgive this lapse—especially if you admit it instead of waiting for him or her to find out some other way. If, however, you’ve been cheating for years (and lying and keeping secrets about your behavior for just as long), your spouse’s ability to trust you and believe in your relationship is likely to be shattered.
4. Your level of emotional connection
Generally speaking, an emotionally connected affair is more painful to your betrayed spouse than a one-night stand. This is because, from your betrayed partner’s perspective, longer-term affairs undercut everything that happened in your relationship while the affair was taking place.
Essentially, if/when your mate learns you’ve been sleeping with someone else for the last decade, he or she wonders, “All those times that you told me you loved me, and that you loved our kids and our life together, did you mean any of it? Or was it all just a lie?”
So, as you can see, there are many factors that can make sexual infidelity “worse.” That said, all cheating is painful to your betrayed partner. And all cheating will strain your relationship. Furthermore, most of the time—and I can’t stress this enough—it’s typically not the sex that’s most upsetting to a betrayed partner. It’s the constant lying and the keeping of important secrets.
As such, the process of healing from infidelity is typically focused as much on restoring relationship trust as on stopping the cheater’s sextracurricular behaviors.