A question that often arises in my practice is what constitutes infidelity? When is a flirtation innocent and when does it go too far? How can you draw lines when it comes to your and your partner's behavior, especially when these lines have become increasingly blurred by a digital age, in which social media, text messaging and instant communication have made affairs more accessible?
Today's technology can provide a perfect platform for secrecy. Websites like AshleyMadison.com even attempt to legitimize deception by offering a secure spot to seek out an affair. One of the problems with the Internet is that your online behavior has a certain feeling of distance from real life. Think about how easy it is to shop, for example. Purchasing with the click of a button doesn't have the same cognitive effect as having to physically dish out your money at a cash register. The same is true with an online flirtation; the instant gratification, ease and speed of an interaction almost make it feel like it didn't even happen.
For those in relationships, technology not only sets a stage for deceptive behavior, but it also stirs up a whole new realm of jealousy and paranoia. Not only are couples abusing each other's trust by engaging in online infidelity, when they are suspicious, they are using technology to invade each other's privacy. People, who normally respect the boundaries of another person, are logging in to their partner's Facebook account or skimming their partner's phone for signs of cheating. These trust violations simply perpetuate the cycle of dishonesty and paranoia.
At the 2013 APA Conference, Erin Holley presented the results of a recent survey on what people consider infidelity. The survey revealed that most participants had conflicting attitudes. In relation to themselves, they thought a wider range of behaviors did not meet their criteria for infidelity, whereas for their partner, they considered almost any behavior infidelity. It is my observation that relationship partners may have a discussion about commitment and infidelity, but they rarely go into detail about how each of them defines infidelity. They often believe they agree on what constitutes infidelity only to find out down the line that they do not. These discrepancies may partly stem from cultural differences, and particularly the culture of the family a person grew up in. It is important for each partner to identify and describe their personal models around infidelity and commitment. The lack of clarity most couples have around this important issue leaves room for ambiguity and deception, which leads to a lot of confusion and hurt.
One of the problems with drawing the line between right and wrong is that not all standards are necessarily universal. Every person has to decide for themselves what they're comfortable with in their relationship. They then have to communicate clearly and honestly how they feel, while accepting the reality that they have no real control over their partner. Whatever you and your partner agree upon, however, you should adhere to with integrity and respect. You can only build trust with one another if you are honest and live by your words.
Here are five rules every person can follow to have a more trustworthy relationship:
1. Honor Your Choices as Your Own
If and when you and your partner choose to have a monogamous relationship, be clear about what that means to each of you. Talk about how each of your views about monogamy was shaped and what you feel comfortable with. Once you are clear about what you are committing to, then each of you should honor that decision, accepting full responsibility for your choice.
One mistake people make when they think about fidelity is the assumption that they've forfeited their freedom. They feel that their partner is forcing them to follow certain guidelines. Yet, no one can really make you do anything. Choosing to be with just one person is still a choice. You can decide to be with one person and still feel free, because you own that decision.
If you start to doubt or change your mind about your decisions, you should talk about it openly, rather than saying one thing and doing another. However, when you start to fool yourself into believing you'll never be attracted to anyone else or have the urge to flirt, you're setting an unrealistic standard that will likely be hard to comply with in the long run. In addition, once you do inevitably violate one of these restrictions, you're blurring the lines you yourself created and may run the risk of engaging in other, more explicitly prohibited activities that would hurt your partner and violate whatever your agreement is.
2. Set Standards for Yourself Independently from Your Partner
In my blog, "What's Wrong with Infidelity," I talked about some of the dos and don'ts when it comes to maintaining your sense of yourself as a free individual, while still being honest and considerate of your partner. The best way to create this balance is to generate your own standards for your behavior separate from your partner's. If you want your partner to treat you a certain way, then you should set the tone for the relationship by choosing how you behave in even the most challenging of situations. If you're reliable, consistent and trustworthy as opposed to erratic, suspicious and dishonest, then you're far more likely to get the same from your partner. Plus, no matter what happens in the relationship, you can feel strong and solid in the fact that you maintained your own integrity, a quality you can take with you into any relationship.
3. Avoid Making Unrealistic Rules
When a person makes too many rules in an effort to restrict a partner, they have to be careful about what the cost is to the relationship. They have to wonder: am I breeding an environment of resentment? Am I limiting my partner in ways that interfere with his/her spirit or vitality? When you place extremely restrictive boundaries on your partner, you often diminish the very traits that drew you to them in the first place -- an outgoing personality, acknowledgment, charisma and natural warmth, for example. A relationship based on emotional manipulations and guilt-inducing ultimatums hardly has a solid foundation to stand on.
It can be hurtful and limiting to punish someone every time they express an attraction or even so much as glance at another person you find threatening. If you punish your partner for being honest about any attractions to others, you may push them to hide aspects of themselves and even to lie to you. When you react with excessive fear or jealousy, it's important to ask yourself: is this about my partner or is it about me? Is he/she truly untrustworthy, or am I mistrusting? How much are my own insecurities dictating how I treat my partner?
4. Never Lie
For a long time, I've said that the biggest problem with infidelity is deception. Lying to your partner or distorting his or her reality is frankly a human rights violation. Whatever you and your partner openly and clearly agree to in your relationship is fine, but lies and deception will only serve to create distance and distrust -- two common destroyers of any relationship.
Trust can be a difficult thing to build, because people already carry their own defenses and distrust from past hurts, rejections and deceptions. Yet, trust and communication are fundamental to establishing closeness, intimacy and real love. Your partner should be someone you can talk to, someone who you can offer honest feedback to, and who you can encourage to do the same to you.
Many relationship experts believe there are times when honesty is not the best policy, but I strongly disagree. Even when "not wanting to unnecessarily hurt someone's feelings" seems like a kind sentiment, it is actually a justification; there is never a real reason to be dishonest with someone you love. Think about how you would feel. Wouldn't you rather have your partner be truthful? If you later found out your partner had shaded the truth or outright lied to you about an infidelity, would you be hurt and angry and feel betrayed? If your honest answer to these questions is "yes," then you are better off assuming your partner feels the same. The ultimate consideration is what kind of person do you want to be in a relationship? If you want to be a person of honesty and integrity, then being forthright with your partner is the only real option.
Also, don't lie to yourself. People often fool themselves that they are not really attracted to that person at work, or that this behavior is okay, that it doesn't really meet their definition of infidelity, or if their partner doesn't find out, it's okay. As one therapist I know reports, when patients ask him if a certain behavior constitutes infidelity, he replies "would your partner consider it infidelity?" I agree that if you are unsure or uncertain about what is okay or not you should clarify it with your partner, rather than use any ambiguity in your agreement to slip into deception.
5. Don't Give Up Aspects of Yourself
No matter what, your relationship should always expand your life, not shrink it. Getting to know a new person introduces you to a novel world of activities, interests, people, places and ideas. Yet, after a while many couples enter into a "Fantasy Bond," an illusion of connection in which the form of the relationship replaces the real substance. People let go of their individuality in favor of a merged identity that, although often unexciting or even unpleasant, creates a false sense of safety and security.
Couples in a fantasy bond often place countless restrictions on each other, expecting their partner to perform a certain function or role rather than be their own separate person with a sovereign mind. Ironically, that very independence and uniqueness is what drew you to that person in the first place. Asking them to narrow their worlds can ultimately serve to make you less attracted to your partner.
Conversely, when your partner expects you to limit your world, you will likely wind up feeling trapped and resentful. Affairs become more appealing when a couple stops feeling that excitement and passion for each other. They may start resenting each other as real feelings of love and affection are replaced with roleplaying and acting out of expectation. They may start withholding the very qualities that attracted them to each other.
Thus, by keeping your world big, your communication open and your sense of self intact, you actually create an environment in which you are more satisfied and less likely to look elsewhere for connection. In this sense, the more freedom you and your partner allow each other, the less likely you are to betray each other's trust.
Join me and Dr. Pat Love for the April 8 Webinar, "Relationships 2.0: Navigating love, lust, commitment, infidelity in the new millennium"
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org