What's Love Got to Do With It?
More than a few of my sexually addicted and/or perennially cheating male clients enter treatment via what I like to call 'the spousal ejection method.' Meaning that a wife or long-term partner has basically said, "I'm tired of your cheating, your lies, and your double secret sex life, and if you don't get serious professional help now I am out of here!"
Thus guided into therapy and in the privacy of my offices, many of these men will remind me -- because as another male I should know this already -- that as MEN it is their biological, evolutionary, and sociological imperative and/or God-given right to have sex with as many women as possible. These men will often go on to say that the sexual and romantic fidelity "imposed on them" by their wife or significant other and modern western culture is not only unsustainable, but a tired legacy of some rigid moral and/or religious construct that feels unnatural to them.
So I tell these men that they may be right in how they view and justify (to themselves) their extracurricular sexual and romantic exploits. And while still not disagreeing with their point of view, I remind them that when a man makes a vow or commitment to a wife or loved one, and then breaks it, he is in violation of his relationship contract.
To further this idea, I strongly suggest that to avoid future ongoing relationship conflict it is best to simply plan on running their prospective extracurricular sexual agenda past their spouse for approval before actually doing it, thus leaving their duplicity and concealment behind. "Feel free to chat up your old girlfriends and affair partners on Facebook, hook up with women you meet with apps or online, spend hours viewing porn, get sensual massages and hire prostitutes, but make sure to run it by your wife on the way out the door. If it's OK with her, it's OK with me," I tell them.
The underlying message here is that honesty and transparency, even if the outcome of that process is unpleasant, is the only road to personal integrity and self-esteem, not to mention genuine relationship intimacy.
Unsurprisingly, very few clients have taken me up on this suggestion.
Reasons Men Cheat
From a sexual standpoint, healthy adult men tend to be most aroused by a visual succession of body parts and sexual acts. Men in general also seem to have a greater psychological capacity overall to engage in objectified, even anonymous sexual experiences, which are devoid of any relationship or personal connection. This is why men enjoy pornography and strip clubs -- venues that allow them to sexually objectify body parts.
Women, on the other hand, tend to be more aroused by sexualized and romanticized emotional connections between people more than body parts. In this way, women are more likely to objectify relationships rather than any particular visual image.
The basic idea is if you want polyamory, spousal swapping or a "don't ask, don't tell" kind of relationship, go for it. Just make sure that your partner agrees to it up front. A mutual spousal agreement that it is OK to have sex outside your primary relationship is called having an open relationship, and extramarital sex in this arena is clearly not cheating. However, lying and keeping secrets about that same behavior while pretending to maintain a vow of monogamy defines infidelity.
Men most often cheat for one or more of the following reasons:
- He is not who he seems to be. This man never intended to be monogamous, despite taking a vow or making a commitment to do so. He lacks empathy for his spouse, and he resentfully sees monogamy as something to work around rather than respect. His need to get what he wants when he wants it -- and that supersedes the value he places on intimacy and partnership.
- He is unaware of his (and others) emotional needs until overwhelmed by them. This is the guy who complains that he is not getting the same love, attention and adoration from his spouse as he got when they were first dating. Feeling trapped and drained, often longing for the courtship phase of his early relationship, he will turn to the extensive use of online porn, affairs and sensual massage to temporarily meet the emotional needs he may not even know he has.
- He is insecure. Feeling old, undesirable, unattractive, unsuccessful, etc., this man uses affairs, prostitutes and other forms of sexual intensity to reassure himself of his desirability and worth. This man will often go to strip clubs, attempt to become that "special" client to a particular prostitute, or otherwise seek situations that provide external validation in an attempt to bolster his failing self-esteem.
- He is unhappy in his relationship. This most common excuse for cheating usually sounds something like the following: "If you had to live with my wife/girlfriend/lover, you would cheat too. She's gained weight, nags me all the time AND she doesn't want to have sex anymore. So what's a guy to do?" But in reality, no matter how logical or entertaining a distraction infidelity may seem at the time, having sex or affairs when unhappy with your spouse is an extremely unhealthy way to deal with relationship problems.
- He is a sex or love addict. This man uses sexual fantasy, urges and behaviors as a way to self-soothe and self-medicate challenging life stressors and strong emotions he finds difficult to tolerate. He uses sex and romantic intensity to temporarily distract from emotional emptiness and to avoid uncomfortable feelings. This man often has a long history of unresolved childhood trauma or other underlying psychological issues that cause him to rely on sexual intensity rather than intimacy for emotional fulfillment.
Having worked with hundreds of couples struggling with one (or both) partner's cheating, it is clear to me, from a therapeutic perspective, that the most workable definition of infidelity is the keeping of secrets in an intimate relationship.
When counseling spouses who feel violated by various forms of sex and relationship betrayal, the central theme of their pain is quite consistent. A betrayed spouse's greatest hurt comes not from the extra-marital sexual or romantic behavior (though that is no picnic to discover), but from the profound and often repeated betrayal of relationship trust by one's closest ally, confidante, and life-partner.
What They Don't Know Won't Hurt Them
Sadly, many men don't realize the profound effects that ongoing or repeated infidelity can have on the emotional life of a trusting long-term partner. Still others, lacking empathy, truly believe that their spouse would understand as long as the sex "doesn't mean anything."
Inevitably, most cheaters are eventually found out, and the resulting fallout is often much greater than anticipated by the cheater, consumed as he has been by his intellectual justification and denial. Sometimes, even when both members of the couple are committed to healing, the backlog of emotional damage and personal betrayal is irreparable, especially when a hurt partner is unable to regain the trust and emotional safety required to be intimate. For those of us who walk the tightrope of clinical work with such couples, these cases are often the saddest of all.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found on Facebook and on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.