Relationships: the roots of infidelity
Dear Lori and Jeff,
One of my closest friends is getting married, and I’m fairly certain her fiance is cheating on her. We live in a small town, and there have been multiple rumors of him sleeping with other women. There’s even talk that he’s trying to get what he can before he ties the knot. I’ve confronted him, and he denies it. I don’t believe him. I’ve tried bringing it up to my friend in both gentle and direct ways, but she is so in love with him that she won’t listen. I’m worried she’s making a huge mistake by marrying this guy. What else can I do? Is it really possible that if he is cheating now, he’ll become faithful when they marry?
Lori and Jeff: It’s important to start by understanding what being unfaithful actually means. In Esther Perel’s new book, “The State of Affairs,” she identifies three components of infidelity: secrecy, sexual alchemy and emotional involvement. Any one of these alone can cross the boundary into infidelity, but combining any two or more is a recipe for relationship disaster. If the rumors are true, what is as concerning to us as his sexual exploits, is how much effort he’s put into keeping this other life a secret from your friend. For him to really be a faithful husband, he’s going to have to learn to keep it in his pants and tell the truth.
Lori: It sounds like you’ve taken the most appropriate steps as a caring friend by trying to talk to her about it. She either has better information than you, in which case your worries are for naught, or she’s choosing not to listen. When a partner decides to stick their head in the sand, it’s often out of fear — fear of being single again, fear of losing what they know, or of losing the ideal life they’ve dreamed up with their significant other. Often, at the core, it’s a fear of not being loveable. If she does follow the path of marrying an unfaithful partner, her true journey will be in finding her worth. This is where you can be most supportive. Love her for who she is and be a relationship in her life that reflects the care and connection she deserves.
Jeff: While the axiom “once a cheater, always a cheater” is certainly an exaggeration, it may play some part in answering your second question. If your friend’s fiance is cheating and feels as though it’s okay to continue to sow his wild oats up until the wedding day, it’s very unlikely the commitment of marriage will magically blind his wandering eyes.
For men, the celebration of getting hitched can be overshadowed by the irrational fear of settling into a life with new restrictions. It’s not a fear about committing to a specific person, but a dynamic where he feels he’s giving up part of his identity as a man with the freedom to pursue others. Esther Perel notes that infidelity involves the quest for the unexplored, unresolved self. Specifically for men, it’s often related to the sexual self. He may be fooling himself into thinking he won’t regret the decision to settle down if he’s able to get the desire for sexual conquest out of his system before the big day.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.