Relationships: What counts as cheating?
Dear Lori and Jeff,
I recently discovered that my husband has been spending a lot of time viewing online porn. I’ve looked through some of the sites he’s been on, but because some have different levels of interaction, I can’t tell exactly what he’s been up to. I’ve asked him what he’s been doing and why, but he shuts down. There are some things I’m willing to accept, but I don’t know where the line gets crossed into cheating. I’m worried because I thought our sex life was pretty good, but neither of us have had much time or energy to connect lately. I want to understand what’s going on with him, and where it’s reasonable for me to draw the line?
— Where’s My Line?
Dear Line Seeker,
Lori and Jeff: The concepts of monogamy and infidelity have become vastly more complex with the evolution of technology. The porn of our parents’ generation was primarily impersonal images in magazines and VHS tapes. Now there’s blurred continuum available at any adult’s fingertips: pictures, videos, live streams, live chat and more. Even though the options are vaster, many of the underlying drivers to engage in porn have remained the same: empowerment and gratification without risk of rejection.
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Jeff: While your concern about your husband’s behavior is absolutely valid, it’s also important to understand what may be at the root of his transgressions. Men have a tendency to pleasure themselves — even within the healthiest of intimate relationships. There is really nothing wrong with this dynamic, unless it’s impacting the erotic connection of the couple. The lines can start to get murky, however, when you add in accouterments — such as porn.
Why porn? Here’s a bombshell: men can be extremely vulnerable when it comes to intimate sex. According to shame researcher, Brene Brown, “From the time boys are 8 to 10 years old, they learn that initiating sex is their responsibility and that sexual rejection soon becomes the hallmark of masculine shame.” Shame? Yes. The risk of rejection — even in the most ideal of intimate scenarios — can be on men’s minds but add stress, fatigue and indifference into the bedroom, and the fear of rejection multiplies. Esther Perel, the leading expert on infidelity, says that men use porn as a way to avoid their sexual vulnerabilities: it’s much easier (and there’s no chance of rejection) for men to open up a porn site and think they’re taking care of their needs.
Lori: Partners often make the unfortunate mistake of assuming they have the same definition infidelity. Then lines get crossed unknowingly, and feelings and trust are hurt. If you haven’t, as a couple, already established lines in the sand, you can’t hold his recent actions against him. You can however take this discovery as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and what boundaries feel most appropriate.
For many of us American women, the idea of our man lusting over another is a little hard to swallow. It can bring out our insecurities of not being enough: “I’m not as (vibrant, sensual, sexy, skinny, voluptuous, etc.) as (I used to be, I could be, wish I was, she is)”. But having insecurity triggered is not the same as infidelity. You have to explore for yourself what choices and behaviors constitute a break in your commitment to each other. For some couples looking at images and videos is unacceptable, for others it’s when personal interactions take place, still others set the line even further to only exclude continuous emotional or physical relationships. The truth is you can draw the line wherever is necessary to maintain safety and respect in your marriage. The challenge is if your partner’s needs for connection are not being met, that line can either be crossed or met with resentment.
Lori and Jeff: So what do you do? Talk. Let him know you understand his vulnerabilities and figure out ways to create intimate connections with less risk of shame and rejection. Come to an agreement about what boundaries are right for your marriage.
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.