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"That Doesn't Count as Cheating"

Over the next few weeks I will be constructing posts that focus on relationship betrayals. Throughout this series, we will look at what exactly is a relationship betrayal, reasons that betrayals occur, and how to strengthen romantic relationships. Our first segment is going to look at what exactly is a betrayal. It is very common for couples that I see to have the same argument over and over again. Whether it is because they can’t agree on what constitutes cheating or because they can’t understand why their partner wont “move on”, one thing is for sure; they are not on the same page. Instead of really diving deep into the core issues that are affecting their relationship, most couples want to know who is the one in the right and who is the one in the wrong? Most are not too thrilled to hear that there is not a simple answer to such a question. The Honeymoon Stage I want you to think back to the beginning of your relationship. I would imagine that your mind is filled with times of excitement, passion, hope, and playfulness. During this honeymoon stage, we often are presenting the best versions of ourselves to our partners as we do with most people we first meet. In turn, they often are idealizing us and vice versa. I would also imagine that this honeymoon stage of your relationship did not involve the two of you sitting down and explicitly stating the expectations you have of one another. After all, who wants to kill the mood with all this talk about expectations, agreements, and logistical details? We are so in love with our partner that we can’t imagine them ever hurting us. They would never do such a thing, right??? What Counts as a Betrayal? The word “betrayal” sounds pretty heavy and that’s because it can be. When it comes to relationships, that word is very subjective. A relationship betrayal can be defined as a broken agreement between the couple. As you can imagine, this can get somewhat tricky as not all agreements are stated explicitly from the beginning of the relationship. However, whether stated explicitly or assumed internally, agreements form the basis of a relationship. Some of those agreements may not carry as much weight as others. We can see this in an example such as, “we agree to take turns doing the dishes” versus “we agree to have an open marriage.” This can become even more complicated when we look at a very common type of betrayal such as an affair. Sometimes couples come in and both agree that an affair or some sort of cheating occurred. Maybe one partner slept with someone else when they originally had agreed to be monogamous. However, getting back to the title of this post “that doesn’t count as cheating”, it is often not as simple as that. What is considered cheating for one partner may not bother another partner. That is why when couples come to therapy and ask me, “is that considered cheating?” I tell them that I cannot answer that question.  Instead, I let them know that what I can tell them is that if one person was not okay with whatever the action/relationship/etc was that happened, a betrayal has occurred. A Shadow Has Been Cast While it might be hard for the person who is not feeling betrayed to understand this, until they can recognize that their partner is feeling betrayed, the relationship will not be able to move forward. It is very hard for us to hear that we have hurt our partners just as it is very hard to be the one who has been hurt. This hurt and anger may lead to the couple trying to sweep it under the rug and ignore it, but it inevitably ends up permeating the relationship. Whether it be in the form of fighting over trivial things, disconnection, or a lack of intimacy, the betrayal has cast a shadow over the relationship. Those overwhelming feelings and resentments can be difficult to navigate and process on our own. That is one of the many reasons couples therapy can be so useful. Among other things, the therapist helps us with the difficult task of listening to our partner’s pain and instead of denying it, learn to validate it. Next week we will be taking a deeper look at why affairs occur. I’ll be dividing this up into two posts, one that looks at affairs that occur in unhealthy/unhappy relationships and affairs that occur in “happy” relationships. Stay tuned!