What is Infidelity? Why does Cheating Hurt so Bad?
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What is Infidelity? Why does Cheating Hurt so Bad?



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What is infidelity/cheating?


What is infidelity? Whenever I am asked this question, I think of the quote from Justice Potter Stewart who said, “I know it when I see it.” Infidelity can include a wide variety of activities from sexual intercourse to flirting.


Some can last for long periods of time, others can be a brief event. There are also sexual affairs, emotional affairs, and affairs that involve both sex and emotions.


Research published in the journal Current Psychology argues that Infidelity is hard to define precisely. And what we define as infidelity is and on top of that it is culturally influenced according to the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.


People cheat in long-term committed relationships as well as in casual and brief relationships.


Due to the lack of clarity, it is important that both people are aware of what infidelity looks like in your relationship. Being clear and having those conversations up front may help prevent possible issues down the road. 




What are the main causes for infidelity?


Knowing the causes of infidelity is reassuring. Unfortunately, we do not have a complete picture of what causes it. 


Research in the Journal of Sex Research shows a variety of factors such as lower relationship satisfaction, aggression, lower dedication, lower commitment, and suspicion or knowledge of partner own infidelity were associated with engaging in infidelity.


 Like a lot of things in life though, it is not as simple as being unhappy in your relationship according to the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, so sadly there is no way to “infidelity-proof” your relationship. 



Do couples survive infidelity?


The good news is that yes, couples survive infidelity. The previously mentioned Journal of Marital and Family Therapy points out that Some couples even report an increase in relationship satisfaction afterwards. 


Some of the unintended positive outcomes included closer marital relationships, increased assertiveness, placing higher value on family, and taking better care of oneself. 


This is not to say that an affair is good for a relationship. Rather, that an affair does not have to mean the end of a relationship.




What are the different types of infidelity?


The two most frequently cited types of infidelity are emotional and physical. Data published in the journal Current Psychology outlines why that is. There is a lot of grey area regarding the definition of emotional infidelity.


It is often thought of as a deep emotional connection, where someone is investing (time, emotion, or love) in someone other than their partner, and it is often secret.


Yet, it is important to consider that almost any behavior that is kept secret could lead to feelings of betrayal. 


There is greater agreement on the definition of physical infidelity. 


Physical infidelity is often considered to be sexual intercourse outside of the relationship. However, this fails to include other sexual activities. A broader definition of physical infidelity includes, but is not limited to, masturbation in the presence of another, oral sex, sexual play, kissing, flirting, and visiting strip clubs. Some may also consider certain online behavior to be cheating. 


Online infidelity can include cybersex, exchanging sexual self-images, online dating, online flirting, and using online pornography. As stated at the beginning of this post, it is important that both you and your partner are on the same page about what you each consider to be infidelity.




is infidelity the same as cheating


Can you really love someone and cheat on them?


Yes, that can happen. Infidelity occurs in happy marriages, as well as unhappy marriages.


Finding out that your partner is cheating can make anyone doubt if they are loved, and yet it is possible that your partner can both love you and hurt you deeply by cheating. 


What hurts the most about being cheated on?


There is no doubt that having someone you love and care about cheat on you is hurtful. People who have experienced infidelity report feeling betrayed, losing trust, rage, and damaged self-esteem. These are just some of the feelings a person can experience because of infidelity.


There is no research to support that one feeling hurts the most, rather just that we know it causes significant emotional pain, depression, anxiety, and in some cases Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).



What are the signs of infidelity?


You can Google “signs my partner is cheating on me” and get a variety of lists that will tell you what might indicate that your partner is cheating on you. However, these lists can also create a bunch of anxiety that may not be necessary. 


Instead of looking for signs, it may be helpful to reflect on yourself and your relationship: Are you happy? Is your partner happy? Do I feel more distant from my partner? Does something feel off/different?


If you are feeling unhappy or feel like something is off in your relationship, it may be helpful to consider therapy. 


Rather than waiting for a crisis you can seek help right away to address your own individual and couple issues. 




What is worse: physical infidelity or emotional infidelity?


Sexual, emotional, or even online infidelity bring up a variety of hurts. However, it is hard to quantify which one hurts worse. Some of the impact of infidelity may be driven by culture, gender, sexual identity, and other factors. The hurt that is experienced by infidelity will depend on the person and the relationship. 





Do cheaters feel guilt?


Infidelity experts published that have written the book on Divorce and Relationship Dissolution state Yes, they do often feel guilt. Offending partners tend to show lower general well-being, higher rates of depression, distress related to regret, guilt, and shame.


While there may be the odd person who defies the norm and shows no guilt, but that does not seem to be typical.  




Should you forgive a cheater?


That is a question no one but the person who was cheated on can answer. We know couples can recover from infidelity, and we also know it can lead to divorce. Each couple will have to determine how they wish to move forward with their relationship, and that may take some time. 


It is okay not to know what you want right away. It is okay to leave or to stay. 




Can a cheating partner/spouse ever be faithful?


A person who cheats is more likely to cheat again, compared to someone who has never cheated. However, it is important to consider that those that seek therapy for their behavior, and demonstrate significant change are at a much lower likelihood of cheating again. Conversely, those that display little or no remorse, refuse to talk about it, or place blame on others may not have developed the skills or insight needed to change their behavior. 


Couples and individuals who seek out therapy may not have the same risk. Ignoring the fact that infidelity happened as a means of “getting past it” is a risky and often unhelpful strategy. We strongly suggest addressing it fully so that it truly can be resolved. 



If you are interested to learn more about related topics, check out our article on Couples Counseling, Marital Separations, or our article on Discernment Counseling



If your relationship has experienced infidelity, consider working with one of our specialists in infidelity counseling






Blow, A. J., & Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships ii: A substantive review. Journal of marital and family therapy31(2), 217-233.

Hall, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (2006). Relationship dissolution following infidelity. In M. A. Fine & J. H. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of divorce and relationship dissolution (pp. 153–168). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Knopp, K., Scott, S., Ritchie, L., Rhoades, G. K., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2017). Once a cheater, always a cheater? Serial infidelity across subsequent relationships. Archives of sexual behavior46(8), 2301-2311.

Guitar, A. E., Geher, G., Kruger, D. J., Garcia, J. R., Fisher, M. L., & Fitzgerald, C. J. (2017). Defining and distinguishing sexual and emotional infidelity. Current Psychology, 36(3), 434-446.

Maddox Shaw, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., Allen, E. S., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Predictors of extradyadic sexual involvement in unmarried opposite-sex relationships. Journal of sex research50(6), 598-610.

Pittman III, F. S., & Wagers, T. P. (2005). The relationship, if any, between marriage and infidelity. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy4(2-3), 135-148.





Disclaimer: ALL IN Therapy Clinic aims to improve people’s lives through providing effective mental health counseling by passionate professionals. We publish quality material for your own education. Our publications are researched, cited, reviewed, and edited by licensed mental health professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.





Written and reviewed by

Dr Kyle Zrenchik, PhD, ACS, LMFT

Dr. Kyle Zrenchik is the Co-Founder of ALL IN, the Creator of the Couples Erotic Flow model for treating sexual issues in individuals and couples, Designer of the Deep Dive programs at ALL IN, and is one of the most well-respected couples counselors in the Twin Cities.

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