Despite the fact that there hasn’t been any big infidelity news of late (but … give it time!), HuffPost’s divorce section has been having a bit of a run on stories on affairs, one of which was written by Tracy Schorn, who suggested in Seven Ways to Leave a Cheater that people who plan to leave a cheater may want to seek the services of a domestic abuse hotline. That gave me pause.
Certainly not every cheater is abusive, although a recent study clearly finds a link between accusations of sexual infidelity and violent abuse. It’s obvious those relationships were abusive, period; cheating was the least of their problems and there wasn’t even any cheating involved, just the mere suggestion of an affair was enough to send someone over the edge. But it did make me wonder — is infidelity in and of itself abuse?
Most emphatically yes, Schorn says.
I don’t feel that way although, yes — when people finally find out about their partner’s affair, they’re typically devastated and the emotions that one goes through can indeed be similar to emotional abuse. But, while the affair is going on and the spouse is oblivious to it? Not really. True, I think many feel something’s wrong on some level — I know I did; I just couldn’t put my finger on it. And after I confronted him — with facts, emails, receipts, etc. — the denials and finger-pointing felt like crazy-making. Then slowly the truth came out.
Infidelity may be a lot of crappy things, but I just don’t consider it abuse.
Others agree with Schorn.
Infidelity “in all cases” is emotional abuse, says rabbi Sean Gorman of Congregation Pride of Israel in Toronto, especially flagrant adultery — in which the cheater makes “no effort to hide the indiscretion.” Again, that’s an abusive person, period; he or she is probably abusive about a lot of other things, too, not just the affair.
Over at Divorce Women Online, Cathy Meyer writes:
In many instances, betrayal through infidelity can be very close to what we term domestic violence. Unfaithful husbands, especially if your husband has passive aggressive tendencies, are often insensitive to the pain they inflict, just as are perpetrators of physical and psychological violence.
(Hmm, wouldn’t it be the same if we were talking about unfaithful wives? Let’s not just pick on the men!) I don’t think adulterers — men or women — are really thinking about the pain they may be inflicting, mostly because they’re fooling around on the sly (how can someone be hurt if he/she doesn’t know about it?) and they are rationalizing and justifying having the affair while often still in love their partner. Plus, many spouses do other manipulative behaviors — withholding sex, for instance, or giving the silent treatment — that they know are causing the other person pain; is that abuse, too?
An article in Australia’s The Age details how infidelity and abuse are one and the same:
Why is infidelity abusive? Why is it sometimes a form of psychological and emotional violence? Because infidelity can be as devastating as a violent attack. It results in humiliation, hurt and loss for the injured partner. The betrayal is usually perceived as a direct attack on the faithful partner’s worth as a person and as a partner.
Again, that’s if the betrayed finds out; not all do.
Still, if all infidelity is abuse, than what are we to make of those who stay married to a reformed philanderer, and who find the affair(s) transformational in re-creating their marriage?
Tammy Nelson’s new book, The New Monogamy, addresses how couples can regain trust, romance, and intimacy after infidelity by redefining the monogamy contract. So, is she encouraging couples to stay in an abusive relationship?
Psychologist and author Esther Perel has an interesting three-part series, An Affair to Remember: What Happens After Someone Cheats?, on the Museum of Sex’s blog, in which she concludes:
People stray for many reasons — tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, and plain old lust. At times, an affair is a quest for intensity, a rebellion against the confines of matrimony. An illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be liberating, a source of strength, a healing. And frequently it’s all these things at once.
I may not know too much about abusive relationships but I have the feeling you just won’t find that kind of language if we’re talking about marriages in which there’s physical and/or emotional abuse. I just can’t imagine anyone calling a physical or emotional abusive marriage “liberating.” Truly abusive marriages clearly aren’t healthy and won’t ever be healthy unless the abuser and abused get some serious therapy and break the cycle. Not all couples dealing with infidelity can: Perel talks about couples who stay in a marriage after an affair but who define their life by it in an unhealthy cycle of grief, guilt, blame and insecurity:
The affair has become the narrative of their union. The marriage may technically survive, but their couplehood is dying on the vine. When infidelity becomes the hallmark of a couple’s life, something has been broken that can’t be made whole again. The relationship is permanently crippled.
Again, that appears to be an abusive relationship, period (and most likely was before the affair in some way).
So, if we agree that staying in an abusive relationship will never be considered “transformational,” but some believe that staying in a marriage in which there has been infidelity can be transformational for the couple, I again question the idea that infidelity is a form of abuse.
I don’t think infidelity is abuse. What do you think?