Why do people cheat?
Research tells us the average couple waits approximately six years after an issue first appears before seeking help.
This is a tragic statistic because many couples can be helped by couples counselling and avoiding divorce, particularly when cheating is involved.
The psychology of affairs and why do people cheat on people they love
We know that over one-third of all Australian marriages end in divorce and affairs, and cheating by one partner is quite a big part of this sad statistic.
But what causes someone to cheat? And is that old saying true, “once a cheater, always a cheater”?
The truth is infidelity is a complex topic, and there are many reasons why people cheat and have affairs.
Monogamy as a cultural norm is a new idea
It’s important to remember that sexual exclusivity in a primary relationship is a relatively new idea and is often thought of as the ‘gold standard’ of relationships.
However, in centuries past, sexual exclusivity was not assumed, and if someone had sex outside their primary relationship, it was not a dealbreaker.
Today, if someone wants to be in a non-monogamous relationship, they are often viewed as having psychological problems or mental health issues.
But this is not the case.
The truth is, many people who want to negotiate a non-monogamous relationship are just as mentally well as the rest of the population and often have better communication skills, can manage emotions like insecurity and jealousy well, and can have long-lasting happy relationships.
When heterosexual people pair up, they often assume monogamy and have difficulty changing this contract later. Gay male couples typically navigate these issues much better and can negotiate open relationships that work for both partners.
Why do people cheat?
When someone has an affair, it’s a violation of the relationship contract.
Lack of love: this includes falling out of love with your partner, questioning whether you’re with the right partner or having unmet emotional needs.
Low commitment: this includes not having clear relationship rules and boundaries, not communicating about your level of commitment to each other, and wanting to keep your options open for meeting more than one person.
Low self-esteem: this includes using an affair to bolster your sense of attractiveness and desirability or to prove that people other than your partner find you desirable due to your self-esteem issues.
Sexual desire issues: this includes wanting more sex, more sexual variety, a desire to explore different sexuality or other unmet sexual needs.
Situational factors: this includes making bad decisions while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, being around friends who have had affairs, or having someone ‘drop into your lap’ and not being able to say “no.”
Neglect: this includes lacking quality time together, experiencing constant conflict and fighting, or feeling neglected by your partner.
Anger: this includes getting back on the partner who cheated or you suspect has cheated. Anger-motivated infidelity can also include taking an act of revenge for other painful events, which don’t include infidelity.
Sex addiction: while sex addiction has no science to back the idea you can be ‘addicted’ to sex, some people experience an out-of-control sexual attraction that leads to frequent cheating.
The truth is it takes work to maintain a long-term relationship. And to maintain a good relationship with strong sexual desire and ongoing enthusiasm can be even more challenging. For some people, it’s just easier to pursue and feel sexual attraction with a new person than to work on a relationship with their long-term partner.
But the good news is the adage “once a cheater, always a cheater” is a myth. Many couples experience infidelity and recover from the betrayal to make their relationship even more potent than it was before.
Why is sexual betrayal so painful?
Suppose you’re in a committed relationship and thought you had a monogamous agreement (either spoken or unspoken). In that case, sexual betrayal can be experienced as such intense pain that some mental health professionals consider it a type of trauma.
Many couples tell me they can get over the fact their partner cheated and had sex with someone else, but what they find deeply painful is that their partner lied to them.
And when the affair partner is found out, he sometimes doesn’t reveal the extent of the betrayal all at once in an attempt to ‘soften the blow.’
This can make it even worse for the betrayed because they keep getting shocked as more details about the betrayal are drip-fed. This can make the process of healing to rebuild trust even harder in the long run.
Can you recover from a painful breach of trust?
The simple answer is yes, but it’s probably not going to be easy.
First of all, you have to want to recover from the affair. You both need to be motivated and committed to resolving the relationship issues that lead to the affair. This means the betrayer and the betrayed have to create a cooperative and collaborative environment to heal and recover from an affair.
For some people, an affair is a deal-breaker. But this is also worth examining. How did you decide an affair was a deal-breaker? Were you 16 at the time when you said that? Is that rule relevant now?
Reconciling also requires adult skills that a lot of people don’t have. And these are skills you needed before infidelity, which often isn’t the case. These skills include how to self-soothe, how to compromise in a way that works for both of you, and how to communicate when you feel terrible.
The reality is life is complicated, not black and white, and recovering from an affair is often long-term work and can be a roller coaster at times.
Even if you’re facing the brink of breaking up, it’s still possible to turn things around and recover from cheating with hard work, mutual collaboration, commitment, and deep respect and feel intense romantic love for each other.
AUDIO: Why infidelity happens
Listen to the recording of my ABC Nightlife interview with Sarah McDonald on ABC Radio about why infidelity happens
I spoke with Sarah McDonald on the ABC Nightlife program about why infidelity happens and how you move on.
You can listen to the interview below or read the transcript at the bottom of this post.
Transcript of interview
Sarah McDonald: Well, of course, it’s no laughing matter, though, in terms of infidelity, and it has to be one of our greatest fears probably in life or at least in relationships. That betrayal by our partner, the fear of deception involved. The stress that can happen when you find out all about it. It’s horrifying to contemplate and even worse to go through.
But in the wake of politics and Barnaby Joyce this week, it had a massive impact on more than just the couples involved, and it’s probably brought up a lot of things for a lot of people.
Now you may have heard Rod Quinn on overnights last night. He was chatting with a specialist from the US, and there were some stories of infidelity and the reasons that people seek connection outside their primary relationship. But tonight, we thought we’d have to help with moving on to how we can recover from betrayals within relationships. And we’re coming to the issue from the other side of the coin as well. And I’m also interested in what it’s like to be the other person in a relationship. The person who is the third person.
So, if you’re listening and you’d like to contribute, we would like to hear from you about that. But why do some of us gravitate again and again towards clandestine relationships with married people, and how do we move on from such deception?
Clinton Power is a clinical relationships counsellor and a Gestalt therapist, and he’s here with us tonight to talk about this issue. About moving on for the other man, the other woman, the woman and the man involved and how you can negotiate and really navigate a relationship through the fallout.
Thanks so much for coming in tonight, good to see you.
Clinton Power: My pleasure, Sarah.
Sarah McDonald: So, in terms of this, it’s often a shock when people find out about infidelity. Is it always a genuine shock, or is there kind of some sort of truth in that saying that people don’t want to know and can lie to themselves? So the shock is not really as big as it’s perhaps thought to be original.
Clinton Power: I think it does depend on the actual case. But yeah, I’ve seen both. I’ve seen situations where people … their world is completely shattered. They had absolutely no idea and never believed that their partner could possibly cheat on them. And then I’ve also seen couples where you know, sometimes that they kind of had a hunch or they just knew for a while. Maybe they were in denial, and when it all comes out, it’s confirmed.
Sarah McDonald: Is it easier either way? Or is it just always pretty awful?
Clinton Power: Look, I think infidelity is just, it’s really hard and painful. When you’ve gone into a relationship with the understanding, whether you’ve assumed it or not, that this is a monogamous relationship, and I think it’s important for us to remember that even monogamy is a fairly new concept, I mean, it was only in the past centuries that sexual exclusivity was not a given. And if people did break that sexual exclusivity, it wasn’t a deal breaker.
Sarah McDonald: Yeah, so I mean that’s what a lot of people say, “Look, we’re just not made for it. It’s a construct we’ve imposed on ourselves that’s impossible to fulfil”. What do you say to that?
Clinton Power: Well, I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it. But I think when I look at the evidence and when I look at how many people are cheating, you can kind of draw that conclusion. At the moment, it seems that about 20% of men in relationships cheat, and about 13% of women cheat.
Sarah McDonald: That’s still 80%, more than 80% of women that don’t, though. It’s, you know, a bit, but it’s only one in five. That’s still a pretty large proportion.
So that would suggest that most can live up to the social position.
Clinton Power: Yep, yep, and a lot of people are doing well, and they create loving and thriving relationships. They talk about their problems. And the couples that do really well will often address issues very early before it gets to the point of something like this happening.
Sarah McDonald: Well, I guess that’s the thing. Is a sign of someone cheating outside a relationship a sign that the relationship was never strong in the first place? Or is that too simplistic?
Clinton Power: I think that is too simplistic because human relationships are so complex. I mean, humans are complex, and a lot of us want to distil it down to very black-and-white ideas. I just heard the other day that Oprah said on one of her episodes, she says, “Once a cheater, always a cheater”. And I was thinking, “What a terrible thing to think”. Because it doesn’t acknowledge that people can change. And I’ve seen a lot of couples actually go to the brink with infidelity and almost break up, and they’ve turned things around, and they’ve actually made the relationship much stronger than it ever was before.
Sarah McDonald: So, Oprah, wrong?
Clinton Power: I think Oprah’s wrong.
Sarah McDonald: On that one, at least. Not on a lot, but …
Clinton Power: Yeah, but for some couples, it doesn’t work, of course.
Sarah McDonald: Yeah, sure. So it’s about breaking out. I mean, is it true though, that often, there is a type of person who will constantly do it? That it’s a type of person rather than a relationship?
Clinton Power: I’m not sure if you can distil it down to a type of person. But there are certainly …
Sarah McDonald: Or a pattern within a person’s relationship?
Clinton Power: Well, there’s certainly a number of factors that we’ve noticed that contribute to people cheating. Some of those things include things like partners feeling a lack of love and really feeling neglected in their relationship. You know, low commitment and people that enter into a relationship and maybe they haven’t been really clear and upfront right from the beginning about their level of commitment. And then you also get, because monogamy is assumed, or kind of acknowledged that for most heterosexual couples, they kind of assume that we are going to be monogamous and then for someone ten years down the track to maybe think to themselves, “I’m not sure if I want to continue to be monogamous”, is an incredibly difficult conversation to have with your partner. And for some of those people will tend to fall into an affair rather than address that very difficult topic with their partner.
Sarah McDonald: Well, cause they feel that they’re sort of breaking a vow that they’ve made, and they’re moving the goalposts, I suppose, yeah.
Clinton Power: They are, they’re breaking the relationship contract, yeah.
Sarah McDonald: So you do pre-wedding counselling and relationship counselling before people really commit. Do you think this is something people should talk about right from the beginning before they commit to each other?
Clinton Power: I think so, I think everyone should do pre-marriage counselling. Or at least pre-marriage education, because you know, we go through most of our lives, and we don’t get educated about any relationship issues really. We just kind of learn on the run. And there are so many great things that you need to learn about your partner before you tie the knot. It really doesn’t have to be married even, before you make a really big commitment to each other.
Sarah McDonald: Yeah. So you mentioned heterosexual relationships, do you think in gay relationships, it’s not as much a given and an assumption? Or perhaps it’s talked about more? Do you think? Cause it’s not as fraught?
Clinton Power: It is talked about more. It’s definitely not as much of an assumption.
We know from the research that gay male couples certainly have more non-monogamous relationships. And they’re talking about that, and even if they start out monogamous, sometimes down the track, not all, but sometimes they will talk about opening up their relationship in some way. They tend to navigate that more successfully than heterosexual relationships on the whole.
Sarah McDonald: Okay, so what do you do initially when a couple come in after infidelity has been discovered? As a therapist.
Clinton Power: Look, it’s an incredibly painful time. Of course, the first thing you have to do is the betrayer has to acknowledge and has to validate the feelings of the betrayed. Because you can’t go anywhere until the betrayer can actually say, “I hear that I’ve hurt you, or you feel destroyed, or you feel annihilated, or what I’ve done you feel like you can never recover from”. Those feelings, and often they’re very, very intense feelings, have to be acknowledged first of all. I think that’s the starting point. And then it’s really about looking at do you want to recover. And that’s a very difficult question, and it’s not something that can be answered quickly.
Sarah McDonald: Do you mean as a person or as a couple?
Clinton Power: As a couple. Do you want to recover and heal and work on this and try and make your relationship stronger? And often, it’s a time of not only immense pain but a lot of confusion. It’s grief and loss. You know the betrayed can feel extremely angry and rageful. So it’s often a very intense time, and it’s also not a good time to make a decision about the future of the relationship.
Sarah McDonald: Well, it must be so hard. Because you’re feeling confused, lost, angry, hurt, bewildered, betrayed. You can’t think straight.
Clinton Power: Exactly. It’s like being on a rollercoaster ride. And when I work with these couples, every time they come to the next appointment, there’s a whole new myriad of emotions. So it can be incredible ups and downs.
Sarah McDonald: Okay, we’re talking about nightlife to Clinton Power. He’s a relationship counsellor and a Gestalt therapist, and we’re talking about recovering from infidelity for all involved, I suppose, and indeed for the relationship itself. And we’re happy to take calls on this in terms of how did you get over something like this? You don’t have to give your real name, but, you know, if you’ve been through this, what helped you? Did you decide to … you actually wanted out of the relationship or to stay? And how did you work at that? We’ve actually got a call from Marnie in Perth, who’s got an interesting point of view to come across.
Hello, Marnie. Hello. Are you there? Oh dear, my phone always does this, the first phone call of a Friday night always does this. Marnie?
Marnie: Hello, how are you?
Sarah McDonald: Good, thank you. So, this happened to you?
Marnie: Yes, and hello to your guest. I’m really so glad to have this opportunity to speak.
This is an issue that’s affected my relationship with my husband. We’ve been married for 17 years, and we’ve got 2 children. I’ve had therapy for 10 years for some things that came up in my life, and the main factor I discovered through repressed memories was child sexual abuse. And it coincided with a series of affairs that I had.
Which, I’m very sensitive to calling them affairs because it turned out that it paralleled with recollections of child sexual abuse. And I had an excellent therapist, and it was a lot of hard work. But I was always blind. It was the trauma that blinded me to the consequences that, should this come to light, would you be able to wear the consequences? “Yes, absolutely. Yes, because it never will come to light”. And it did. And my relationship with my husband was utterly crushed, and we almost broke up.
We held on as tight as we possibly could, and I just wanna say that after a lot of work with our brilliant therapist, we are still together. I’m still resolving my traumas. My husband has been an absolute rock, it was horrific for him and so hard for the children, and at the moment, I’m reading a book by Bessel van der Kolk, called The Body Keeps The Score. And it’s a book related to how trauma can be resolved. But anyone who judges any person on any activity such is being discussed, please keep an open mind as to what can underlie such decisions.
Sarah McDonald: So you think that the reason that this happened to you was because of the past you’d had, and the trauma for you-
Sarah McDonald: I was making you act out.
Marnie: Absolutely. And I had the opportunity to absolutely … See, this is the thing. I always had the belief that I had no integrity. And I did have integrity, it’s just that it got squashed into a corner. And through my therapy, I was able to grow. Because I had always been that innocent child. And what I did was really hurtful to people, but I was given the opportunity to resolve and to pick up my little girl inside and put her in my heart, tell her she’s safe and tell her that she’s still a good person and look at the woman that she has become. So that my own two girls can be freed from this awful thing that’s been handed down in our family. I draw the line.
Clinton Power: Well, I think one of the things you’re saying there, Marnie, which I’ve heard so many couples say, is that this is- it can be long, hard work. And sometimes couples come in, and they expect, “let’s just fix this, let’s resolve it, two or three sessions, let’s get it over and done with”. But sometimes you’re talking many months and years because when this happens, it’s sometimes for some people it’s even experienced as a trauma like they have a traumatic response. It’s the same as having a near-death experience. That’s the level of pain that it creates for the betrayed.
Sarah McDonald: Which you recognised with your husband, Marnie. Thank you so much for your honesty and your call
Marnie: Thank you.
Sarah McDonald: Thanks. So great to hear from you.
So, our number is 1300-800-222. I mean, is that true, Clinton, is there often a reason behind the infidelity? As Marnie said, it was the terrible trauma from her childhood. Is it always something inside the betrayer or from their background? Are they repeating patterns? Or can it just be an opportunity and a lack of commitment or …
Clinton Power: I mean, there hasn’t been a lot of research into this area. I mean, some of the research I’ve read indicates that maybe betrayers have an insecure attachment and often seek validation from other people. This means that growing up, they didn’t feel a strong attachment to their caregivers. But I always also think that there are so many other aspects of how this can come about. I mean, when you think about today and social media and technology, never before have we been able to lie in bed next to our partners and actually virtually cheat on them.
You can be sexting or-
Sarah McDonald: Cheating on them. The smorgasbord.
Clinton Power: Sending, you know, sex pics or …
Sarah McDonald: It’s so easy now, yeah.
Clinton Power: Yes.
Sarah McDonald: I mean, but as Marnie said that her husband was so hurt, and she acknowledges his pain, but it must be hard for the betrayed to see the pain of the cheater. To understand that this can come from an issue in their life and to show them compassion when they’re like, “Well hang on what about my pain, right? Like, surely this trumps everything”.
Clinton Power: I think that’s one of the hardest things about this work, for couples, because often the betrayed will, when they find out that this has happened, they’ll have a sense of ownership. Like, “I own the relationship. And you now need to pay. And everything I want you to give me cause you have to make this up to me”. And-
Sarah McDonald: That shifts the power in the relationship, does it?
Clinton Power: It does. It’s a power struggle.
It actually doesn’t work. The couples that get stuck in that, really inhibit the healing, and they need to work collaboratively. Of course, it’s so hard for the betrayed to feel that initially, they’re-
Sarah McDonald: How do they do that? How? Yeah.
Clinton Power: Yeah, cause the first thing they say, “What, I have to do the work?”, you know, “My partner’s just cheated on me, and now you’re telling me I have to work, or I have to empathise with my partner?”, so it does take time. But it does have to be a collaborative venture. It can’t be one-sided … and it’s not about one-
Sarah McDonald: Can’t you have a bit of payback? Do you let them have a couple of weeks? Ripping up clothes, throwing out the window, all that sort of stuff like in movies? Does that stuff all happen?
Clinton Power: I mean, it happens, naturally. Yes, I’ve heard things like, “I want a BMW. I’ve always wanted one you said we can’t afford one, you now need to go and buy me one”. So this is the kind of power dynamic that can start to play out. Really punishing, wanting to punish their partner for the pain they’re feeling.
Sarah McDonald: Interesting way to get a BMW. You’re on Nightlife, and we’re talking about moving on from relationship infidelity. Rob says, “Perhaps we could have a course on defining love, marriage, and parenting, and how these three interact and give it to suitably mature students”. Yeah, this sort of thing is hard to teach, really. And often, we are learning it on the actual, on the job, so to speak. Later on when it can often be too late.
So, how do you decide with a couple whether an honest relationship is worth saving or not? Whether they can go through all that hard work that we’ve been talking about?
Clinton Power: Well, of course, the couple needs to decide this themselves. But some of the things that I do is that we certainly want to look at the relationship’s history. We want to find out what drew you together, what attracted you, and why did you start this relationship. We certainly look at what kind of problems started to emerge over time. What they tried to do to resolve those problems, and what were the problems leading up to the affair that wasn’t being resolved? And often, when you start uncovering those things, you always see there have been issues there that have not been addressed or talked about or resolved.
Sarah McDonald: I’m also interested in if anyone’s ever been the other man or the other woman because there’s a whole other, I suppose, issue going on there as well.
Jenny’s given us a call on 1300-800-222, hello Jenny.
Sarah McDonald: Hi, what did you want to say?
Jenny: I just wanted to say hello, listeners and hello to everybody else, to you there. I’ve been listening in on your conversation there tonight, and I’m a little bit different. I’m married, and I’ve been having an affair for just over 12 months now. And his wife knows and is supportive. My husband doesn’t know. And it’s … how can I put this? I suppose I relied on this person to talk to, he was my rock. Cause things were happening at home, I was getting withdrawn within myself and going into depression mode and so forth.
Sarah McDonald: Right, and you’re sure that his spouse knows? Are you positive?
Jenny: Yes, yes.
Sarah McDonald: Right. Okay. And have you ever wanted to tell your partner?
Sarah McDonald: Yeah, but too scary?
Jenny: No, not really, no. No, not really. The situation was an emotional situation that spun me into depression mode. And it was the last 12 months, and I don’t want to go through that again. And my husband has been … my husband again, put it that way. And he emotionally supports them and so forth, where he hasn’t been for over the last 12 months. Or more than that, actually. Yeah.
Sarah McDonald: Right, okay. So in some ways, you think it’s helped your marriage. Is that what you’re saying? Or not?
Jenny: Possibly. Possibly. My husband is old school, and I’m a big person, and he sort of … things got that way where he didn’t like a big person anymore, and he didn’t want to touch me and that anymore. So he-
Sarah McDonald: So you’re getting out of it what you haven’t had, yeah? Okay.
Jenny: Yeah, that’s right. He virtually turned his back on me. Basically, on that side of it. Yeah.
Clinton Power: So this can be one of those reasons why people cheat they’re looking for, they want more sexual variety. Or maybe they want to experiment with sexual experiences that they can’t get in their primary relationship. Or maybe they just have a desire for more frequent sex, which they’re not getting with their partner. So that can be one of the reasons why people cheat.
Sarah McDonald: Alright, well, thanks for your call, Jenny.
Jenny: Okay, thank you.
Sarah McDonald: See you later. 1300-800-222. So, let’s hear from Matt. Hello, Matt.
Matt: Hi, how are you going?
Sarah McDonald: Good. You understand this from both sides, yeah?
Matt: Yes, I was cheated on while my partner was at work. And he’d come home and … he told me straight out, but it upset me. And then a few years later, the tables had turned, and I was the cheater. And we’re no longer together, but it was funny to see the different circumstances. And now, looking back on it, how different things were. And I’m gay, so my partner’s male, and we had certain issues when it comes to the bedroom. So he would only like such certain things, and I would only like certain things. So to be able to get active in our sex lives, we’d have to go elsewhere.
Sarah McDonald: And is there pain as the cheater as well? I’m interested cause you said you’d been cheated on, and you’ve been the cheater. Is there pain, being that person as well? Or guilt or …
Matt: A lot of guilt and pain, cause I broke up with my partner because of it and then told them. And then tried to work my way back in from the outside, sort of outside the relationship. And because I’d cheated on them, they didn’t want to have a bar of me. But because I felt that I had to go elsewhere to get that satisfaction, it would have been great if we had maybe spoken about it first or been more open about it or … before it happened.
Sarah McDonald: Okay. Alright, well, look, thank you for your call, Matt.
Matt: No worries.
Sarah McDonald: I appreciate it. You’re on Nightlife, and we’re chatting about moving on from infidelity and cheating in relationships and for all sides of it, really.
I’ve got a few more questions to ask, but I’m just going to go to Beth cause she’s been waiting for a while. Hello, Beth.
Beth: Hi, how’re you going?
Sarah McDonald: Good. What are your impressions and views, and insights into this?
Beth: I just, I’m interested in the place that jealousy and ego have in all these discussions. I can hear the pain in the voices of the callers that you’ve just had, and I went through quite a painful, short marriage where my partner was lying a lot, but I didn’t know he was cheating. He may have been cheating. And now I’ve been with a partner for 10 years who is just not a jealous person. We have an open relationship. We haven’t … We’ve probably both slept with other people, and we’ve slept with other people together, but we are each other’s best friends. And there’s just that pain is not there, that jealousy is not there. [crosstalk 00:24:15]
Sarah McDonald: So, did you negotiate that right at the beginning of the relationship?
Beth: Yes, I think we did, yes. The thing that really made it happen was he’s just not a jealous person. He taught me not to be jealous as well.
Sarah McDonald: Can you learn not to be jealous?
Beth: I think so, yeah. Well, it’s worked for me for 10 years, so …
Sarah McDonald: Interesting.
Beth: I guess … yeah.
Sarah McDonald: Cause I think it’s such a base emotion if you can learn it. Can you learn it, Clinton?
Sarah McDonald: Yeah, to get rid of jealousy. Cause everyone thinks it’s just such a primitive, not primitive, but you know, like a base emotion that’s very hard to logically talk yourself out of.
Clinton Power: Well, I think that emotion’s also related to trust because if you have a strong sense of trust in your relationship, there’s no need to be jealous. Often jealousy is about the insecurity of the person feeling jealous, and that in some way they worry they’re not enough, they’re not attractive enough, they’re not desirable enough. They compare themselves to others. So it often comes from a place of insecurity.
Sarah McDonald: Right. Okay, Beth, thank you for your call.
Beth: Thank you.
Sarah McDonald: Thanks, so yeah, Beth managed that way with just negotiated at the beginning of a relationship.
I mean, some people suggest it’s better off in a partnership if the affair remains hidden. Do you think that’s true? Can that work? Cause sometimes opening this can of worms can be really destructive.
Clinton Power: Well, it certainly happens, you know. I’ve certainly heard stories of people who’ve had affairs, the affair ended, the other partner has never found out about that, and the partner has no intention of ever telling them. I mean, we can also look at other cultures, like even the French culture where infidelity is kind of accepted, you know. A lot of men will have a mistress. There’ll be some knowledge that there’s a mistress there, but it’s not threatening to the relationship.
Sarah McDonald: I’ve always wondered about this French thing of men having mistresses cause who are the mistresses, right? They can’t all be just single women, right? There are not that many more single women in France, so they must have a mistress as well, right? It’s sort of a …
Clinton Power: Well, yes. Well, I think a lot of women are seeing older men now in French culture, I heard. So you know, but there seems to be more accepting of, that’s just part of what happens. But it’s not threatening. People in their primary relationship don’t feel threatened by that they just kind of accept it, and they’re okay with it.
Sarah McDonald: Yeah. So you think it can be sustained perhaps if something happens and they never find out. But imagine finding out much later. There were great novels written about this where people find out after death. Then they have entirely to reassess the entire relationship, that feeling that it was a lie. That can be more damaging, I suppose. Past secrets.
Clinton Power: Exactly, and I mean that still happens when it comes out in relationships because the betrayed will start to get a microscope out and go over every single minute of every day and start to question and really start to invalidate even all the good times or the positive experiences they’ve had. They’ll start to say, “You were seeing that person then”, or, “You didn’t care about me then”, or, “this was all”-
Sarah McDonald: Or, “I thought I knew you I didn’t know you at all, so this whole thing’s been a lie”. So it kind of takes away, pulls the rug out from everything, I suppose. Steve?
Sarah McDonald: G’day.
Steve: How are you going?
Sarah McDonald: Good.
Steve: Yeah, well, I was with my first wife. Well, before we were married but we were still partners, and we were together for seven years. And the marriage didn’t last even 12 months. And she-
Sarah McDonald: Wow, after seven years, you broke up after a year?
Steve: Yeah, I mean, we’re talking about getting together at 13 at school, and then we got married, and she went off with another bloke, and I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned.
The second marriage went on for 25 years.
Sarah McDonald: That’s pretty good.
Steve: Yeah, it was great until she started going out with somebody else.
Sarah McDonald: Right.
Steve: And I don’t know why. I mean, 25 years, it’s a pretty solid relationship.
And this time, I’ve been married now for just 15 years. Yeah, I am getting old.
Sarah McDonald: So it’s the third time’s the charm, is it?
Steve: It’s stopped dead. It’s fantastic.
Sarah McDonald: Was it hard to go for that second and third chance after you’d been hurt before? Cause often we can carry our pain and distrust into another relationship, can’t we?
Steve: Yeah, you can do that very easily.
Sarah McDonald: How’d you not do that, Steve?
Steve: Well, I … my second wife I trusted wholly and solely, and that’s why we stayed together for 25 years. After her 25th year, she decided to go out and meet other people. And we had two sons, and so we split up and then I was on my own. And then I met my current wife at a … what do you call it?
Sarah McDonald: Somewhere. Dating site?
Steve: No, no one of those get-together parties, you know. Like you turn up, and there’s gonna be someone there for you …
Sarah McDonald: Right, okay, matchmaking thing. Alright, so for you again you could trust again, which is great.
Steve: Look, I would trust this lady til the day I die.
Sarah McDonald: Great.
Steve: But it took-
Sarah McDonald: It takes a while.
Steve: Two hard times, I’m 61 years of age, and I married this lady 15 years ago. She’s 10 years younger than me. And she is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. So I suppose what I’m trying to say is it’s a load of crock, in one respect. Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. You will find someone.
Sarah McDonald: Right.
Steve: And I’ve been lucky the third time and love her dearly, and don’t ever give up trying to find love.
Sarah McDonald: Okay, alright, that’s fantastic thank you for your call.
Steve: No worries!
Sarah McDonald: That’s good. I mean, that’s true, Clinton, there you go, Steve has managed to carry on and not give up. But is it a pain if a relationship does break up due to infidelity? Is it common to then take that fear into the next relationship and learn to trust again?
Clinton Power: Yes, very common. And that’s, I think that we now know that there’s even a physiological reason behind that because a part of the brain remembers that trauma and the pain. And so once you start to get into a similar situation again, those people will often become hyper-vigilant. They’ll do really destructive things like spying on their partner, looking at emails and tracking them on social media because they’re so worried or even mildly paranoid that it’s going to happen again. And what this often does is it even has the effect of pushing the partner away, all this distrust. It’s hard to build a really solid relationship when there’s so much distrust.
Sarah McDonald: Well, what about your relationship with yourself after that? I mean people must doubt themselves terribly, it’s the biggest blow to people’s confidence, isn’t it?
Clinton Power: Yes, absolutely. It feels incredibly personal, and a lot of people do personalize it. They think, “I wasn’t worthy enough, I wasn’t attractive enough, I’m not desirable”. So they kind of, many people do look at themselves and think they were lacking in some way, which is the great tragedy of this because, in my experience, often even partners that cheat still love their primary partner.
Sarah McDonald: Do they? They just want their cake and eat it as well, as people, the cliché that goes, right?
Clinton Power: Yes.
Sarah McDonald: Well, there’s more to love, I suppose, than just a sexual relationship. Mick has called back. I’m sorry the phone didn’t work before Mick. I’ll take a couple more calls. G’day.
Mick: Hey, how are you?
Sarah McDonald: Good, you wanted to talk about honesty.
Mick: Yeah, I just question, having been cheated on myself, had I been told that things weren’t working and it wasn’t what my wife wanted, then you get a chance to change things. But to just go and … Yeah, honestly, I think it comes down to where, if a relationship starts with honesty, it should end with honesty.
Sarah McDonald: Yeah.
Clinton Power: I think this is true, Mick, but it’s also the thing that so many couples struggle with, really having these tough conversations. And even as we mentioned before, when you say 10 years into a relationship and suddenly realize that maybe you’ve got some different sexual desires, or maybe you want to live in another country, or you want to do something completely out of the box from what you initially agreed with. That can be a really tough conversation to have with your partner, but it’s an important one.
Mick: Yeah, it’s a tough conversation but isn’t it the right thing to do? To be honest and say, “I’m really sorry, but I have to be honest, and it’s not working”?
Sarah McDonald: It’s scary, though, for people.
Mick: For me, to be honest with somebody, and then you can end your relationship and move on with somebody else. As being on that end, just, honesty is a really special thing, and I think if we all go back to it, we’re in a better place.
Sarah McDonald: Absolutely, thanks, Mick.
Mick: No worries.
Sarah McDonald: Totally. Thanks for your call.
I think we might leave it there, but thank you to everybody who called up in terms of this, what would you say as a final piece of advice, Clinton, in terms of … As you said it’s sort of a form of trauma that people then relive time and time again in life. So, you said about self-confidence and that whole line about, “It’s not you, it’s me”. I mean, how hard can it be for people to remember that as they then kind of start to recover and move on? Either within or without the relationship.
Clinton Power: Look, it’s very challenging to navigate this on your own. Some couples do get through, but many couples can really benefit from seeking the help of a professional marriage therapist or couples therapist. Someone who’s really experienced with working with these kinds of issues. Because you’re dealing with so much volatility and pain and hurt, it can be really hard to make headway on your own. So I would encourage any couple that wants to at least explore the possibility of coming back from the brink and really seeing if they can get back on track to seek professional help.
Sarah McDonald: Alright, yeah. Can always help. It must be so awkward that first session, though. I just cannot imagine. Well, I can, actually.
My guest tonight has been Clinton Power he’s a clinical relationship counsellor and a Gestalt therapist, and thank you so much for your calls and your texts on that. We’ll have our pub test pretty soon on Nightlife. Thanks, Clinton.
Clinton Power: Thanks, Sarah.
Do you need relationship help?
If you’re considering online relationship counselling services, Clinton Power has extensive experience helping couples create better relationships. Clinton uses evidence-based interventions based on the science of healthy relationships in his work with his clients.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.