Partners Of The Chronically Unfaithful

Summary: A person in a committed long-term relationship who learns that his or her partner has engaged in multiple acts of sexual betrayal will find few places to turn for emotional support and objective guidance.  There are many challenges to address in order to heal from the wounds of repetitive sexual deception, and this article will provide much-needed information and valuable perspectives. 

NOTE: This article started out like many of the others I have written, but I kept feeling the need to add more and more information just to feel like I had covered the basics, since chronic sexual betrayal can be so overwhelming to a person who is just confronting it.  It was not until I finished that I realized this article is about 20 pages long!  I sincerely hope and believe that the time and attention reading this will prove worthwhile for people who have been repeatedly sexually betrayed and the professionals who attempt to provide meaningful assistance to them during such a difficult time.

Because of it's length, this article is presented in five parts.  

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A person in a monogamous relationship who learns that his or her partner has been sexually unfaithful, especially if it has happened more than once, experiences a level of emotional devastation that just cannot be fully understood or appreciated by someone who hasn’t endured the same dreadful pain.  Intimate betrayal cuts to the marrow of a partner’s self-esteem, trust and emotional security.

This is worth repeating: sexual infidelity is immensely damaging to a partner’s sense of emotional safety and well-being, especially when it happens more than once, after forgiveness, re-commitment and reconciliation have taken place.  It is as if a raw wound has slowly been restored to health, only to be cruelly torn open again.  

 

Repeated Sexual Betrayal Turns Reality Upside-Down

The loyal partner of a chronically unfaithful person is often shocked by the degree to which deception has infiltrated the relationship.  It can seem like he or she has never known the person who so tenderly and soulfully promised a lifetime of love and commitment.  This is a kind of trauma that causes a person to question absolutely everything:

  • Was anything in this relationship real? 
  • What about all those loving acts, thoughtful gestures, and times of deep emotional support….how can they exist alongside such terrible lies?
  • Will the relationship ever feel normal and healthy again?  Will I?
  • Who can I turn to for support and understanding?
  • How could I be such a fool to not know about this until now?
  • What else don’t I know?
  • Should I stay in or get out of this relationship?

A person who has weathered the ups and downs of a long relationship is likely to assume that the bonds of commitment have remained intact.  Sure, there may have been troubled times, misunderstandings, disagreements, arguments, hurt feelings or even periods of outright hostility – but infidelity is a class of pain all by itself, especially when it is revealed that a partner has engaged in all kinds of sexual betrayal not once or twice but potentially dozens or hundreds of times.

 

Typical Symptoms Of Repeatedly Betrayed Partners

The poison that oozes from recurrent sexual betrayal contains a toxic mix of abandonment, manipulation, deception, withholding of affection and deflection of responsibility.  It’s therefore not surprising that a host of conflicting emotions and symptoms can infect the psyche of a person who has been repeatedly sexually deceived. These include: 

  • Obsessive preoccupation, such as intrusive thoughts about what has already happened, what is currently happening and what may eventually happen;
  • Hypervigilence and paranoia that can result in a partner continually looking for evidence of ongoing infidelity such as by checking phone records, wallet contents, bank accounts, internet histories and so forth;
  • All manner of anxiety such as an upswing of fear if the partner who cheated doesn’t answer the phone or is even a few minutes late coming home from some seemingly legitimate event;
  • Disturbance in eating and sleeping patterns such as sudden-night awakenings, especially in the early days, weeks and even months after discovery;
  • Difficulty concentrating due to continually unsuccessful attempts to “work the math” of this strange new world where so much of what was once accepted no longer makes sense;
  • Difficulty achieving sustained emotional balance to the point that moods and reactions are unpredictable and can shift suddenly and seemingly without provocation;
  • Intrusive memories and other unwanted sources of renewed shock, anger, sadness and fear; 
  • Shame and embarrassment due to the nature of the revealed behavior;
  • A sense of inadequacy as a person, even though the sexual betrayal was a failure of the one who did the deception and not the one who was deceived;
  • Seething resentment and outright rage in response to the inherent abuse inflicted by chronically repeated betrayal.

One defining attribute shared by all the above characteristics is an almost overwhelming loss of stability, control and safety.  A person experiencing such emotional upheaval has no more ability to calm these symptoms than to control an allergic reaction.  Trying to get through this kind of crisis without ample support and guidance is likely to result in ongoing frustration and lead to an ultimate depletion of emotional reserves.  

Essentially trustworthy people typically do not suspect that they are being deceived, and therefore evidence to the contrary may have been initially discounted.  When they finally beg1n to examine events that don’t entirely make sense (such as questioning discrepancies between what they were told and what they observed) they are often subjected to scoffing and scorn by the guilty partner, and made to feel as if they were somehow the source of the relationship problem.  

As a result, people who have been chronically sexually betrayed often find that their ability to trust their own judgment has been shaken, gradually eroded or outright shattered.  The loss of trust in another person pales in comparison to the exhaustion and demoralization that results from the inability to feel confident in your own perceptions and judgment.

 

Chronic Infidelity And the Concept Of Sex Addiction

It is becoming increasingly common to consider the phrase “sex addict” when repeated sexual betrayal is discovered.  (Discovery rather than disclosure is almost always the way this behavior is brought to light.  Chronic betrayers rarely stop: they are stopped).  Maybe the person who has been unfaithful is the first one to speak the words, generally in great despair as his or her world comes crashing down.  This is when the betrayed partner faces one of many challenges: is this a true explanation or a convenient excuse?

Other times it is the victim of repeated infidelity who recognizes the signs of sex addiction, often after scouring the internet for help and understanding.  Sometimes the phrase is hurled in accusation: “you’re nothing but a sex addict!”  Sometimes it is offered as a form of intervention, sometimes as a plea, sometimes as a potential lifeline to the faint possibility of salvaging the relationship.  The reaction of the betrayer will be somewhere on the continuum between denial, consideration or acceptance.  

I’m a firm believer that the concept of sex addiction fits many people who repeatedly engage in behavior (a) they know is wrong, (b) which will clearly result in devastating consequences upon discovery, and (c) which they have unsuccessfully tried to stop or control despite their sincere desire to do so.  It is this last criterion that is the source of so much confusion and controversy. Is the alleged absence of control real or just an excuse?  This is a worthwhile and vexing question, especially since attempts to stop are not evident to others until the point of discovery and can’t be proven. 

As I've previously written, there are explanations other than sexual compulsion to explain chronic sexual betrayal, and none of them are pretty.  Maybe the person somehow doesn't think this is wrong to do, hasn't fully appreciated the degree of damage this causes, has some sort of mental illness, feels entitled to act this way, or simply doesn't care.  Fundamentally this means that a person who repeatedly engages in sexual deception, especially if he or she has promised to stop this behavior, is either ignorant, impaired, unethical or addicted.    

Sex addiction is not a “get out of jail free” card.  Ultimate responsibility for chronic infidelity remains foursquare on the one who did the deeds.  The need to accept the consequences of these actions and to do whatever it takes to insure that they never happen again must be fully accepted despite whatever degree of compulsive drive might exist.  The idea of addiction is not an excuse: it is an explanation that puts a lot of behaviors together in a way that can make sense and that can offer a direction toward real and lasting change.

(To read part two of the five sections of this article, titled "MODELS FOR HEALING THE WOUNDS OF CHRONIC DECEPTION", click here.)

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Bill Herring is available to provide personal assistance, including individual, couples and group counseling.