All the above men are married with children for several years. The husband has been having extracurricular activities first developed in secret. Sometimes the wives find out by accident; other times the husband reluctantly discloses under duress. When the idea of 'other women' comes out into the open and the couple finally talks, each gets the same answer. "We're just friends. I'm not cheating on you."
Yet, these men are going outside the marriage in a way that is far more detrimental than having a one night stand. Why? Because they are forming close relationships with someone other than you. If you are like the many women who come to me with similar issues, you need to be aware that your marriage could be in danger.
What is Cheating?
Conventional infidelity is called adultery. The definition of adultery according to Webster's Dictionary is simply "unfaithfulness to the marriage bed". Google definitions characterize adultery as "extramarital sex that willfully and maliciously interferes with marriage relations." In both cases, some kind of sexual activity is needed to claim adultery.
While the cases I cited, and other indiscretions that evoke rage from my female clients do not necessarily have to do with sex, all carry strong hints of secrets, betrayals and sexual tension between male and female. Emotional cheating is not about the act of sex but it is about becoming intimate with a member of the opposite sex. The men focus their energy, attention and daydreams towards someone other than you. You begin to feel deceived, unattended and discounted. While you are concerned about the possibility of sex, it's the friendship that he's developing with 'her' that leaves you feeling hurt the most:
Why is he talking to her when he should be talking to me?
Why is he focusing thoughts on her when he should be thinking of me and the kids?
What does she have that I don't?
He'll tell you that these are 'harmless' flirtations. He'll say that he and the other woman are 'just friends or buddies'. Don't buy into that answer. While sometimes men and women can be 'friends', a friendship that is developed without your knowledge is concerning.
He'll say that he didn't tell you because he didn't want to 'get you upset'. 'You would get the wrong idea'. Don't buy into that excuse. You actually got the right idea. Deep down he feels guilty. He knows his behavior is out of line. Secrets are never OK in a committed relationship.
Some guys like to know that they are still desirable and that they 'still have what it takes'. He'll say these relationships are diversions. He'll profess his devotion to you. He'll say that he just enjoys the company other women. He may even say it's good for him to talk about you in order to get a female 'perspective'. The excuses go on and on.
At the end of the day, you're correct. Your feelings of fear, anger and hurt are normal and natural. Your husband is engaging in inappropriate behavior and he's been holding a secret. Married guys who form emotional relationships are acting inappropriately. A dangerous precedent is being set in your marriage. This time it may be with a woman that is no threat. But next time it may be a woman who really does want your man.
What Can You Do?
First, you need to take inventory of yourself. That means taking some responsibility for the root cause of his desire for other women. Is there truly something that he gets from them that he's not getting from you? Men thrive on appreciation and attention. I understand that you're busy with work, raising a family and keeping up with a myriad of household chores. Still, when he walks in the door, do you remember to greet him with a smile? Are you actively listening and participating in his life? Are you giving him the same kind of love and attention that you bestowed on him when you first got together?
In today's world, women definitely have some real challenges when it comes to balancing their roles as wife, mother and head of household. Yet, men require a certain amount of attention. In a perfect world, he understands. In today's world he goes online and joins Facebook, emails and interacts with many other females all day long. This does not excuse the emotional ties he forms with other women but it does explain the dilemma. In every relationship, each partner needs to take some responsibility when things go awry.
If you are one hundred percent honest, I bet you'll find some room for improvement in your behavior. Don't beat yourself up. I understand. Your life is busy and even overwhelming. Who has the time to comb your hair when you have a 2 year old who's wetting his pants and poking his 6 month old sister all at the same moment? Who has the time to cook a real meal when you have a deadline and have to stay late at the office. Still, your man is the core of your family. Take your feelings of rage and direct them towards making some change. Anger is a driving force so put that energy to use!
Oftentimes a little adjusstment, will go a long way. Put your anger aside and make some minor adjustments. Dress up in something he likes, cook his favorite meal and give him some quality attention. You just might see a change quicker than you anticipate.
Sometimes it may also come down to the fact that you did not choose wisely. Many men do not have good impulse control. While I believe it's in the nature of the male species to be multiply attracted to many females, a married man understands the commitment he made when he made his vows. If he does not respond to your change, he may need some intervention to teach him basic management skills. Boundary setting is a good place to start.
Recently I was counseling a newly wed couple. They were exceptionally good looking, intelligent and both had high powered careers which put them in the middle of Hollywood's A List. This couple wasn't married for more than 3 months when they stepped into my office. One of the major issues was how to handle former lovers who didn't respect their new marital status. Both were besieged by texts, emails and Facebook messages from former lovers who wanted to 'stay in touch'. He was not happy about his wife corresponding with an ex boyfriend. She was not thrilled that he was talking to women without her knowledge. When she found out about his online correspondences she became extremely angry and felt very betrayed.
Marriage counseling opened up the lines of communication. This couple lived such a high powered lifestyle that they didn't even have the skills to talk intimately with each other. A few sessions with me really helped them learn how to speak directly to each other. Correct communication means that they learned how to listen and make sure each interpreted the others statement accurately. Next we brainstormed ways that they could combat the intrusion of the 'ex's' together as a team. That meant no holding of secrets, sharing the emails and collectively coming up with a strategy that worked. Realistically, some of the people were also business contacts so each communication had to be handled on a case by case basis. The most important aspect of the counseling was getting the couple to unite and share.
More established couples need to figure out how they feel about friendships and relationships with the opposite sex. As a general rule of thumb, secrets can not be tolerated. No matter how much it might hurt to know that your husband wants to befriend someone else or spend time with a coworker, you have got to listen to him like an adult and not a pouty child. Men are direct problem solvers. They don't handle your emotions as well as they can respond to a concrete set of rules.
One couple and I came to the agreement that neither party would talk to a member of the opposite sex unless the other was present. If there was a female friend, both would befriend her and both would go out to dinner with her. Other couples may decide that lunches with female coworkers are OK as long as the lunch is held within a group setting. In other words, it's a bunch of people going to the restaurant.
Boundary setting is something that the two of you need to get behind. You need to think of every possible situation that has all ready happened as well as situations that may occur. Set a game plan of how you will handle every encounter that may happen. This includes flirtatious behavior from members of the opposite sex, contacts from past lovers on-line, sexually aggressive co-workers, chance encounters, etc. It's like drilling for an earthquake or hurricane. We hope that it doesn't happen but it's best to be prepared.
What About 'The Nature of the Male Sexual Beast'?
I understand that men are different than us. Their sexual appetite is something that we women don't get. Most of us are 'one women men' as long as we are cared for, loved and protected. In general, most women in committed relationships don't get the itch to look or fantasize like the guys. Emotional cheating is far different than looking at a 'girly magazine' or checking out some adult websites. There's no possibility of having a true relationship with a photographic image. Emotional cheating has potential to destroy a marriage. The occasional glance at another woman is natural to the male species. Having an emotional relationship outside the marriage is not.
Jackie A. Castro is a licensed Marriage
Family Therapist with a private practice in Encino, California
© 2009 Jackie A. Castro, MA, MFT