“Is that infidelity?” Why that’s the wrong question

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As a therapist, I deal with couples in conflict every week. Frequently, two partners want different things: another child versus a vasectomy; saving versus spending; how much sex to have.

Of course, there’s no “right” answer to questions like these—just two people with different values that may or may not be reconcilable.

But couples also ask me to arbitrate questions that, they claim, have objective answers. These often come down to language. Two people will point to the same thing and disagree on what it actually is, or on what it means. And they want me to tell them who’s right: “I define X this way, Doc. Don’t you agree?”

It’s vital that therapists stay out of these disagreements about definitions. Otherwise we run the risk of injecting our own values into a conflict, inevitably siding with one partner or another. After all, language is political. And when couples quarrel, mates are typically pushing and shoving for power.

Here are some common questions that I generally don’t answer:
~ “Is that infidelity?” “He did [fill in the blank]. Isn’t that an emotional affair?”
~ “How do you separate erotica from pornography?” “Isn’t porn disrespectful to women?”
~ “Don’t you think [fill in the blank] is kinky?” Or “too kinky?”
~ “Do you agree that [fill in the blank] is sexist or even misogynist?”
~ “Doesn’t that qualify as verbal abuse?” Or “emotional abuse?”

When I decline to give a simple yes or no, some patients find this aggravating, even accusing me of not caring—which isn’t true. Or of not having an opinion—which is definitely not true.

But rather than telling people how to define things, I encourage them to talk more. About themselves: I feel left out. I feel embarrassed. I feel betrayed. I feel misunderstood.

That’s the opposite of what many people do when they can’t agree on the meaning of each others’ words or behavior: they typically devolve into arguing about what things mean–instead of how people feel.

Is slow dancing with a non-spouse an acceptable form of flirtation? Is it a slippery slope to infidelity? What if a gentleman has an erection during the dance—and she can feel it? People can disagree about this until the end of time. If they do, the fact that one partner feels jealous or unattractive or left out may never get addressed. And that guarantees long-term unresolved conflict.

So what I tell patients is “Let’s not focus on whether or not X constitutes infidelity (or verbal abuse or lateness or stinginess or immaturity). What I hear is that your partner feels pushed away, or unimportant, or misunderstood. Surely you care about that—even if you don’t understand how she could possibly feel that way, right?”

This allows a person to feel understood. And their partner doesn’t have to admit they did anything wrong in order to express empathy: “I hear that you were uncomfortable watching me slow dancing with Jose,” which is not an apology. This really helps people communicate rather than argue over who’s right. Or who’s a bad person.

Most couples would be better off if they accepted each other’s feelings rather than trying to talk the other person out of feeling the way they do. Similarly, most couples would be better off if they didn’t distract themselves by attacking and defending definitions.

That particularly applies to the granddaddy of bad questions: what is “normal.” Sex is a favorite topic of this pointless question.

People sometimes play the normal card as a way of saying no to their mate. Instead of “no, I don’t want oral sex with you,” some people say it’s disgusting. Or instead of “no, I don’t want to go to a strip club,” some people say that’s just too kinky. Some people feel they have to justify not wanting to do something. Others try it in the other direction: “you don’t like oral sex? Everybody likes that. What’s wrong with you?”

So which of the following are infidelity?
~ masturbating to pornography
~ following an ex on Facebook
~ flirting with a person who finds you attractive
~ passionately kissing someone
~ making someone orgasm while you’re both mostly clothed
~ phone sex with someone while masturbating

“Infidelity” isn’t like water or a table—it has endless meanings, all subjective. What’s crucial is that both people in a couple agree on what it is and isn’t. Sometimes it’s clear: A catches B having sex with C—and they both agree that this is a betrayal. Other times people disagree—and they don’t realize it until A finds out that B is doing something that they define differently.

At that point, a popular—but fruitless—activity is arguing about whether or not the activity is infidelity—meaning A has the right to be angry with B.

A far better approach is “Whether you call it infidelity or not, I’m really angry and hurt that you did that.” Or “Let’s not argue about whether it’s infidelity. I can see you feel really hurt and angry, and I care about that.”

Now that’s intimacy. Which, of course, is crucial to healing infidelity—or perceived infidelity.

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