Infidelity—sexual, emotional, or even financial betrayal—in a romantic relationship can be a potentially traumatic experience for a couple. Still, it’s not uncommon. Infidelity is one of the most commonly cited reasons for divorce. And while about 20% of adults have engaged in some form of infidelity, some estimates suggest it’s closer to half. While there are many different factors that can lead to cheating in a relationship, the stress of military life (and specifically military separations) can place an extra strain on relationships, making them more vulnerable to infidelity. If you’re concerned about the health of your relationship or cheating, there are steps you can take to work on your partnership. And if you’re dealing with the aftermath of an affair or infidelity, recovery (together or apart) is possible too.
What is “cheating”?
It can be hard to accurately estimate how common cheating is because it can be defined in so many different ways. Ultimately, it’s up to a couple to determine what counts as infidelity and which types of behaviors and relationships are acceptable or appropriate. Some of the common ways cheating is defined are highlighted here, but keep in mind that a couple could consider all, none, or some of these things as unfaithfulness. Or you could come up with a completely different list altogether. Also, infidelity is complex, so multiple types of cheating could happen at the same time.
- Sexual infidelity could include either (or both) intercourse or engaging in different sexual activities with someone outside of your relationship. Penetrative sex, oral sex, kissing, flirting, or even personal fantasies are all examples of sexual activities that can fit in this category.
- Emotional infidelity is really about investing in a connection with another person outside of your primary couple relationship. This could be anything from falling in love with someone else to devoting attention to someone or something that pulls you from your couple bond.
- Financial infidelity generally consists of hiding or being deceitful about money. It might mean hiding information about spending, debts, savings, or income from your partner. While finances are a hot topic in most relationships, this issue can particularly affect married couples whose financial wellness is often legally intertwined.
- Digital cheating can fall into some of the other categories, but with the growth of online activity, apps, and other digital ways to connect, a couple might consider this its own type of infidelity. Examples that fall into this class could include cybersex, “sexting,” sending digital photos, online dating, flirting online, or accessing pornography.
- Secrecy and lies are considered by some couples to be infidelities—regardless of the specific type of behavior. Ultimately, it’s about dishonesty and choices that lead to feelings of betrayal or attachment injury.
Why do people cheat?
There’s no easy answer for what causes someone to cheat, but there are some risk factors to be aware of. On an individual level, for example, having a history of infidelity (cheating in past relationships), the number of sexual partners someone has had before marriage, or alcohol and substance use can all impact the likelihood that someone might cheat. Attitudes towards infidelity can also impact someone’s tendency to cheat—for instance, how easily someone thinks they can find another partner, their level of religiosity, or simply how they generally feel about commitment.
At the relationship level, couple factors might impact the risk factors for infidelity. For example, decreased satisfaction with the relationship or lots of conflict can make a relationship more vulnerable to cheating. In short, when a relationship is struggling, it can make it tougher to remain committed and even faithful. Another factor is how much someone feels they’ve invested in their relationship—whether it’s about making a big commitment (for example, moving in together or getting married), feeling like you’ve invested a lot of time, having many shared experiences, or even putting a lot of money into your relationship.
Finally, it’s important to consider some contextual factors, or what’s going on in your environment and in your social networks. Someone’s tendency to cheat might be largely impacted by how those around them would react to an infidelity. Those who feel their friends, family, or others would be supportive might be more likely to be unfaithful. Another factor is work and work travel, which can be particularly significant for Service Members. When one partner travels a lot or works in an environment with many potential partners, it can be a risk factor for infidelity.
Impacts of relationship infidelity
Faithfulness in a relationship is related to trust, respect, and intimacy. Infidelity damages the emotional foundation of a relationship, and it can feel like an intense betrayal of your agreement to trust and respect each other.
When one partner shares that they’ve been unfaithful or the other partner finds out, it can lead to safety issues like violence and even thoughts of self-harm. If you’re concerned about safety, get help right away.
Both men and women experience the pain of infidelity. Discovering your partner has been unfaithful can lead to a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety, embarrassment, or jealousy. Infidelity can lead to increased conflict and poor communication in a relationship too. Cheating increases unhappiness in a relationship and can lead some to break up or contemplate divorce. The end of a relationship can also cause distress for both parties, regardless of who cheated.
It’s also important to consider your physical health when you or your partner have cheated—particularly when it comes to sexual activity. Infidelity can threaten your sexual health and is a common route for sexually transmitted diseases to pass, so make sure you get the medical support you need.
Service Members whose partners were unfaithful during deployment tend to experience more depression symptoms too. And if a Service Member experienced trauma while deployed, then having an unfaithful partner can make things worse, add to your stress level, and make recovery from trauma or mental health challenges more difficult.
Finally, couples with children should be aware that infidelity—especially when it leads to a breakup—can affect your family too. It’s estimated that over a million children per year experience their parents’ divorce. With that, it’s not uncommon for children to become withdrawn, have health problems, experience issues at school, or have other behavior problems.
What to do if you’re worried about cheating
Working on your relationship, devoting time to emotional and sexual intimacy, and getting ahead of problems before they start are the best ways to keep your relationship going strong. There are also a few other tips to consider.
- Define the boundaries of your relationship. Don’t take for granted that you and your partner are on the same page about what counts as “cheating.” There are so many different ways to define a relationship and as many ways to define infidelity. Make sure that you both have a clear understanding of what you expect from the relationship and each other. Talk about sex as well and what’s appropriate (or not) while you’re in a relationship.
- Build trust. One of the foundations of healthy relationships is trust, so make sure you and your partner are consciously putting effort toward growing your bond. Spend time together, talk about your values, and let yourselves be emotionally vulnerable with each other.
- Focus on healthy communication. While “communication” can encompass a lot, it’s an important part of keeping your relationship strong. Use some basic communication skills, and be sure to focus on empathy and validation during conflict. If you’re getting ready to face a geographic separation, make a plan for how you’ll continue to communicate while apart.
- Get help. Whether it’s premarital counseling, or simply having a relationship “check-up” with a professional, couples can help prevent relationship issues (and specifically infidelity) by seeking professional support. This is particularly true if one or both of you have experienced infidelity or been unfaithful in the past. Connect with a military-and-family-life counselor who specializes in couple relationships. You can meet alone, or together with your partner, to discuss how to manage your worries about infidelity.
Recovery after infidelity
In many ways, infidelity can be a trauma, and it can take effort to overcome. If you and your partner are dealing with infidelity, consider some ways to move forward.
- When an infidelity first comes to light, it can be a chaotic and emotional time for everyone. You have to deal with the initial impact before you can even begin to look at a path forward. Before all else, deal with any potential safety issues. Then, set some basic boundaries and decide whether you want to continue to see each other (or live in a shared space) or whether you need some breathing room. If you have children or close family and friends, create a joint message that you can share with them. Decide who in your lives you want to tell and who you don’t. Remember, these boundaries might not be forever, but they’re important when you first start addressing unfaithfulness.
- If you’ve been cheated on, it can shift your whole sense of trust. As you deal with the emotions you have around the infidelity, make sure you address your feelings of betrayal and how they’re impacting other relationships. It can be easy to become hyperalert and question other relationships, but social support is important when going through infidelity, so it’s vital to find people you can trust and allow yourself to seek support from others—even when you’ve been burned.
- Though relationship issues and breaches of trust can feel all-consuming, it’s important not to let other areas of your health go. Continue to focus on your Total Force Fitness, and try and decrease stress in other areas of your life so you don’t become overburdened. Do your best to get enough sleep, focus on eating right, and stay physically active.
- Throughout the process, focusing on forgiveness will be an important skill. Remember that forgiveness is really about shifting your mindset so that negative feelings don’t dominate your thoughts or your life. It’s about moving forward, exploring, and understanding what led you both to this point—and not letting rumination, anger, or resentfulness impact your mental health or the health of other relationships. That’s why forgiveness is important regardless of whether you stay together or not.
- At some point, it will be important to explore your feelings around reconciliation and relationship recovery. You and your partner might go your separate ways, or you might decide to work through your issues—and choosing a path forward will be an important step. Remember that together or apart, both partners might not recover on the same timeline, so practice patience with yourself and each other.
- Finally, keep in mind that professional help is out there. Infidelity is one of the most challenging relationship issues to overcome, so seeking the support of a counselor, therapist, or even your military chaplain can help. DoD offers professional counseling services over the phone, online, and through video chat too.