When Ross and Rachel from the hit sit-com Friends infamously took a break from their relationship, Ross had a one-night stand. The issues that triggered the schism, busy work schedules and miscommunication, were small potatoes compared to their conflicting views on what was permissible during a separation. Ross’s insistence that he didn’t cheat “because we were on a break!” and Rachel’s insistence that he did cheat because she believed it wasn’t clear they were on a break morphed into a permanent rupture – for a few seasons, at least!
So, let’s talk about sex outside the relationship when you and your partner have officially agreed to go on hiatus. Here are some common concerns, and how to navigate them.
Q: When a married couple separates, but neither has filed for divorce, is it cheating if one spouse has a fling?
A: Ideally, this couple would have crafted a Therapeutic Separation Agreement with the help of a therapist prior to separating. The purpose of a written agreement is to clarify rules and expectations during a time-limited separation. It’s important to determine the length of the separation, living arrangements, financial arrangements, and visitation. The couple should also commit to a plan to restore the relationship if possible, through couples and individual therapy. They also need to decide if “dating” is permissible. Most therapists will advise against sex with other people, since bringing a third (or fourth or fifth!) person into a primary relationship makes it difficult to actually focus on repairing a marriage. Clearly, Ross and Rachel were operating under individual assumptions – Ross, that it was okay to see others, Rachel, that it wasn’t – which led to hurt feelings and betrayal when trying to reconcile.
Q: Are there different types or degrees of infidelity?
A: Infidelity always involves deception. It is when one person decides to carry on a covert extramarital relationship. Secrets, especially ones that involve sex and/or emotional intimacy with someone other than your spouse, inevitably lead to betrayal and a breakdown of trust thay may be impossible to overcome. Having an open marriage, or a separation in which both people decide together that it’s permissible to date and have physical relationships with others, is technically not infidelity. It’s not infidelity because no one has been deceived, and theoretically, no one has been pressured into agreeing to something with which they weren’t comfortable. However, before agreeing to extramarital dating, couples must be willing to deal with the possibility that their partner might fall in love with someone else.
Q: For couples who want to reconcile, what are some tips for overcoming the feelings of betrayal or guilt, etc. so they can move past the cheating and heal?
Tip #1: Accept that the cheater and the person who was cheated on may have different timelines. A common scenario is when the cheater gets frustrated that their partner isn’t “over” the infidelity. Although it’s hard to be reminded of the pain you caused, you must understand that you are “in the doghouse” for a period of time that you don’t get to determine. And if you are the betrayed partner, you have every right to have your understandable hurt feelings validated, but know that constant venting and marinating in pain will make it difficult to heal the relationship.
Tip #2: The partner who was unfaithful needs to take full responsibility for their choices, empathize with their partner’s experience of being hurt and betrayed, and commit to changed behavior going forward. The partner who was deceived needs to utilize coping skills to manage difficult feelings and be effectively assertive instead of unproductively harsh.
Tip #3: Create a Betrayal Recovery Plan. Most couples would benefit from seeing a couples therapist who specializes in infidelity and can guide you in creating a betrayal recovery plan. Whether you work with a professional, or develop this plan on your own, the agreement should include:
- A commitment to monogamy (assuming this is what both of you want) and what monogamy actually means to both of you, i.e. no sexting or emotional affairs in addition to physical affairs.
- An investment in couples and/or personal growth work such as therapy, attending couples workshops, or reading books on healthy relationships.
- Consequences for the disclosure or discovery of another infidelity.
A final note on betrayal recovery: commit to the work and have realistic expectations about the time required to regain trust and grow together as a couple. If Ross and Rachel had crafted a betrayal recovery plan, it might not have taken five more seasons to (presumably) get back together for good!
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