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How Affairs Begin With Small Excuses

Research shows how careless couples can find themselves in dangerous liaisons.

Key points

  • Affairs begin small, with rationalizations and secrecy.
  • Social networks are fertile ground for betrayals because it is easier to excuse virtual behavior.
  • To recover from betrayals, there must be honesty and accountability, even in small ways.
Source: Anastasia Shuraeva / Pexels
Source: Anastasia Shuraeva / Pexels

Clients of mine, whom I will call Bruce and Sandi, had been together for about six years but had grown distant. He was immersed in a graduate program, and she was working at a fast-growing startup company. Bruce had a colleague, Angie, whom he tutored. As Bruce and Angie spent more time together, their interactions began to change. Bruce would joke with her about how she needed his guidance, and Angie would tease him with nicknames (“See you later, doc”). Sandi grew concerned as she picked up on this, and one evening she saw Bruce stifle a laugh as he read a text from Angie. Sandi asked about it and was surprised by his quick brush off of her question: “Nothing. Just a dumb picture.” He changed the topic and was annoyed at her inquiry, and she grew more alarmed. When Angie invited Bruce to her apartment for a study session, he was flattered and told himself that Sandi didn’t need to know. Down the ladder he went, justifying his actions and deceiving Sandi, until he landed at the bottom in a full-fledged affair.

Sexual infidelity is a classic example of how small seeds of dishonesty can take root and bloom into betrayal. Affairs are fueled by many deceptive factors: the thrill of flattering and being flattered, keeping secrets, and the headiness of lust. When sex occurs, it is a culmination of ongoing betrayal that includes lies, misdirected thoughts and energy, and commitment breaking. The sex is just concrete evidence of the deception. One partner is now giving themself to a third party, while the betrayed partner is in the dark. Affairs can be extreme, including long-term hidden relationships, repeat philandering, or blatant cheating. One memorable client had lost several boyfriends before realizing that her own mother was seducing them away. Other affairs are subtle, short-term, nonsexual, or emotional, and this is why it is difficult to define. Cheating can include anything that is secretive and violates trust with a partner. Sex is a tangible form of treachery, but even without it, there can be many disloyal emotions and actions.

“We Just Clicked”: Social Networking as Betrayal

A colleague of mine, Jaclyn Cravens, studies the interaction of technology and relationships. We collaborated on a study of infidelity that occurred through Facebook. We analyzed stories where betrayed partners described shock, pain, and damage that resulted from cheating behaviors that happened on the social network. One man recalled, “I noticed she was spending a lot of time late at night hiding her chats, [and then] removed me, her husband, from her friends.” Another got suspicious from vague answers, and went looking for evidence: “Sure enough, in her trash folder was over a month’s worth of emails between her and a man that was my friend for over 20 years. These were not friendly emails. There was talk of being naked with each other in bed…I was completely destroyed.”

One of the findings of this study was that the damage of social network cheating was comparable to in-the-flesh affairs, even though the actions were sometimes only virtual. Pain was significant, with vivid descriptions like, “My heart exploded” and “I am heartbroken. I hate Facebook now.” Revenge and anger were also common. One man said, “I pasted the [evidence] into a message and sent it to people…she worked with that knew very little about her.” Social network affairs may be more damaging than other kinds of online cheating such as pornography use or chat rooms, because there is already a relationship with the Facebook friend beyond the computer.

Because intimate partners know each other well, they often recognize when the other is being sketchy. When someone is sneaking around physically or virtually, it leaves tracks, which was the case in the Facebook study. Often an affair came to light when the suspicious partner followed these signs. One lesson from this project is that partners shouldn’t ignore their gut when it is giving warning signs.

This happened with Bruce and Sandi. Sandi grew concerned about Bruce’s long hours at the lab, and his cageyness in their discussions. She followed her suspicion by figuring out his phone password and opened up a scorching string of texts to Angie. He was upset by her breaking into his phone, but this forced a confession. At first, he admitted to an emotional affair with Angie and said they had feelings for one another. This was painful to Sandi, and she was angry but not satisfied with his explanations.

Coming Clean

The problem worsened as Bruce admitted to additional actions he had already denied. He said that he had kissed Angie, but nothing else, but later admitted to a sexual relationship. This partial honesty backfired and infuriated Sandi. Bruce was frustrated, because he felt like he was being punished for his honesty, but half-truths are not honest. Each new revelation destroyed the small trust that was growing back, and Sandi felt re-victimized each time he admitted he hadn’t told the whole story. Even when he swore there were no more details to share, she didn’t trust him. To their credit, however, they both committed to total honesty about their feelings and what happened. This led to a painful but productive time in their relationship, as Bruce realized the extent of the hurt he had caused, willingly answered questions from Sandi, and didn’t become defensive. This was important, because it is common for the betrayed party to want details, and this can help them not obsess about what did or didn’t happen. It is a legitimate request and is part of coming clean.

If you want to prevent big lies, there must be honesty in small things. If you want to recover after betrayals, there must be confession and apology. If you want to repair damage, there must also be honesty going forward. It is painful but essential to admit mistakes. I have seen many couples bravely admit affairs, addictions, and embarrassing lapses. This removing of masks gets people back to reality, and it is easier to navigate reality than a mirage.

Facebook image: DimaBerlin/Shutterstock


Karen Wilson, Brent A. Mattingly, Eddie M. Clark, Daniel J. Weidler, and Amanda W. Bequette, "The Gray Area: Exploring Attitudes Toward Infidelity and the Development of the Perceptions of Dating Infidelity Scale," The Journal of Social Psychology 151, no. 1 (2011): 63–86.

Jaclyn D. Cravens, Kaitlin R. Leckie, and Jason B. Whiting, "Facebook Infidelity: When Poking Becomes Problematic." Contemporary Family Therapy 35, no. 1 (2013): 74–90.

Katherine M. Hertlein, and Fred P. Piercy, "Internet Infidelity: A Critical Review of the Literature," The Family Journal 14, no. 4 (2006): 366–371.

Susan D. Boon, and Beverly A. McLeod, "Deception in Romantic Relationships: Subjective Estimates of Success at Deceiving and Attitudes Toward Deception," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 18, no. 4 (2001): 463–476.

Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort.

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