Relationship and couples counselor Terri DiMatteo, LPC of Open Door Therapy was interviewed on the nature of affairs by Shane Birkel, LMFT the gracious host of The Couple Therapist Couch.
Micro-Cheating has garnered Macro-Attention. It’s a peculiar tension inducing oxymoron stirring as much uncertainty as these more familiar ones.
It’s difficult to know which half of the term has it right. Is it the first half that suggests that Micro-Cheating is just a small, insignificant and harmless matter? Or, would it be the second half that suggests it rises to the level of full-blown infidelity?
Micro-cheating involves ongoing romantically tinged interactions between a person in a committed relationship or marriage and a person outside of that relationship. The interactions can be mildly flirtatious and evoke feelings of closeness. Communications reside somewhere in the safe zone of friendship, acquaintance or colleague.
When a person is accused of Micro-Cheating, the behaviors that rattle their partner can easily be portrayed as perfectly benign and innocent. The uneasy feelings they provoke are readily dismissed or minimized with responses that sound perfectly logical and reasonable – on the surface.
Technically, the person in the committed relationship or marriage has not engaged in any overt behavior that would be considered an unquestionable act of betrayal, and yet something just doesn’t feel quite right. In other words, it just doesn’t pass the smell test.
Micro-cheating lurks in that slippery gray area provoking strong emotional responses, yet hard to pin down with precision.
To clarify, it’s more than a single momentary glance or fleeting attraction. It’s about ongoing interactions with someone outside the primary relationship that is categorized as a friendship or work associate.
Micro-Cheating interactions send shockwaves of worry through the committed relationship as the communications are intuitively recognized as precursors to the formation of a more significant romantic, emotional or sexual bond.
UNDERSTANDING THE ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP
If you whittle a committed romantic relationship down to it’s most essential elements, the romantic relationship primarily exists to meet the need for emotional and sexual intimacy. And when they overlay one another and operate in unison they serve to bond the couple helping them to form an attachment that is secure and certain.
When emotional and sexual intimacy needs are nurtured and protected they serve to help maintain a secure bond. A characteristic of a secure bond is found in the words of the old song lyrics that profess “I only have eyes for you.”
When the couple can create ‘a private world for just we two’ calm, comfort and peace of mind ensue. Each party rests assured that they are the single most important person to the other.
A FORTRESS OF PROTECTION
To protect the romantic relationship and maintain the required safety and security they require an impenetrable fortress of protection and air-tight safeguards need to exist. In general, nurturing both emotional and sexual intimacy (and not one or the other) tends to secure it. When partners can consistently turn to one another for emotional and sexual sharing – and repairs are made when there is difficulty – it tends to keep the relationship safe from outside interference.
The reverse is also true: when a romantic relationship has devolved into the dreaded ‘friend zone’ and couples find themselves ‘living like roommates’ it leaves one or both individuals vulnerable to the possibility of connecting with a person outside the relationship. Since romantic relations are just that – romantic – they need to be a place where softer, tender, sentimental and romantic feelings can have expression. When the sex and sentimentality fall by the wayside, neglected, it’s all too easy to turn one’s focus toward another who providing even just a small hint of attention.
The need for a wall of protection and safeguarding is much higher than most people realize.
THE IMPACT OF MICRO-CHEATING
The foundation of a secure connection is comprised of high levels of safety and trust. The relationship itself rests upon this all-important secure base. When a full-blown affair is discovered, it tosses the couple into a major crisis as it blows up the foundation placing the future of the relationship in jeopardy.
Micro-Cheating places a hairline fracture in the base and creates a dangerous fissure in the protective fortress leaving the relationship vulnerable to a greater intrusion.
Infidelity often begins with the less-threatening behaviors before it expands and develops into something more.
Micro-cheating sends tiny shockwaves and small cracks through the relationship holding the possibility that a greater connection could develop.
In my work with couples healing from the trauma of infidelity I have observed that the affair partner and the needs that are met in the outside-relationship precisely correlate to the unmet emotional needs within the primary relationship. The affair relationship serves as a type of mirrored reflection to the unmet emotional needs in the primary relationship with a great degree of predictability.
Here’s an example. Let’s suppose a relationship has progressed to the next level of commitment and one of the partners, recognizing the implications of this increased responsibility and the prospect of a future together, starts behaving more seriously. Their personality becomes more rigid, and a stern gloominess starts to appear.
The changed behavior is noted by the partner, but it isn’t understood or processed. They are not sure how to approach their loved one about their needs. They just feel frustrated, disappointed and confused.
Instead of addressing this change in their partner’s personality directly they begin to gravitate in a slow, mindless slide toward someone with whom the exchanges are lighter, more relaxed and playful.
The outside person and the nature of the connection is almost always a direct reflection an unmet need within the primary relationship
This phenomenon holds true whether it is a full-blown affair or is an act of Micro-Cheating.
MEANINGFUL WAYS TO RESPOND
If you find yourself engaged in Micro-Cheating behaviors, then you might ask yourself what relationship needs are being met with the Micro-Cheating partner. What feelings do they elicit in you? How do you feel about yourself when you interact with this person? What do you like about the feeling you get when you communicate with this person?
Pay close attention to what’s happening within your own relationship. What changes have taken place and how have they impacted your relationship? Which issues need to be addressed? What are the things that are causing you and your partner unease and distress? What things make you feel close and connected?
When you start to pay attention, you will likely find a direct correlation between your unmet relationship needs (the places where you are frustrated and disappointed) and the needs being met with the person outside your primary relationship.
If you are concerned about your partner’s ongoing interactions with another, rather than attack or accuse (as this just results in a defensiveness), try to talk with them about why the interactions trouble you. Include the fact that you love your partner and want to protect your relationship with him or her. Together, explore what it is your relationship that needs attention or adjustment.
Likewise, in examining the interactions between your partner and the other party pay attention to what needs your partner seems to be getting met from those communications. Do the interactions make your partner feel attractive? Are they paying attention to particular accomplishments or talents?
The best response to Micro-Cheating is to engage in an open and honest discussion with your partner about your relationship, your needs, your partner’s needs and how you can best meet those needs within your relationship.
Bill and Jayla have just entered marriage therapy after Jayla discovered Bill’s affair with Sarah. During their first session, the therapist tells them that part of affair recovery requires that Bill immediately enact a strict “no contact” with his affair-partner, Sarah.
The counselor explains that marriage is for two people – not three – and that marital repair won’t begin until Bill fully concludes his relationship with Sarah. It’s further explained that Jayla’s emotional pain will not dissipate while Bill remains in contact with Sarah.
With a heavy heart, Bill tells Sarah that their relationship must end. He explains that his focus is on repairing his marriage and that all contact with her will immediately conclude.
He then proceeds to electronically delete and block all avenues of contact between himself and Sarah: email, phone, and social media.
Like switching off a light, Bill did what he was directed to do and extinguished all contact with Sarah. Now he is able to begin the arduous task of repairing his marriage with Jayla.
All it took was one succinct communication and a quick click of the block and delete buttons to clear Sarah from Bill’s phone, email, social media – and life.
Or did it?
Did immediately implementing the ‘no contact’ policy conclude the relationship between Bill and Sarah? Everyone knows that the relationship with the affair partner must conclude if recovery is to occur, but does a sudden, abrupt and forced ‘no contact’ actually work? Does it really bring the affair to a screeching halt?
When two people are in a relationship, the relationship belongs to them. Together they make decisions about the relationship, its future, its direction and its ending.
Think about your relationship or that of another. Can any outside party direct you or your partner to end your relationship? Can you determine if another’s relationship should continue or conclude? Of course not.
In the ‘no contact’ policy parties outside the affair relationship are directing the conclusion of the relationship and not the two people within it. These parties are the spouse or partner who did not have the affair and the therapist. You can almost hear them speaking in unison: “If this relationship is going to continue, you must immediately end the affair.” ‘
And, that’s true.
No one will dispute that fact that an affair must conclude if the primary relationship has any chance. That’s not what’s in question.
The sticky point, however, is that the decision to conclude it – and the act of actually ending it – needs to be initiated and driven by the person in the affair. He or she must do this freely, by choice, as this provides the best hope of recovery.
When the person involved in the affair purposefully and intentionally directs the conclusion of the affair relationship, it serves to reassure his or her partner or spouse that they are committed to them and their relationship. Making an independent decision – and then decisively acting on it – conveys to the partner he or she hopes to repair with, “I choose you,” and this kind of reassurance is paramount to recovery.
If the party involved in the affair ends the affair relationship because they feel pressured, directed or forced, it can result in doubt in the partner. The partner may feel that he or she ended the affair ‘because they were under a lot of pressure’ or ‘had no choice.’
An analogous illustration that comes to mind is when an adult instructs a child to deliver an apology for a wrongdoing. The child – knowing he’s in trouble and what expected of him – offers a mumbled “I’m sorry.” The adult remarks that the apology didn’t sound believable. “I said it, didn’t I?” the child says as he shrugs his shoulders. Technically, he did deliver the apology – but something about it didn’t quite feel sorrowful. The child obliged the will of the adults, It did not truly come from him.
In the infidelity triad, there are two relationship realms. There is the relationship between the committed or married pair in one realm and in the other, two parties in the affair relationship.
The one with the committed or married pair tends to be tense, conflicted, emotionally dense, distant and painfully lonely. This realm possesses relationship discord and disconnect.
The affair realm is providing intimacy, freshness, novelty, closeness, romance, sentiment, and vitality. It is captivating and gripping to those in it.
Now, think for a moment about the state of a relationship in decline. A relationship near conclusion will show signs of distress.
The couple may live separate lives, will lack affection and contact and may bicker or make disparaging remarks toward one another. It is evident that the relationship’s end is approaching.
The affair-relationship, for a variety of reasons (including its secret nature), does not exhibit signs of stress, strain or discord. The relationship is not in decline and nowhere near its natural conclusion.
The swift implementation of ‘no contact’ abruptly and dramatically brings the affair relationship to a screeching halt that was not near its natural end.
‘No contact’ is a tactic designed to bring an affair to a swift and permanent conclusion yet the sudden, abrupt, forced, and premature ending of the affair relationship can result in the counter-effect of escalating yearning and increasing desire among the people in the affair.
We have to ask: Does ‘no contact’ succeed in ending the affair relationship?
Let’s look a little further.
“NO CONTACT” AS A “GET BACK YOUR EX” STRATEGY
To illustrate the effect of ‘no contact’ when it comes to affair recovery, consider this:
Among dating experts, a frequently employed strategy to ‘win back the ex’ is to implement ‘no contact’!
Dating coaches know that going ‘no contact’ can increase desire and attractiveness following a break-up. It is akin to the adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
To further illustrate this concept consider the parent who does not approve of his or her child’s friend choice. The parent forbids his child to play with the undesirable friend. What is the common response to the forbidden friendship? The two conspire to sneak around behind the parent’s backs to play with the prohibited friend!
Forbidden relationships can inspire rebellious acts to communicate with the one who has been placed out of reach.
If ‘no contact’ is used successfully to ‘win back the ex’ then how can it also be used to conclude an affair relationship?
THE IMPACT ON THE AFFAIR PARTNER
In an affair, an attachment bond has formed between the committed or married partner and his or her affair partner. The affair relationship includes attributes that powerfully bond its participants: secrecy, sex, novelty, and adventure.
The sudden and abrupt ending of such a potent, highly intense relationship also impacts the reaction and response of the affair partner.
The rapid and unnatural breaking of a bond between any two people is traumatizing, and the affair relationship is no different.
The affair partner may also surmise that their committed or married lover does not genuinely want to end their relationship but is ‘forced’ to because of discovery.
The shocking and unanticipated ending can send the affair partner into a tailspin as his or her lover is abruptly whisked away during the height of their connection.
REASSURING THE PARTNER THAT DID NOT HAVE THE AFFAIR
It would be easy to conclude that the person in the committed relationship or marriage that did not engage in the affair experiences relief and calm when the ‘no contact’ policy is implemented, and the affair relationship (appears to) rapidly dissolve.
Unfortunately, this is not often the case.
Demonstrating that a relationship has ended by showing that a phone contact has been removed or blocked or the removal of an email address or that the affair partner is no longer a social media contact does not truly remedy the situation and restore calm. These tangible and observable indicators that the affair partner ‘is out of my life’ help a bit, but intense anxiety and unease persist.
Everyone seems to know that people do not turn on and turn off relationships with the flip of a switch. Human bonding and attachment just don’t work like that. Relationships require time and energy to build and they take time and energy to conclude.
Since affairs take place in hiding, behind the back of partner or spouse, the party that did not engage in the affair often expresses extreme anxiety about ‘what else’ they ‘can’t see.’ The experience goes like this, “If I couldn’t see and didn’t know about the affair what else is in that hidden, dark, secret place that I don’t have access to? There must be more!”
Even when the partner who engaged in the affair says, logically and reasonably, “Look, I blocked and deleted them. I’m not in contact. Here’s the proof.”
These matters are not taking place in the world of logic, reason, and rationality. They are powerful emotional matters and the emotions have their own warning signals and logic.
Even when partners who did not engage in the affair can obviously see that the affair partner has been blocked and deleted and perhaps have full access to their partner’s cell phone – they cannot ‘see’ what is inside their partners head or heart, where the affair partner may still live and occupy affection.
They wonder, “Do you still think of her/him? What fond memories do you have of him/her? Do you want to be with me …or, are you just with me because I found out and you had no choice but to end it?”
Observable, verifiable indicators of ‘no contact’ generally do not have the effect of delivering peace, calm, comfort and reassurance even when all evidence and ‘proof’ suggest a concluded relationship. Doubts continue when trust and safety have been so compromised.
CONCLUDING THE AFFAIR: WHAT WORKS?
When it comes to affair recovery, there’s nothing controversial about stating that the affair relationship must conclude. But how that ending occurs is a very delicate and complicated matter deserving examination, consideration and scrutiny.
How should the affair be concluded so that its ending is absolute?
In my work with couples coping with the aftermath of infidelity I had obtained success with the couple when the person who engaged in the affair initiates and drives the affair’s conclusion, demonstrating a sincere desire to conclude it. They need to bring the affair to closure in a way that they are comfortable with, but one that also (first and foremost) takes their partner’s feelings, needs and level of comfort into consideration.
The conclusion of the affair does need to be expedient and swift, but not hasty. It needs careful deliberation and should be done with the help of a trained professional. If it is done abruptly, too casually or conveys a possibility of a future meeting (such as, “I can’t see you right now…”) – it won’t fully bring it to a conclusion. It must be firm, clear and direct and include two facets: 1. That there is to be no further communication; and 2. A decision has been made to remain in the current relationship.
If the objective is to bring the affair relationship to closure, then it is to the benefit of all to do it thoughtfully and with care rather than instant or rushed.
The person who engaged in the affair needs some space and time to experience a ‘break-up’ and grieve. (This is very painful for all involved in the triad, but the aim here is the best possible outcome for the restoration of trust and safety.) Feelings of heartache and loss are to be expected, as is par for the course when any relationship ends. Rushing it will not make matters proceed faster but will likely slow down and interrupt the healing process.
The conclusion of the affair must include the spouse who did not engage in the affair – who, up until discovery – was in the dark. Now that the affair is no longer secret, the process of concluding the affair needs to occur in the full light of day, with the partner or spouse present and included in all aspects of the closure.
There can be no more secrets.
The first step in affair recovery is the conclusion of the outside relationship, and this needs to be done with great care so that the couple is able to proceed to the next phase of recovery.
It is in the best interest of the couple and their future to get this critical part of the process done correctly so that the affair completely ends. If it’s done suddenly, directed by anyone other than the person in the affair relationship, or is a rushed process – unresolved feelings of longing and desire may linger or re-emerge even if there’s concrete evidence of its conclusion.
After discovery, all interactions with the affair partner – including the process of concluding it – must be conducted in full view of the spouse or partner who did not engage in the affair and their feelings and level of comfort must be taken into consideration.
Approaching the conclusion of the affair relationship in this way helps ensure that the affair relationship ends completely. It also increases the likelihood that the party who did not engage in the affair is reassured that they have been chosen and that their partner genuinely does not want the affair partner. – because they were neither forced nor coerced.
This approach is slower and more difficult and painful at the beginning stages of the recovery process. However, I have found that it is much more efficient and delivers long-lasting results.
The ending of the affair is a painful process for all parties involved and ending the affair is the crucial first – but often misunderstood and poorly managed – step in the recovery process.
PROFESSIONAL HELP FOR FULL RECOVERY
From the safety and comfort of my office, I help guide and support couples through with the most effective means of ending affairs and relationship repair and recovery. I provide full emotional support to both partners during the process. If you need help on this matter, get in touch today.
For an audio version of these concepts, you can listen on LoveBONDS, the podcast here.
“Science has recently cracked the code on love.” – Dr. Sue Johnson
Which behaviors constitute infidelity? Is kissing someone other than your partner infidelity? Is excessive texting or emotional sharing with another infidelity? Is there an identifiable line that shouldn’t be crossed? If so, what is it? Well, in fact, what constitutes infidelity is not about any particular behavior.
As featured in LoveBonds podcast, What Constitutes Infidelity?
DURATION: Five minutes
Relationship betrayal is traumatic and brings deep pain and suffering to those directly (and indirectly) involved. So why are they a common occurrence? Find out the real reason affairs happen.
As featured in the LoveBonds podcast, Why Do People Have Affairs?
DURATION: Five Minutes
Affair recovery requires that the relationship between the partner who strayed and the affair-partner must conclude completely, but how ‘no contact’ is executed is no simple task. Listen to parts 1, 2 and 3 for a full explanation of the inherent complexities involved.
PODCASTS 1, 2 and 3:
DURATION: Each podcast is five minutes in length