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When Infidelity Becomes Abuse

Infidelity causes pain and suffering. Sometimes, it becomes a form of emotional violence.

By Michael Clanchy and Chris Trotter
The Age (Melbourne, Australia) 23 March 1999, p18 © 1999, excerpts under "fair use" to encourage you to read the article, stimulate discussion.

When Joanne finally mustered the strength to end her eight-year relationship with George, she was still displaying all the symptoms of a victim of physical and psychological abuse - anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem and a distorted sense of reality.

Yet George was no typical perpetrator of domestic violence. He had not laid a hand on Joanne during their relationship and only rarely raised his voice to her. Yet he had managed to undermine and diminish her to the point of illness and hospitalisation through his relentless pursuit of a long-standing sexual affair with his work colleague, Davina.

Adultery, deception and romantic triangles are the staple fare of novels, lifestyle magazines and TV dramas. We watch the scenarios unfold for our entertainment and diversion. We sometimes talk with callous fascination about our friends and acquaintances in the same situations. But rarely do we stop to acknowledge the real human pain and suffering that accompanies these events and the cruel consequences that sometimes follow from them.

In many instances, betrayal through infidelity can be very close to what we term domestic violence. Unfaithful parties are often insensitive to the pain they inflict, as are perpetrators of physical and psychological violence. Often the faithful party is as vulnerable and dependent as the victim of repeated bashing. Furthermore, the behaviour patterns of ongoing infidelity often parallel the well-documented stages in the cycle of domestic abuse.

To understand the connection: between infidelity and domestic abuse, we need to look at what infidelity entails. When two people commit to an ongoing relationship, in most cases they commit to sharing certain life activities, and sharing them to the exclusion of others. This exclusivity distinguishes the bond of their affection and partnership.

In Western societies, sexual and physical intimacy, best-friend status, the sharing of personal information and the priority allocation of time, attention and resources usually occurs to the exclusion of others.

Infidelity is essentially a breach of this commitment. The infidelity may be sexual, or it may be emotional, where a partner goes over to a third party, in the sense that they share a primacy of affection, time or other resource, normally reserved for or freely given to a life partner.

Why is infidelity abusive? Why is it sometimes a form of psychological and emotional violence? Because infidelity can be as devastating as a violent attack. It results in humiliation, hurt and loss for the injured partner. The betrayal is usually perceived as a direct attack on the faithful partner's worth as a person and as a partner.

A research project involving in-depth interviews with a number of women and men who have experienced infidelity has been conducted at Monash University. The stories reveal numerous parallels between certain cases of infidelity and cases of psychological and physical abuse.

The research found that common characteristics of abuse and infidelity include:

- The Recurring Cycle. As with domestic violence, infidelity can become an ongoing feature of some relationships.

- Similar Phases. Ongoing infidelity sometimes follows a path similar to the well-documented domestic abuse cycle. A typical cycle might include a tension build-up phase, the infliction of pain, a brief period of remorse and guilt and then the reconciliation phase, followed by a return to tension build-up.

- Apparent Indifference of the Betraying Partner. Apart from brief periods of guilt and remorse after critical incidents of abuse or infidelity, the betrayers/abusers tend to be insensitive to the pain and distress they inflict on their partners. They often continue their infidelity or abuse without accepting responsibility for the anguish they cause.

- Similarity of the Responses of the Injured Parties. Those who stay for significant periods of time with partners who are unfaithful, often display the same psychological and social symptoms exhibited by victims of systematic abuse. Some of these symptoms include:

- deep personal suffering; - low self-esteem and a sense of worthlessness; - a sense of helplessness and a lack of control over their lives; - a dependency on the betraying partner and a need for their approval; and - a distorted sense of reality in which they can begin to believe that their partner's infidelity is their own fault.

In the case of Joanne, for example, over time she began to question what she had done to make her husband want another woman. She concluded she was worthless and unattractive. She blamed herself for being jealous and possessive. She tortured herself to the point where, she said, she thought she would go mad. She had lost sight of the simple reality that George's infidelity was both his choice and a breach of their mutual commitment.

- Breaking the Cycle. Behaviour patterns established by partners in abuse and infidelity situations can be difficult to change. Like domestic violence, unfaithful behaviour does not often cease of its own accord, but calls for definitive action on the part of either the perpetrator, the affected party or both.

Unfaithful behaviour is heavily associated with lies, deception and denial. Overseas research suggests that if a relationship is to survive, the unfaithful partner needs to admit the destructive nature of their behaviour, accept responsibility for its damaging effects and close off inappropriate contact with the third party.

By the same token, the faithful partner needs to signal clearly what behaviour they will accept and what behaviour they will not accept and be prepared to take action consistent with their words.

- Endurance, Strength and Survival. From our circle of family and friends and from stories we read in the papers, we all know of situations of infidelity and abuse that have ended tragically.

Nevertheless, the most encouraging aspects in the Monash University research are the many examples of endurance and survival in the stories of people subjected to the trauma of infidelity.

The survivors have struggled with their pain, some for many years. Most have eventually found their inner strength, have taken some control of their situation and moved on with their lives on their own terms. Some have done this with their existing partners, some without.

Michael Clanchy is a writer and qualified counsellor.
Dr Chris Trotter is a senior lecturer in social work at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia).

Original Article