Aside from death, infidelity may be the most heart-wrenching of couples’ calamities. Every human art form — from poetry to pop songs — has tackled the topic ad infinitum. And most adults, gay or otherwise, can likely conjure a fairly strong memory of the pain of discovering such a betrayal, or the guilt from committing one. All in all, it’s a situation most would like to avoid, yet one that is woefully routine.
”It’s distressingly common,” says Michael Radkowsky, a licensed psychologist in D.C., who counts many gay men among his clients. ”People treat their relationships really badly. They think they can get away with everything. They think they can have it all, but it’s so destructive to have dishonesty in a relationship. People do it all the time. It’s heartbreaking.”
But while so many adults will have to deal with infidelity in some capacity, what first needs to be established is just what counts as cheating. ”We didn’t have sex — it was just a blowjob” — in some instances, that may be a legitimate defense. Other times, keeping your hands completely to yourself may not keep you in the clear. Just ask Mindy Jacobs, also a licensed psychologist in the District, with many lesbian clients.
”It’s on a continuum,” says Jacobs, ”from emotional infidelity all the way to sexual infidelity. This has so many layers to it.”
The trespass, she explains, may not be physical at all, but could instead manifest as an intimate, romantic — though nonsexual — bond with someone outside the relationship. And it can be just as painful.
”No one can give you everything you want or need,” she says, adding that emotional bonds outside a relationship are necessary, to a degree. ”It’s not just about doing something sexual. Is there an intimacy in the interaction? Does it feel like it can create some distance in the primary intimate relationship? Those are the things you want to address.”
While Jacobs emphasizes finding a balance between nurturing emotional connections outside the relationship as well as the core relationship, it’s the boundaries that draw Radkowsky’s attention. After all, he says many of his male clients have a tricky time with cheating, particularly if they don’t know they’ve done it.
”Infidelity is when you step outside of the boundaries you agreed upon, so it’s a good idea to set up some boundaries,” he advises. ”Otherwise, someone will get mad about something [his or her] partner did, but the other person will argue that it wasn’t agreed to.”
But by whatever definition you use, if you suspect the betrayal, what then?
”Lots of times people sneak around and listen to phone messages, read texts and e-mails,” says Radkowksy. ”People find out all kinds of things. That said, the best and most respectful thing to do is talk to your partner. It’s very easy for people to start attacking each other. That doesn’t do anything but create bitterness, and it’s hard to recover from something like that.”
Jacobs agrees that this is no time for an inquisition, but for a discussion — as tense as it might be. If there’s one thing an elephant in the room is not good at, it’s being ignored. Radkowsky suggests that whatever role you play in the affair, it’s best to plan the conversation, rather than simply lighting a match in an explosive environment.
”Find a way to do it that’s respectful of who you and your partner are, or have been to each other,” he says. ”What would it mean for it to come from the best in you?”
Jacobs adds that infidelity could possibly help transform a relationship for the better by casting a light on what may have been lacking.
”Talk about it, but not in an accusatory way,” Jacobs says. ”Maybe it can lead to deeper things. Is there something that’s been missing? It opens up what’s really been going on in a couple, or with the individual, as a means of coping. Infidelity, affairs, are often a means of coping.”
Once the air is cleared, there are two obvious choices: end it, or evolve it. If you choose the latter, Radkowsky says there’s equal onus on both partners. While the ”cheater” has to work at being trustworthy, the ”betrayed” had better bite his tongue when he’d rather be sniping.
The alternative to breaking it off or working to fix it, may be the worst option of all: the status quo. Plodding along without either healing or having the nerve to rip off the Band-Aid won’t do either party any good.
”I see this over and over again: people in relationships with people they don’t trust,” Radkowsky observes. ”It’s abysmal.”