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When is an affair, not an affair?

Date

Daisy Dumas

We all know it when we see it, but like pornography, cheating can be very hard to define.

Cheating is not always easy to define - though it is always centred upon a breakdown of trust, say experts.

Cheating is not always easy to define - though it is always centred upon a breakdown of trust, say experts.

We've seen the steamy clinch, we've watched the fall-out.

Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were both in committed relationships - one has a long-term boyfriend, the other is married - when they had a so-called "momentary indiscretion."

Some say the affair was many months in the making, others that the assignations involved "no sex of any kind" - at least according to Stewart's friend and former producer, Giovanni Agnelli.

That there was a relationship beyond the platonic is a given - or at least so public apologies suggest. But there are clearly differing views as to the extent of the affair.

Which begs the question: what counts as cheating?

We posed the question to friends and family - and who knew there were so many shades of infidelity... a kiss, sex, emotional cheating, sexting, sex with the same sex, plain old animal attraction. With such a minefield out there, no wonder so many of us have had to face the reality at some stage or other: how do you define infidelity in your relationship?

Well, as much as many may have attempted to argue otherwise, it's a pretty straightforward delineation, says Fairfax's RSVP resident relationship expert and psychologist, John Aiken.

There are no degrees of infidelity, he says. "All infidelity is bad on relationships. It's breach of trust, which sees you engage in behaviour that is secretive, dishonest, sexually charged and hurts your partner.

"It might be an emotional affair - sexualised texts, coffee dates, talking down about your partner, being flirtatious, having pet names and fantasising about them. Or a physical affair - kissing, touching, having sex. Any way you look at it - it's not going to help your partner's level of trust in you."

Alarm bells! Did Aiken include fantasising in that list? Guilty, guilty, guilty. But while we all let our imaginations run riot, the relationship expert is keen to point out that to qualify as cheating, fantasising must be in combination with those other, let's say, symptoms.

Whether it's the case of a friend's brother-in-law who emailed naked photos of himself to another woman, or an acquaintance who found that his girlfriend was 'emotionally cheating' by sharing intimacies with an ex-boyfriend, the core motive is the same: they are manifestations of the moment that someone chooses to withhold an element of themselves from their primary partner - and, by doing so, to step over a boundary.

There is no reason to treat kissing differently to sex, Aiken says, as these are things that you only do with your partner. "It's intimate and personal. Doing this with someone else is cheating."

Not all couples will agree with his diagnosis of relationship disaster. Everybody knows the boundaries of their own relationships and what works for some will be beyond the pale for others.

Bill Hewlett, a counsellor with Relationships Australia, is sanguine when it comes to the scale of cheatdom. "It depends to a large extent on the rules in each relaltionship. You need to negotiate your own understanding of what's infidelity and what's not."

He says that the early exploratory stages of coupling will largely determine boundaries - and that much of the conversation about the positioning of a line will be a result of trial and error.

"A kiss is just a kiss" is the line one married couple in their 30s, very close friends, take. Alcohol, great company and being away from each other has seen that couple forced into some very frank admissions - but the strong marriage has not faltered. The relationship is worth more than diverted and momentary affection, they say.

But while definitions of infidelity may be black and white within a relationhip - "It's the same breakdown of trust and the same recovery process to rebuild" - how a couple deals with the pain can vary vastly, says Aiken.

"Some will want to talk it out, some will want to punish their partner, while others will look to avoid the event and try to downplay the hurt and pain. There are those that are prepared to do whatever it takes to repair the damage, while others don't see the big deal in all of it."

To move forwards from there, a "safe and useful conversation", says Hewlett, is the first step - and that often needs third party help.

"It's hard to survive a knock. Both partners will have to go through a stage of renegotiating. You have to re-establish trust and that won't happen quickly."

On the plus side, he has seen couples whose relationships have been rejuvenated by an affair. The trick, he says, is to "talk about feelings, not behaviour."

Either way, when it comes to shades of flings - and there is a vast range of sexually-charged pantones out there - you need to set some rules at the start of a committed union.

"What's important is that you must have a conversation about infidelity and your position on this before it occurs so you know where you both stand," says Aiken.

Hard as that particular dialogue may be, he says it is crucial because of the ramifications infidelity can have. "For many, this is a deal-breaker and it needs to be out on the table early on in your relationship."

Where this leaves Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders - and their betrayed partners - is not pretty, sadly.

140 comments

  • "Some will want to talk it out, some will want to punish their partner, while others will look to avoid the event and try to downplay the hurt and pain. There are those that are prepared to do whatever it takes to repair the damage, while others don't see the big deal in all of it."

    This is the key to whether or not a relationship will survive an affair. If the cheating partner isn't willing to do whatever it takes to repair the damage, then there is no hope of salvaging the relationship.

    Commenter
    VictimofanAffair
    Date and time
    August 02, 2012, 7:48AM
    • True that the cheating partner has to be willing to do whatever it takes, but so does the cheatee. Having unfortunately, through my own selfishness, cheated, I then put myself through four years of hell as atonement. Then I woke up and realised I didn't need to beat myself up anymore. Sadly, he still wanted to keep beating and I finally left, which is what should have happened before the cheating ever did. There is no excuse for cheating, but both partners need to be willing to work through it for a relationship to survive.

      Commenter
      Liv
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 9:10AM
    • Does PRON count as cheating?

      Commenter
      Snake
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 11:31AM
    • No 2nd chances - period. That is my firm belief and that will not change.

      Commenter
      Liberator
      Location
      SEQLD
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 11:48AM
    • Sorry Liv, totally disagree with you.
      Your partner was the victim. You were the offender.
      Having done what you have, you have forever become a cheater by crossing that line.
      You intoned that you should have left the relationship before the cheating and I agree with you totally - but you didn't. It is because of this that you will carry the stigma of being a cheater from that moment on. It was your decision and yours alone. To blame your partner for not having recovered after four years is atrocious and says more about you than you may realise. A relationship IS fidelity - and you failed. You said you would do 'whatever it takes' - and again you failed.

      Commenter
      OSI
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 12:00PM
    • How wonderful the view must be from your high horse OSI. Clearly you've never made a mistake, never had to ask or grant anyone forgiveness.

      If VictimofanAffair's partner made the decision to forgive her, then that's what he should've done. Not continue to hold it over her head for years to come.
      You have zero idea what led her to having an affair, emotional/physical abuse? YOU don't know, YOU don't get to judge.

      Commenter
      JJJ*
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 12:32PM
    • @OSI_ 'stigma' - rubbish. Liv, totally support your position.

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 1:23PM
    • The way I see it, some people (probably a minority) will be able to forgive their partner an affair and move on if it only happens once. Or they may renegotiate the relationship to "open" for the future (this would probably only happen if the partner had also been tempted to cheat). Most partners cheated on will naturally feel insecure for some time and this will vary from person to person. Four years sounds extreme, however. I would think a few months to a year should be sufficcient for most people to rebuild their relationship and leave the incident in the past (depending on whether it was a short fling or a protracted affair). Either your ex was extremely insecure or he kept wanting more revenge (punishing you) which is very counter-productive. If you choose to stay with someone who cheated on you then you should truly forgive them, but the cheater does need to reassure the cheatee for some time and not blow off the affair as something inconsequential. Both partners also need to be honest about their treatment of each other prior to the affair and admit their behaviour if they were cold, neglectful, hurtful, withheld sex to manipulate their partner, etc.

      Commenter
      MO4
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 2:36PM
    • @OSI: Sorry, don't completely agree with you on that one. If someone has cheated on you, you have a choice. (That's a assuming the person who cheated wishes to continue the relationship - often it's just a lazy way of declaring it over.) If they choose to continue with the relationship, they do, of course, have a great deal to deal with. They need to be given time, compassion, opportunity to vent, whatever information they wish to know etc etc. There comes a point, however, where, IF (and it's a big IF) they wish to have an ongoing relationship with this person, that they need to put it behind them (as opposed to forget about it) and move forward.

      Otherwise there is absolutely no point in someone who's been cheated on ever continuing in a relationship. To keep throwing the cheater's behaviour in their face at every opportunity is nothing more than revenge - why would you want to have a relationship with someone that you felt so little for that you wanted to keep berating them for the rest of their life.

      It's a tough choice, but at some point the 'victim' has to make it.

      Commenter
      bornagirl
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 2:45PM
    • "To keep throwing the cheater's behaviour in their face at every opportunity is nothing more than revenge - why would you want to have a relationship with someone that you felt so little for that you wanted to keep berating them for the rest of their life.
      It's a tough choice, but at some point the 'victim' has to make it."

      Just to clarify, I was the one who was cheated on. Not the one doing the cheating.

      I agree with the above of course. However, it is a much easier decision for the cheatee to make if the cheater does everything they can to try and fix the problems that were there in order for the cheating to take place in the first place.

      Of course, if the cheater is cheating because they are a narcissistic wanker who does it purely for the attention buzz, then the cheatee is better off not even trying to fix that one.

      Commenter
      VictimofanAffair
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 4:53PM

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