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What is cheating?

August 27, 1998|By TERI JOHNSON

Just exactly what is cheating in a relationship?

It depends whom you ask.

Everyone has a different definition about what it means to be unfaithful to their vows, says Dr. Joyce Brothers, a psychologist based in New York.

"Men and women see it very differently," Brothers says.

Cheating doesn't have to involve a sexual relationship, says Nancy Barnett, director of Individual, Marriage and Family Therapy Center in Hagerstown.

"A strong emotional involvement with anyone other than the spouse can play out the same way a physical affair does and have the same impact," Barnett says.

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Questions about the definition of cheating have surfaced in light of President Clinton's admission of an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. In his testimony last week, Clinton wouldn't detail the specific sexual nature of the relationship.

The Clinton situation has caused more people to think about what constitutes a sexual relationship outside a marriage, says Elaine Sullivan, a marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Dallas.

"There's more discussion about whether cheating is going on," Sullivan says.

She says the reasons for cheating are so varied that it's difficult to pin down one motivation for it.

Most affairs begin as symptoms of a marriage that is in trouble, Barnett says. They could be an expression of anger, a way to retreat from a bad marriage, a feeling of emotional abandonment, boredom or a spontaneous attraction to another person.

A married person needs to be able to have good friendships with the opposite sex, but the boundaries need to be very clear, Sullivan says.

She says defining those boundaries is something that two people in a committed relationship must talk about.

Barnett says the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not evolve over time. Factors shaping those boundaries include society, the media and the kind of values that were conveyed in childhood.

Most people believe they have a reason for having an affair, Barnett says. A woman may feel that her husband doesn't love her anymore, or one partner may feel he or she has reached an impasse in the marriage over issues such as money, children or chores in the home.

They also may feel a sense of disappointment or lack of control over decision-making in the relationship.

The No. 1 reason women stray is because they don't feel valued, while the top reason for men is the loss of physical attraction, accompanied by lack of sexual fulfillment within the marriage, Barnett says.

Contrary to popular opinion, cheating actually can be good for a marriage, Barnett says.

It can lead to a crisis that splits the marriage wide open, revealing immediate feelings of grief and loss.

The person involved in the affair is frightened of losing his or her spouse, and they're so scared they'll do anything to make the marriage right again, Barnett says.

Most of the time, those marriages can survive.

"If both express that they still love their spouse and are committed to making the marriage work, they can do it," Barnett says.

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