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Infidelity: Add Another Brick to the Wall

Infidelity: Add Another Brick to the Wall

Because maybe
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all
You’re my wonderwall

Today was gonna be the day
But they’ll never throw it back to you
By now you should’ve somehow
Realized what you’re not to do
I don’t believe that anybody
Feels the way I do
About you now

–“Wonderwall” by Oasis

Amidst sexting congressmen, philandering French IMF directors, and gallivanting governors, I suspect many psychiatrists have been accosted with questions from friends and colleagues. Such questions generally conform to some permutation of “What makes a person do that?”

Such questions have always struck me as the equivalent of asking an internist or forensic pathologist: “So . . . what causes a person to drop dead?” Don’t get me wrong—I do like questions like this because they cause my mind to reel and flounder, a mental state often conducive to gratifying surprises.

Regarding the question of “why” in the case of publicized infidelity, the primary sentiments seem to be two-fold:
1. Curiosity
2. A gratifying sense of condemnation

The latter cannot be denied and is seen prominently in the media’s coverage of these social missteps. It feels too good to us to project all our negative affect and fears onto the hapless scapegoat. Can you believe he did that? What was he thinking? He should be . . . (insert projector’s aggressive, punitive fantasies).

But isn’t the truth of the matter that we simply do not know the details of the couple’s painful experience and all that preceded it? We just don’t know the winding roads they took nor what went on inside the confined space of the marital vehicle. But we do enjoy speculating.

It had to be the Internet. Or all this new technology. Yes, that seems plausible. In a study of sexual infidelity in cyberspace, it was found that men were more upset by sexual infidelity and women by emotional infidelity.1 Wait!—this sounds familiar. Ancient, in fact.

Does the research tell us anything new in terms of what leads to infidelity? Relatively recent research tells us that pregnancy is associated with infidelity, whereas spending more time together and shared religiosity serve as protective factors.2,3 The finding of religiosity seems interesting, and I suspect volumes could be written on this topic, but I’ll refrain. Suffice it to say that this factor likely touches on the issue of a shared sense of meaning. Nevertheless, these findings do not strike me as particularly novel.

Individual factors are indeed interesting, but a marriage is a complex relationship deserving of more complex explanations. One researcher has put forth the notion that cheated partners are, over time, enjoined in a psychological dance that ultimately results in betrayal.4 In effect, the cheated partner is induced to play a certain role in the marriage, which inexorably leads to betrayal. Ah—a complex hypothesis involving known psychodynamics and defense mechanisms. This may warrant further investigation. . . .

It does not seem as though many people learn from previous marriage experiences, and this may explain why the divorce rates in second and third marriages are so high. It is so exceedingly difficult to break free of unconscious patterns! We project our early wishes onto the beloved, just as the analysand does onto the analyst. In the early stages of the relationship, before we really get to know our beloved, they are our personal blank screen—our very own wonderwall. And early on, they are happy to oblige. They accept the projection quite well. But with time and experience, we begin to see the cracks in the wall and the places where the beloved does not take the projection so well. This is about the time that charming habits mysteriously transform into annoyances.

This is also about the time that we get to work trying to change the other to more closely resemble our earlier fantasies. The wall needs remodeling, and we are up to the task. Nevertheless, there comes a time when we can no longer deny that this was not the model of wall we had originally ordered. Our desperation to change the other becomes more prominent. We may then use withholding, bribes, manipulation, even threats. None of these work, and this is when we begin to see sexting, withdrawal, affairs, anger, and divorce. The projection works for as long as the wall can accommodate. But inclement weather eventually erodes a wall, causing it to crumble. The more it crumbles, the less it resembles the early fantasy.

But one should always, like the gods for Pandora, leave some hope in these matters. Learning from the past, learning from successful couples and marital therapists—herein lies hope. And never, ever forget to compromise. One respected marital and family therapist reported his observation that marriage was a balancing act between the “I” and the “we” (D Keith, MD, personal communication, May 2011). By this he meant that each partner must respect the other’s need to be his or her own person, yet still balance this with coming together as a “we” to love and support. A fine balancing act indeed. And precisely why I bow reverently to those who successfully sustain it.

And all the roads that lead you there were winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
But I don’t know how

I said maybe
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all
You’re my wonderwall

Acknowledgment—The author would like to acknowledge James Knoll III, MD, and Cindy Flaum for their thoughtful contributions. 



1. Whitty MT, Quigley LL. Emotional and sexual infidelity offline and in cyberspace. J Marital Fam Ther. 2008;34:461-468.
2. Whisman MA, Gordon KC, Chatav Y. Predicting sexual infidelity in a population-based sample of married individuals. J Fam Psychol. 2007;21:320-324.
3. DeMaris A. Distal and proximal influences on the risk of extramarital sex: a prospective study of longer duration marriages. J Sex Res. 2009;46:597-607.
4. Oppenheimer M. Recovering from an extramarital relationship from a non-systemic approach. Am J Psychother. 2007;61:181-190.
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