Updated: Dec 27, 2020
It is not uncommon for couples to come to therapy distinguishing between sexual and emotional infidelity. Sometimes the distinction is made to highlight the pain associated with it. Frequently though, I hear heterosexual men explaining that they “did not have sex with her” and that it was just an emotional connection, even when it is clear later in therapy that the affair relationship was primarily sexual. So, what motivates men to lie about having sex with their affair partner and emphasize that it was just an emotional affair?
The first thing to consider is that lying is a common strategy when men (and women) are discovered having an affair. Most times, the lies are meant to limit damage as the person attempts to figure out how to manage the discovery. Unfortunately, the reverse occurs; it causes long-term consequences. This is why I recommend that, if couples want to preserve their primary relationship, the person involved in the affair should “come clean” immediately and tell their partner what they have been doing.
Different feelings are associated with sexual and emotional infidelity. In general, sexual infidelity is associated with anger and blame, but emotional infidelity is associated with hurt feelings (Sabini & Greene, 2004). It is possible then that men recognize that their partner will be hurt if they disclose the emotional aspects of the infidelity, and highly angered and blaming if it is discovered that they were sexual. Maybe the thinking is that hurt feelings are easier managed than the blame and anger.
There is something else that could be going on with men though when the lie emphasizes that the affair relationship was only emotional and not sexual. My guess would be that men are thinking from their own perspective and fabricate a lie based on that perspective. For example, he may believe that he would be highly stressed if his partner engaged in a sexual relationship verses an emotional one. Therefore, men may lie by saying that the affair was only emotional in hopes that their partner will be relieved by the news that it was not sexual.
However, there are gender differences in level of distress based on type of infidelity. In research studies using "forced-choice" surveys, men report more distress by sexual infidelity and women report more distress by emotional infidelity (Urooj et al, 2015, Cramer et al, 2001; Shackelford et al, 2000; Geary et. al, 1996). This gender difference has been shown to apply to all age groups, income levels, history of being cheated on, history of being unfaithful, relationship type and length of the relationship. The gender differences do not apply however to bisexual or gay men and women (Frederick & Fales, 2016).
When men lie and state that the affair was just emotional, when it was truly more of a sexual relationship, it is a misguided strategy and potentially doubly harmful. First, lying when caught in an affair causes long term consequences to intimacy, trust and integrity. Even small lies and omissions can make recovery from the affair considerably more difficult, if not impossible. I use the term "leakage" to describe the tendency for the caught partner to leak out information over time, and only when confronted with the undeniable truth.
Second, emphasizing the emotional aspects of the affair as a means of limiting the distress for your partner, particularly when the relationship was sexual with limited emotional involvement, may actually cause greater distress for women than just being truthful about the sexual nature of the affair.
The Tell All, Tell Now Approach as an Alternative to Leakage Over Time
I typically recommend to men (and women) whose affair has just been discovered to Tell All, Tell Now (Losey, 2019). Certainly the approach comes with risk and only you can judge the potential risk and benefits to such a strategy. However, many years of clinical practice, I have seen the alternative come with devastating consequences to the relationship. Leaking truth over time perpetuates highly distressful intrusive thinking, hypervigilance and investigation strategies of the hurt partner.
In a clinical setting, early treatment tasks of the therapist is to offer strategies to re-establish trust in the relationship but leakage is a formidable foe even to the therapist, who will find it difficult to move the therapy productively through the stages of treatment for infidelity. I would imagine that it would be even more difficult for a couple to do this on their own. When each new truth is disclosed, other previous truths now are suspected as lies, and the hurt continues.
The Tell All, Tell Now Approach (Losey, 2019) works better when complete disclosure of the affair is initiated by the person who had the affair. In therapy, I ask the hurt partner to identify what they want to know and then ask the partner (who had the affair) to expansively share the information. One way to do this is to disclose the development of the affair over time, answering questions such as who is this person, how did you meet, how did the relationship develop, how did you communicate, in what location, how did the relationship end, how did you meet, etc.
For more detailed information on the structure of facilitated disclosure, feel free to call me or email me and I will send you a copy of the outline.
Contact Dr. Butch Losey at 513-688-0092 or email@example.com. He is available for consultations via zoom or in-office.
Cramer, R.E., Abraham, W.T, Johnson, L.M. & Manning-Ryan, B. (2001). Gender differences in subjective distress to emotional and sexual infidelity: Evolutionary or logical inference explanation? Current Psychology V. 20, N.4, 327-336.
Frederik, D.A., Fales, M.R. (2016). Upset over sexual versus emotional infidelity among gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual adults. Archive of Sexual Behavior. 45:175–191.
Geary, D.C., Rumsey, M., Bow-Thomas, C.C., & Hoard, M.K. (1995). Sexual jealousy as a facultative trait: Evidence from the pattern of sex differences in adults from China and the United States. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16, 355–383.
Losey, B. (2020). Managing the Aftermath of Infidelity: A Sequential Guide for Therapists and Couples. Routledge, New York.
Sabini, J. & Green, M.C. (2004). Emotional responses to sexual and emotional infidelity: Constants and differences across genders, samples, and methods. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. V.30 N. 11, 1375-1388.
Shackelford, T.K., LeBlanc, G. J. & Drass, E. (2000). Emotional reactions to infidelity. Cognition and Emotion. 14 (5), 643–659.
Urooj, A. & ul-Haque, A. (2015). Perception of emotional and sexual infidelity among married men and women . Pakistan Journal of Psychological Research.V 30, No. 2, 421-439