Where Have All the Cheaters Gone: Infidelity in the Age of COVID-19

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By Dr. Barbara Winter

With lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, we are stationary and have been so for a couple of months. For some individuals, when the orders arrived, they opted or had to shelter alone. For others, they quickly flocked together for this undefined period of time to not be alone or isolated. For those who engage in infidelity, however, the boundaries have been obscured.

For example, Sam, a middle-aged man in an ongoing marital affair, continues to sneak out of the bedroom every night after his wife Donna falls asleep, voraciously texting and calling his girlfriend of two years. He describes what it’s like to not have in-person access to his affair partner. “It’s torture. I can’t stand being on house arrest with my wife.” (His wife is, as of now, unaware of his dalliances.)

Laura, a married woman with three young kids, is less obsessive than Sam, but she stays in regular contact with Mark, with whom she has had an on-and-off affair with for eight years. She also stays in contact with Mitch and Brad, other men she somethings hooks up with, though less often than with Mark. For her, these connections fill a space in her life that her marriage doesn’t. During quarantine, Laura’s husband Eric has discovered, through her iPad, evidence of her cheating. He believes she may be a sex addict.

Neither Sam nor Laura are certain they want to change. They’ve reached out for help but remain pre-contemplative and ambivalent about entering therapy. Both view COVID-19 as interfering with their behaviors.

Greg, on the other hand, has welcomed the lockdown. In recovery for sexual addiction and determined to stay the course, he was initially anxious about relapse but determined to stay the course. He has engaged in online therapy and online 12-step meetings on a daily basis, and he has used the extra time he has to work the steps with his sponsor. He is also grateful that he cannot meet with the prostitutes that have engaged his ego and temporarily distracted him from his pain. For Greg, the lockdown has helped with his sobriety.

Stuart, a porn addict, has not been as fortunate. He has parental control software (a porn blocker) installed on his digital devices, and has continued a 12-step engagement, weekly therapy, and a weekly men’s process group for further support – all online since mid-March – but the lack of in-person connection has led to severe isolation. His relapse after a few weeks of quarantine has created devastation in his relationship.

Sex and porn addicts come in all shapes and sizes, as the above examples reveal, and they’re responses to COVID-19 have been equally diverse. For those in treatment, the general trend has been that shelter-in-place orders have served as a containment strategy – a welcomed restriction. Not only has quarantine put a lid on addictive behaviors, it has allowed addicts to embrace other parts of themselves – whether it be their need to learn how to speak and express their needs, an overdue attempt to access their inner emotions, or simply a new way to be with their partners.

With external constraints, imposed by an act of God and not any one of the policemen in their lives, individuals who were already in recovery and were serious about it have had a pause in which to dig deep into themselves and further their process of healing.

For others, however, especially those whose addictive behaviors have been discovered during lockdown, life is incredibly difficult. For example, Alan’s addiction to porn was discovered during quarantine. Now, he and his wife must face the pain of discovery with no escape or respite. The good news is they are both committed to finding a new normal, not simply a reprise of their relationship before the addiction was uncovered. Alan’s wife Melissa, however, admits that if external circumstances were different, her response to Alan’s porn use would also have been different.

For betrayed partners, the situation has enabled a wide variety of outcomes. Generally, however, there has been a relational advantage, albeit a short-term one, to being sequestered with someone who has betrayed you and hurt you. For the betrayed, this time has created a socially enforced pause. That their perpetrators are now accounted for 24/7 has, in some way, and despite their rage and anger (especially if the behavior is a recent discovery), they’ve been able to put major decisions in a holding pattern as they attempt to reconcile and heal. With quarantine, there has been a sense of temporary safety. Except for grocery shopping, the partners are together 24/7, and most have done well with that.

For a few partners, however, especially with a recent discovery, being sequestered with the cheater and their electronic devices has created a ground for a rampage of obsessive and highly anxious searching – detective work, as Esther Perel calls it.

For example, Ellen, who recently found out about her husband’s frequent visits to prostitutes and massage parlors, there has been endless searching for answers – uninterrupted without the normal distractions of daily life. For Ellen, the pain of learning about the betrayal has been hard to escape.

With the world now opening up, of course, the tables have turned. Greg, who has used the lockdown to help his recovery, worries that his recent hard work might not be sound and that he is not far enough along in his process of healing to stay sober when he is once again exposed to temptations.

Laura is still in denial about the impact of her cheating, and because of this, her husband Eric may file for divorce. If it were his decision, he would try to fix things in his and Laura’s relationship, but since Laura has no interest in treatment, he can’t, and he’s not sure he wants to continue in this type of relationship.

The short-term and long-term impact of COVID-19 has and will continue to be a challenge for all of us, each in our unique ways. The good news is that periods like this offer us all, not just those struggling with sex or any other addiction, a chance to learn and change aspects of our lives that are not fully working. In a crisis, we never exit exactly how we entered. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how we approach it.

Learn more about getting help for infidelity and/or sex addiction with Dr. Barbara Winter.