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It's A Sad State Of Affairs When Infidelity Means Divorce

Divorce used to be the taboo -- now it's infidelity that carries the shame.

21/11/2016 3:38 PM AEDT | Updated 21/11/2016 3:39 PM AEDT
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Peter Dazeley
"Divorce should not be the first option."

One of the topics that came up during the U.S. election campaign was Hillary Clinton's decision to stay with her husband Bill despite his infidelities. She was attacked and criticised by both sides of politics ­-- why didn't she divorce him?

But does anyone really have the right to judge what the Clintons did, or didn't do, in their marriage?

Certainly not Donald Trump, who unleashed slashing attacks on Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions -- very hypocritical for a man who cheated on his first wife, Ivana, the mother of his three children, with his (later) second wife Marla Maples, and who is now married to third wife Melania.

This shows there is a double standard here. Can we imagine a woman being nominated for president who has been married three times and has five children by three different fathers?

Could it be that Hillary stayed with Bill because she loves him, shared most of her life with him and raised a daughter together? I'm curious why some Americans seem to be so tolerant of multiple divorces but so unwilling to accept or understand infidelity.

Divorce used to be the taboo -- now it's infidelity that carries the shame.

There is also a rather unforgiving attitude towards infidelity in Australia, which I believe is damaging and driving couples to divorce and children to suffer. Several European countries have more accepting attitudes and have lower divorce rates.

I'm from The Netherlands and probably a bit more open-minded about infidelity than most. I believe that truly monogamous relationships are the exception, not the rule. What has changed over the years is that many people now wait to marry or settle down until their late twenties or early thirties, and by then they may have had several relationships.

Then suddenly they are expected to never have sex with anyone else again! From my experience, not too many couples actually discuss this before they move in together or get married; they take that as a given.

Research from the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy estimates that 45-55 percent of women and 50-60 percent of men will cheat at some time in their lives. It's difficult to know because not everyone will own up to it and there are many shades of infidelity.

Another change in the past decade is the way we are cheating; it has become easier than ever. We need to ask ourselves: what exactly is cheating? Flirting with a colleague at work? Having a massage with a happy ending? Having sex with your partner while fantasising about someone else? What about texting, sexting or sending naked pictures to friends who are not your partner?

We have the internet now and we can have steamy chat-room conversations with strangers and have cybersex with anyone who is keen. I have several clients who are taking part in this; they tell me there is no physical sexual contact, it's exciting, it isn't cheating and nobody will find out. But some studies suggest that online affairs can trigger emotional infidelity and, when discovered, can also trigger feelings of anger, jealousy and insecurity in the other partner.

Most people don't have affairs with the intention of hurting their partner, but the reality is that staying faithful to one person in a relationship can be difficult and challenging. However, infidelity is not just about sex. Both men and women often start affairs because they don't feel appreciated by their partners; they feel neglected or ignored. They enjoy the feeling of being wanted, needed and desired, and often are looking for an emotional connection rather than just a sexual one.

Some therapists now believe there are times when an affair can rescue a marriage or relationship and can even make it stronger. Trying to understand the infidelity and why it happened can provide clarity and give answers to the many questions a couple may feel are still unanswered. It's not a question about who is to blame but, more importantly, how to find out where the roots of the infidelity started so they can make decisions on how their relationship can go forward and heal.

Esther Perel, couples therapist and author of Mating in Captivity, lectures around the world on the subjects of love and sex. Last year she presented the brilliant TED Talk Rethinking Infidelity.

She says: "It's a must watch for anyone who has ever cheated or been cheated on, or who simply wants a new framework for understanding relationships".

Don't get me wrong, would I recommend infidelity? Certainly not, but divorce should not be the first option.

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