In this episode, Jaime delves into the topic of infidelity and its implications in divorce cases with Michelle Chiaramonte, a clinical social worker and therapist specializing in marriage and couples counseling. They explore why people cheat, the changing dynamics of infidelity across genders, and how individuals can navigate the aftermath of an affair. Discover valuable insights into the emotional complexities of infidelity and how to move forward, whether together or apart. Michelle also shares thoughts on how to help prevent infidelity in your relationship. Tune in to gain a deeper understanding of infidelity and its impact on divorce.
Need help from Michelle? Contact her by visiting www.luminacounseling.com.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime: Welcome to A Year in a Day. I’m Jaime Davis, Board Certified Family Law Attorney at Gailor Hunt. On this show, I talk with lawyers, psychologists, and other experts with the goal of helping you navigate divorce without destruction. In this episode, we’re talking with Michelle Chiaramonte about infidelity, why people cheat, and how that can affect the divorce process. Michelle is a clinical social worker and therapist and a marriage and couples counselor at Lumina Counseling. Thanks for joining me, Michelle.
Michelle: Thank you.
Jaime: As a divorce lawyer, I hear a lot about infidelity and often have to counsel clients about the impact infidelity can have on their family law cases. Many of them are surprised to learn that if they are the dependent spouse and they cheat, they’re barred from receiving alimony. Likewise, the supporting spouses are often surprised when they find out if they have cheated or statutes are worded such that they shall pay alimony. Despite the huge impact infidelity can have on a family law case, people continue to cheat. Michelle, in your experience… Why do people cheat?
Michelle: There are a multitude of reasons. It pretty much runs the gamut. Right now, the most conventional thoughts are loneliness, years of sexual deadness, resentment, regret. Regret is often not what we’ve done, but for what we haven’t done. Marital neglect, the Western way of thinking is that once you’re married, you’re married, and the relationship goes, and it’s forever. And we don’t necessarily have the skill set focused on nurturing and cultivating and prioritizing marriages. We very much prioritize family, but often to the neglect of the marriage. Some people are craving attention. A lot of women right now are talking about not being seen and not being heard in their relationships. Opportunity, opportunity is a big one. Access is kind of lurking around every corner now. Facebook, The Internet, more people are out and about in the world, more people are mobile, traveling, drinking too much. Opportunity is often right at hand.
Jaime: Have you found that the reasons differ by gender at all?
Michelle: Yes, women are definitely closing the gap. Right now, it is difficult to say exactly what the percentages are on cheating. The typical research ranges anywhere from to of relationships. Yes. The hang up with that kind of research though, is that people are very notoriously dishonest when they’re engaging in those types of questions. So at this point, the most solid number is, is that women are closing the gap and they are more likely to have an affair now than they would have in the past.
Jaime: That’s a staggering statistic.
Michelle: It is a staggering statistic and it seems to be on the rise.
Jaime: What do you think is the reason for that?
Michelle: For a lot of people. It is this idea, like especially for women, it’s contextual, right? Like women are doing a lot, they’re shouldering a lot. There is a great book out there called FedUp by Gemma Hartley and it started as an article in one of the news magazines but turned into a book and it’s about the emotional load that women carry and that really kind of plays into a level of perfection that’s expected at the current moment. So for women, they feel like they’re educated, they have great careers, they’re now the household manager, they’re mothers and so in that, they also want then their relationships to be the best and they want to be seen and they want to be heard and acknowledged within that space. For men, I think it’s more about being needed and about being desired. Men’s roles have changed very little in comparison to women’s roles in recent decades. And so they’re really, the things we’re hearing from men are is that they’re feeling neglected, they’re feeling like a babysitter, they’re feeling like they can never get it right. There’s nothing that they can do is good enough. And when you get in that good enough space, that’s not a valued and desired space. And so for those two differing spaces, for women maybe more contextual and more holistic, and for men maybe more of this traditional value of desired and valued.
Jaime: Do you think any of it has anything to do with, let’s say a man is not having sex with his wife, is the man more likely to go out and cheat then? Like, is that still, it seems to be a stereotypical reason, but-
Michelle: It is not. The research really isn’t showing that. It’s really showing a difference in expression. So not so much that men don’t want closeness or intimacy, or to have a good relationship, but they really still are coming along and being the tools to get there. You have to be emotionally available. You have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to set yourself aside and prioritize someone else within the relationship. And those seem to be where we’re struggling, but yet to your point, the stereotype or the pop culture, answer is, really puts a lot of responsibility still on women, right? You’re not attractive enough. He’s not doing it with you. He’s gonna go elsewhere. That’s really not the case.
Jaime: That’s so interesting. So once someone has cheated, have you found that there are any differences based on gender, on how people react to being cheated on?
Michelle: Yes. So going back to that idea of women thinking more contextually, a lot of times, especially in therapy or in their social networks, if they can kind of put the pieces together and come up with a why, why did we get here? How did we get here? What did this mean? Women can often work through it. They can often kind of, as soon as it makes sense, that’s kind of the release button. For men, I think it’s a little more complicated because it’s much more about sex and it’s much more about what does sex mean to men. You know? And sex is a somewhat predatory, possessive, even in a healthy way, act for men. And it’s also a real barometer of their relationship. It’s a real reflection of how they want to feel loved and how they want to show love. So for men, I am seeing much more that it can be a lot more difficult for them to move past it because the why doesn’t really matter to them. What matters is she didn’t choose me. She chose someone else.
Jaime: So I’ve actually seen that play out in my practice as a divorce lawyer as well. We have female clients that… get cheated on and you’re right, they’re able to kind of work through it. They might not like it and they might be sad about it, but they work through it. We often have male clients that just get stuck and they really can’t get past that point.
Michelle: Yes. And so I think your folks that are more stuck tend to be folks that are a little more self-absorbed, a little more entitled, maybe falling on that narcissism continuum where it’s more about what I want, when I want, how I want it. And so then to think that someone else can think for themselves and not do what you wanted them to do can be earth shattering. And then that goes into kind of a punishment phase, which I would imagine complicates divorces incredibly.
Jaime: Oh, absolutely. I mean, do you think, does it boil down to just a loss of control that they were not able to control what the partner did and the partner acted out in a way that they didn’t like?
Michelle: Yes, in that it reflects poorly on the image of the union, their standing in the community, who they are as a person. So yes, very much the image and the complete lack of control.
Jaime: Yeah, we do have a hard time with that when we’re trying to get folks to especially resolve their family law cases. You know, we want to try to get them resolved outside of court if we can, because that’s usually better for the family. But when someone is stuck in that punishment mentality, you know, it’s really hard to convince that person that a settlement is really a good deal for them because they don’t care.
Michelle: No, no, it is the emotion is so overwhelming, right? Infidelity, you know, in its simplest form is an act of betrayal, but it’s also an act of longing and loss. And so that means, you know, for that, for both parties, they, they lose a sense of identity, they lose a sense of role. They’re potentially faced with losing their families, which often is not something either part of either partner wants, right? Um, either the partner that’s engaged in the affair or, or the other partner, no one wants everything to change, you know? And when you get stuck in that resentment, when you get stuck in the emotion, nobody’s going to therapy, they’re not doing the work. They may have outside influences that are very judgmental and critical and kind of fueling the emotional fire. It’s very difficult to come out of that.
Jaime: If you find out that your partner has been unfaithful, are they more likely to cheat again?
Michelle: Depends greatly on what the motivators were, the contributing factors to the infidelity. If we are working with someone who is maybe a little bit more on that narcissist continuum, someone that’s more entitled, I deserve X, Y, and Z, someone that is much more concerned with the optics, but yet this is how I want to be behind closed doors, then yes, I would definitely advise to be cautious moving forward, that infidelity is probably a high probability. For those partners though, that this was a one-off or this was an acting out behavior that kind of originated with either emotional shutdown or conflict avoidance, then I would say no, this is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for both partners to kind of take a step back and really look at what was working in the marriage and what wasn’t. Marriage is a contract and it’s a contract written of unwritten rules and we don’t discuss those. We go into this with a very romanticized idea and think that it works itself out as we go. And it doesn’t. Assumptions are a really hard space to come from because they’re incredibly individual. So if you look at it from that standpoint, this is now a time to make spoken what has spent years being unspoken.
Jaime: Do marriages typically end immediately after infidelity is discovered?
Michelle: Not necessarily, this is a point that’s changing. We’re in a really big state of flux with this thought process. So in the past, I think a lot of folks have faced a lot of criticism and judgment for not ending it immediately, for not taking that stance of the one deal breaker in life is cheating. I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to stay. And unfortunately, it’s a much more complicated, complex picture. It touches all areas of your life. And so I think in the current climate, people are more considering collaborative divorce. They’re more considering working together, whether they choose to separate or whether they choose to stay together. So you can think of it as, again, the springboard into where did we get off track and how do we get back on track? What needs to change for both of us for this to move forward? Or minimally, it can still be much more amicable than it had been in the past.
Jaime: Yeah, I think that can be a really complicated area, because I think lawyers and therapists are probably going to tell folks two different things when it comes to infidelity and the ramifications of trying to get it back on track and get it together. In my world, if you have a client who has been unfaithful, committed adultery, and the other spouse is unwilling to try to work on it, that spouse may be deemed to have condoned the adultery, which can have a huge impact on alimony. Dependent spouses are barred from receiving alimony even for a one-night stand. And so if their spouse, you know, is willing to work on the marriage and has sex with them, there’s this conditional forgiveness in the law that provided the person doesn’t cheat again, you know, their alimony claim is revived. And so I think sometimes people can be skeptical because they’re like, well, how do I know she really wants to get back together? How do I know she’s not just setting me up for condemnation? And I think it can make people a little wary. And I know from your standpoint, that’s like the opposite of what they should be doing if they wanna get it all back on track, right?
Michelle: Opposite, but reality, right? And I think this is the balance and it illustrates the absolute point of complexity that this presents. Marriage is a contract. There is a business arrangement. That’s where it originated. Historically, I very much advise clients to understand their legal rights, you know, in the short term when these situations are coming up because that is a fact of life and that is gonna influence some of your decision going forward. You know, when we pull back on the relationship side, There’s a bit of conflict there, but not as much as it may seem, because I think that in that partner that wants to reconcile or in those discussions, especially early on, even from a therapeutic standpoint, you can gauge kind of where this is going. The question I encourage people to ask themselves just for themselves is what needs to be different for me to want to continue to do this? What needs to change? So if we’re talking about anything else, right, if somebody’s coming to you talking about absolutely any other topic, You know, I’m not so sure, right? That’s a piece of the puzzle, but that is not the whole puzzle. But if people are sitting down talking about what needs to be different for us to do this, then to me, from a therapeutics standpoint, there’s definitely something to work with.
Jaime: From a legal standpoint, one thing we can do that can provide a little bit of protection is a postnuptial agreement. Sometimes we hear them referred to as reconciliation agreements. Maybe the spouse is willing to work on it if they can, know on the front end how the property will be divided if it doesn’t work out or maybe it’s… I’m willing to give this a try if you’re willing to let me have a certain bank account as my separate property so that I feel like I have a little bit of a safety net if it doesn’t work. So I think from a legal standpoint. There are some ways that we can try to provide some protection if folks do want to try to work on the marriage after adultery.
Michelle: That’s fascinating because I think that’s exactly what some people need, right? Because obviously… You know, therapeutically, like if we think about, like Esther Perel is obviously a well-renowned relationship expert and she kind of looks at post-infidelity as kind of a three-phase process. And you have the crisis phase, you have the meaning-making phase, and then you have the vision phase. And I think to your point, that’s where we butt heads then with the legality, because the legalities don’t often acknowledge, right, that there can be this, unfortunately, indiscriminate amount of time that it takes to kind of work through those phases to even decide, are we doing this together, or are we doing this separate?
Jaime: If you could only share one piece of advice with someone going through a divorce, what would it be?
Michelle: MI would highly recommend some type of therapeutic process. Do the healing work. It is challenging work. It feels like it’s not a priority always at that current crisis moment, but it is very much an opportunity for you to look at who you’ve been, who you are now, and who you want to be in the future. We all are caught up within systems and within family legacies and cultural legacies, which are the patterns that teach us how to act and react. And this moment of our entire life being in flux gives you this opportunity to really look at how do I want to be and bring some intention to being more positive, that personal growth and being much more in charge of. You, in how you act and react.
Jaime: I’m so glad to hear you say that. One of the first things I ask my potential clients during consultations is, do you have a therapist? If not, would you like a referral? For me to be able to do my job well, I need my clients to be emotionally healthy and able to make good decisions. And people are situationally crazy when they’re going through a divorce, through no fault of their own. It’s probably one of the most stressful things they’ve ever had to deal with. But I couldn’t agree with you more. Therapy is crucial for folks going through a separation.
Michelle: It is too, even to your point of like on a neurobiological level. Like our brains are amazingly complex organisms that are trying to manage the crisis. You’re in fight, flight, or freeze. And then there’s just this lack of clarity because your brain is trying to protect you from the pain. So to be able to kind of sort through the emotional roller coaster, that is very much natural to this kind of process. Yes, it often is beneficial to do it with a neutral, non-involved party that can give you some knowledge, can help you see all of the choices, not just one narrow choice, and then empower you to be able to see the bigger picture.
Jaime: Right, I mean, they’re probably not sleeping well, they’re probably not eating well, I’m sure that they’re off of whatever exercise routine that they might have had. And it can be really difficult to get those folks focused on property issues and spousal support and child custody because they’re really just trying to survive at that point.
Michelle: Absolutely, and take care of their children, right? And that’s the other piece. You know, the most important thing to many people, obviously, is your children. And so there are a lot of folks that become very consumed with that task. And it is to the exclusion of taking care of themselves and trying to figure out, again, what they want and who they want and how they want to be, in addition to what you’re speaking about, which is actual realities of what your life is gonna look like.
Jaime: Well, we certainly don’t want them self-medicating either. You know, we don’t want plants resorting to drugs and alcohol because that’s going to certainly be a detriment to their lives and their cases.
Michelle: Absolutely. And when people are in pain, if there is not an outlet for that pain, it is going to find a way out. So in my practice, we talk a lot about gremlins. So you can either confront your pain and find the appropriate outlets or the gremlins are going to come out. The gremlins are obviously not working in your best interest. So we can do it the easy way or the hard way.
Jaime: It’s a great analogy. I love it. One question I have that, you know… We have not talked about and I don’t know what the answer is to this or if there is one. But is there anything that you can do as a spouse to help prevent yourself from being cheated on?
Michelle: Yes. I think honesty and communication. So it’s a psychologist named Stan Tatkin. He talks about the couple bubble, and it’s really being able to create the safe, honest space within your partnership that all feelings can exist. So feelings are valid because you have them. What you do with them is your choice point. And so if there’s a space to be able to talk honestly, so say I travel a lot, and things have been stressful at home and our kids are really busy and I’m trying to grow my career and I’m finding myself looking around bars, right, when I’m alone and I’m missing everybody going, wow, there’s some attractive people in here. Do I have a space that I can come home and say that and say, hey, we need to see this, right? This is not a reflection on a criticism on anyone, but this is becoming a thing. And so if you can find, and it sounds incredibly difficult, but once you start adding those little pieces in of much more honest, safe communication, then I think that allows people when they feel like they’re on the slippery slope to be able to be in touch with the reality and to have the support to say, no, that’s not what I’m interested in doing. I need to get refocused and we need to do something a little different.
Jaime: At what point would you recommend couples counseling for a couple that may be having some of the thoughts that you just described?
Michelle: As soon as you start to feel the distance, as soon as you start to think you feel lonely or you’re feeling not seen or we’re having the same conversations over and over and over and over again, don’t let that go on for five or years. Don’t let that go on to the point that we have the crisis say we got to do something. Now something has shifted. And most people it’s something we talk about real early on in couples counseling is like, when do you think the shift happened? You know, if you’re very honest with yourself, are we trying to recreate something that probably never was there or are we trying to get back something that that was there at the beginning? And most people will be able to tell you when the shift happened, you know, in hindsight, when they think about it, they go, well, it was really around this time. So that’s that thing of like checking in. I joke with my clients, but actually we use it too of anniversaries are a great check-in point, right? You get a once a year, go to dinner and go, Hey, Do a debrief, what went well this year? What didn’t go well? Are you signing up for another year? What do we want? Yeah, it is. And I think it can be wonderfully light and some years it can be serious, but I think it can show you where the distance starts. Because if you’re not even thinking in that vein or you can’t have that conversation with somebody that you’ve said, this is who I want to be intimate and close with, then it’s time to kind of step back and think about what’s going on.
Jaime: Yeah, I hear a lot of stories, especially in initial consultations with clients, and it’s very similar to what you just described. There will be a crisis, somebody was unfaithful, but then they go back and they’re like, well, we really haven’t been happy for years, years, whatever the number is. And I just wonder how many of those could have been saved if they had tried counseling earlier.
Michelle: I think many more, right? It’s kind of a simple equation when it comes to that. If a process has kind of gone off the rails and we only need to make a few tweaks to get it back on the rails, that’s obviously much easier than the hurt and pain and suffering that people suffer after the crisis has happened.
Jaime: If one of our listeners is looking for help from you in their divorce, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Michelle: I have a great website. It has lots of resources on it. It tells you all about me. It is luminacounseling.com and you can schedule appointments on there. You can send me an email. You can see what my practice is all about, but that’s the most efficient way.
Jaime: Thanks, Michelle, for joining us and thank you for listening. If you like this episode, be sure to follow the show wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one. While this information is intended to provide you with general information to navigate divorce without destruction, this podcast is not legal advice. The information is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have any questions before taking action, consult an attorney who is licensed in your state. If you are in need of assistance in North Carolina, contact us at Gailor Hunt by visiting divorceistough.com. I’m Jaime Davis, and I’ll talk with you next time on A Year in a Day.