Do military couples experience infidelity more often, less often or as often as their civilian counterparts? Is the military community somehow prone to higher rates of cheating? Who’s more likely to have an affair – the service member or the spouse?

Even if you’ve never personally cheated or been cheated on, chances are, you know someone who has. Shoot, I’ve been a milspouse for 18 years and I’ve yet to meet a military couple who hasn’t been touched by infidelity in some form or another.

Infidelity is a problem that we don’t talk about at unit family days, learn about at the family service centers, or hear about when new resiliency classes are taught. We only hear about them after a friend has one too many glasses of wine, through a flood of tears when they can’t hold it in any longer. It’s often only whispered about in dark corners, or in the presence of a therapist. In short, it’s a taboo topic.

When we do hear about it in a public forum, we mostly see it in the form of an infidelity article written in the first person or on social media. There are plenty of keyboard warriors that scour the internet searching for the perfect post to spew the stereotypes they’ve built up in their heads: “all service members cheat” or “all spouses cheat”…and we all know you can’t argue with trolls. But here’s the thing: there’s NO WAY to know anything for certain unless someone studies this problem.

You can’t study a problem unless you acknowledge that there IS a problem.

The issue of infidelity isn’t unique to military marriage, but the outcome of cheating can become a matter of national security. Think about it: cheating causes marital discord-which impacts Family Readiness-which can compromise Mission Readiness. The DoD and military service branches have spent copious amounts of money on military family programs and marriage support. Over the last few decades, numerous studies have been commissioned that put our marriages under a microscope in order to solve issues that could impact readiness.

Infidelity is barely, if ever, mentioned in any of them. How can infidelity in military marriage ever be addressed if the support systems already in place don’t even mention it?

We already know if we ignore a problem, it will only continue to grow. If military suicide hadn’t been studied, or if mental health issues were brushed off as they were in the past; how much higher would the suicide rate be within the ranks? How many more lives would be lost? So if the issue of infidelity continues to be ignored, how many military marriages will dissolve? How many relationships must be lost before this issue is addressed?

The aftermath of an affair can be brutal to a marriage. The reasons behind why someone cheats are complex and unique to their own experience. It’s not always “black or white”, “right or wrong”, “your fault or theirs.” It’s not as simple as “she was lonely,” “we never have sex anymore, or “he wasn’t happy.” Guess WHAT: even happy people cheat!

At least that’s what world renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel has learned as she traveled the globe studying infidelity. She’s interviewed and treated thousands of couples who were touched by infidelity.

In her famous TED Talk “Rethinking Infidelity”, which has garnered almost eight million views, Perel poses a series of questions in her quest to explore the nature of infidelity.

“Why do we cheat? And why do happy people cheat? And when we say “infidelity,” what exactly do we mean? Is it a hookup, a love story, paid sex, a chat room, a massage with a happy ending? Why do we think that men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy, but women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy? And is an affair always the end of a relationship?”

Throughout this talk, the stories of Perel’s clients are woven in, sharing the complex reality of a topic that she agrees, is so poorly understood. She challenges our assumptions, noting that no one person can agree on the exact definition of infidelity.

“Sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps…there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes an infidelity.”

But even if we managed to nail down the definition of infidelity (which is different for everyone), we still need to get to the root of “WHY.” In her talk, Perel explains that when a person has an affair, it has less to do with their partner and more to do with themselves.

“At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.”

Now, I’m not a fan of excusing bad behavior simply based on mental health issues, but as it pertains to the military community, Perel might be on to something here where she says:

“It isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become…it isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self.”

As military spouses, we all experience things that make us question who we are and what we’re doing. Our community experiences loss and tragedy that can shake even the strongest individuals to their core. We experience lengthy separations from our husbands and wives regularly, and they experience things that sometimes even we aren’t privy to know, especially after 16+ years of war.

If Perel is right, then it would be safe to assume that infidelity does exist at a higher rate in the military community. So what then? Does that mean that military couples are forever doomed to be labeled unfaithful? Does it mean military divorce will be on the rise? Does it mean we’ll all don a uniformed scarlet letter for the rest of eternity?

Probably not. But infidelity in military marriage DOES deserve more than a second glance, and we could all stand to ask the hard questions without judgment…starting with our own marriages.

Whether it’s dealing with marital infidelity or some other struggle that changes our identity as a couple; we’re all going to hit a rough patch or two along the way. Some of those struggles will redefine our marriages and some will redefine us as individuals.

Perel suggests most of us are going to have two or three marriages in our life time…and some of us will do it with the same person.

“Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”

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