Cheating is a Dishonesty Problem, Not Just a Sex Problem

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The Vanishing Point Newsletter

March 2024 Issue

The Institute for Sexual Health, Inc.

© Omar Minwalla, Psy.D., 2023-2024, All rights reserved

Cheating is a Dishonesty Problem, Not Just a Sex Problem
Recognizing the Role of Deceptive Compartmentalization in Infidelity and Problematic Sexual Behavior

Omar Minwalla, Psy.D.

The Institute for Sexual Health (ISH), Los Angeles

This article begins by examining the prevailing views on infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior, which predominantly center on sexual and relational acts or behavior. It then shifts focus to the concept of deceptive compartmentalization and its significant impact on both infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior or sex addiction, defining it as a form of psychological abuse that is frequently underrecognized or downplayed, yet highly comorbid with both infidelity and sexual compulsivity. This oversight is a notable gap in the traditional and modern approaches of treatment professionals in understanding, diagnosing, and addressing such behaviors. To address this gap, the article introduces and describes the term deceptive sexuality (DS) to articulate the abusive actions, patterns, and conditions perpetuated through secret sexual activities, and uses a metaphor to help establish the concept. The distinction between the engagement of sexual behaviors and the engagement in deceptive compartmentalization as psychological abuse is clarified, highlighting the significant co-occurrence, and intersection between these two issues: the sex behavior and the psychological abuse disorder. The article concludes by discussing treatment implications and the need for recognizing, naming, and addressing psychological and intimate partner abuse in clinical treatment, especially for victims and survivors. Strategies to increase awareness of deceptive compartmentalization as a specified psychological abuse problem related to infidelity and other forms of deceptive sexuality – including sex addiction and compulsive sexual behaviors – are suggested.

Public Significance Statement
Increasing awareness of the term and concept of deceptive compartmentalization, as a comorbid or co-occurring psychological abuse disorder with infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior or sex addiction, helps professionals and patients address and treat the systemic psychological abuse versus just focusing on the sexual behaviors alone, which allows for more comprehensive and effective treatment strategies for victims and survivors, as well as for abusers and the injured relationship(s).

Keywords: infidelity, compulsive sexual behavior, deceptive compartmentalization, deceptive sexuality, psychological abuse

Deceptive Compartmentalization: The Hidden Dimension of Infidelity and Compulsive Sexual Behavior Substantial research has been conducted on the subject of infidelity, yet there remains a lack of consensus on its precise definition. Infidelity is usually seen as an act, an event, or a relationship that violates rules (implicit or explicit) and boundaries related to sexual-relational-emotional-romantic intimacy with others. The ICD‐11 characterizes compulsive sexual behavior as a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges, resulting in repetitive sexual behavior over an extended period (e.g., six months or more) that causes marked distress or impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning (World Health Organization, 2019). Drigotas et al. (1999) suggests that infidelity occurs when an individual perceives that their partner has breached the norms of their relationship through interactions with an external party. In contrast, Blow and Hartnett (2005) describe infidelity as either a sexual and/or emotional act undertaken by a member of a committed relationship, which takes place outside of that primary relationship. This act is seen as a betrayal of trust and/or a violation of mutually agreed-upon norms (both explicit and implicit) concerning romantic, emotional, or sexual exclusivity by one or both partners in the relationship. Indeed, the Mayo Clinic (2023) says that “Infidelity isn’t a single, clearly defined situation. What’s considered infidelity can be different among couples and even between spouses.”

Engaging in a sexual act or relationship is different than living a “double life,” which describes deceptive compartmentalization.

Despite the variety of definitions and presentations that exist for infidelity, most traditional models and treatments focus almost exclusively on naming the sexual acts, the illicit sexual or emotional relationship(s), and discussing the lack of control issue that may have led to those acts. In other words, these models and treatments focus only on the sexual behaviors, seeing infidelity and problematic sexual behaviors as a one-part problem. However, beyond these actions, there’s a deeper layer of complexity – dishonesty and the harm that such dishonesty inflicts on the partner and family system. This facet represents a significant, yet frequently unaddressed aspect of the problem.

Individuals who engage in infidelity conceal and separate aspects of their sexual life into a compartment to maintain a façade. We can think of this as deceptive compartmentalization, which stands as a gigantic elephant in the room during discussions on infidelity and sexual compulsivity. This type of deceptive compartmentalization represents a profound system and operation of deliberate deception, a malignant form of dishonesty. A dishonest and deceptive reality is created and then maintained, which extends beyond sex acts to the very core of relational health, trust, and integrity in any relationship. Unfortunately, this entire aspect of the problem is not typically recognized or discussed by traditional clinical models and treatments. Deceptive compartmentalization is an intentional active operation, an ongoing process of deliberate deception, which hence must be understood as a verb.

Infidelity is most often not just an isolated sex act followed by an immediate confession. In most cases, infidelity is a sexual or relational secret reality that is actively being kept hidden over an extended period of time. Similarly, in most cases of sex addiction or sexual compulsivity, the person with the problem usually keeps their sexual behaviors hidden. Unless they openly discuss each incident with their partner or spouse as it happens, people struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors usually keep these parts of their lives secret from their loved ones. People struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors often pretend that no such problem exists – they engage in a conscious agenda to fool and trick loved ones. In other words, we can think of both infidelity and compulsive sexual behaviors as types of deceptive, compartmentalized sexual or relational realities (DCSR).

The key concept here is deceptive compartmentalization. Both infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior problems usually involve deceptive compartmentalization. Deceptive compartmentalization can be viewed as a comorbid psychological abuse disorder, which means it exists independently of the actual sexual or relational behaviors and the motivations behind them. Comorbidity, in this context, describes the coexistence of this deceptive operation and problem alongside the primary issue of the sexual behavior or infidelity. The act of engaging in the behavior itself is one aspect, but the decision to conceal it, thereby creating a secret compartment that is intentionally separated in one’s life, constitutes a different issue altogether. It’s not just about the sexual acts; it’s about the dishonesty and the deliberate, ongoing system of deception that accompanies them – the deceptive ongoing and systemic compartmentalization, which is a type of psychological abuse. Engaging in a sexual behavior is different than living a “double life,” which describes deceptive compartmentalization. They are not the same, but are often confused and undifferentiated when thinking about infidelity or problematic sexual conduct. The term deceptive sexuality helps to differentiate and allows us to clearly name the deceptive compartmentalization of sexual reality, living a secret sexual double life, as a distinct problem.

For example, if a person creates and maintains a secret business basement, underneath the company business, we may refer to that as a deceptive, compartmentalized business reality. It would still be a form of psychological abuse, a system of gaslighting, and a covert psychological operation. But it has nothing to do with sex. Similarly, a person can have trouble controlling sexual behavior and not build a basement but choose to share honestly and openly with their partner and keep the problem upstairs, with no deceptive compartmentalization at all. Engaging in sexual behavior or intimacy with others is one thing, but then deciding to keep it a secret and hiding it is another thing altogether. The former is about sexual behavior, and the latter is about dishonesty and engaging a gaslighting system and agenda – a covert psychological operation.

The point here is that infidelity and problematic sexual behaviors represent a two-part problem (the sexual behaviors and an ongoing system of deception – i.e., deceptive compartmentalization). Unfortunately, traditional clinical models and treatments have tended to see infidelity and problematic sexual behaviors as a one-part problem, focusing only on the sex part. Current definitions of infidelity focused on the transgressive act, the boundary that was violated, a promise broken, an agreement breached, a breaking of rules, or a behavioral act or event (see Rokach & Chan, 2023 for a summary of definitions of infidelity). These models and treatments focus on the individual having “crossed a line” outside of the relationship but say nothing about the ongoing deception – the deceptive compartmentalization.

However, infidelity and problematic sexual behaviors involve more than just a line having been crossed. Infidelity and problematic sexual behaviors also require that the individual creates and maintains a secret, separate reality. We need to change the more traditional, common perception that focuses only on the sex part. We need to start recognizing, naming, and treating both parts of this two-part problem.

Understanding Deceptive Compartmentalization as Psychological Abuse
Compartmentalization involves separating a part from the whole – a process that’s inherently neutral and often essential for daily functioning. For instance, a surgeon must compartmentalize to fully concentrate on the task at hand during surgery. However, the issue arises with the addition of deception. Deception implies dishonesty and a breach of integrity, transforming neutral compartmentalization into a problematic behavior known as deceptive compartmentalization.

This form of compartmentalization becomes a significant concern due to its harmful impacts on individuals and relationships. Lying inflicts ongoing emotional and psychological pain on others, damaging the very foundation of relationships. When we’re deceived, it not only hurts us emotionally but can also lead to confusion, a questioning of reality, and a diminished trust in or desire to connect with the person who lied. Dishonesty has direct, detrimental effects on individuals and their relationships, both psychologically and relationally.

The issue lies not with compartmentalization itself, but with its deceptive variant. Deceptive compartmentalization – or deceptive sexuality – involves a calculated use of lies and deceit to maintain separate realities – a strategy that demands ongoing manipulation and dishonesty. This sustained effort to keep these realities apart not only requires the consistent use of deceitful tactics but also leads to the formation of harmful behavioral patterns. Over time, these patterns establish detrimental conditions to which individuals are subjected. Thus, what starts as isolated acts of dishonesty can evolve into entrenched patterns of abuse, creating environments that are psychologically damaging and abusive. In essence, individual behaviors morph into harmful patterns, which then solidify into distressing states and conditions for those involved.

Subjecting humans to ongoing patterns of dishonesty and deception constitutes a form of psychological abuse. While physical abuse refers to patterns of physical harm, psychological abuse encompasses ongoing psychological damage. Those who endure such patterns of psychological harm are victims and survivors of abuse, highlighting the serious impact of deceit on individuals and relationships. Deceptive compartmentalization is a type of gaslighting system that can harm and negatively impact our second brain – our ability to rely on and trust our gut instincts, which are needed for healthy survival. Without the ability to rely on and trust our gut instincts, we are likely to be confused in our perceptions of reality.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where our current concepts and understandings of infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior do not allow us to clearly see deceptive compartmentalization as a gaslighting system and a covert, harmful psychological operation. The core issue with deceptive sexuality is the individual’s choice to forge and perpetuate a hidden sexual existence within the confines of an intimate partnership or family dynamic. This act of leading a “double life” constructs a deceptive sexual-relational reality. Engaging in a sexual act or relationship is different than living a “double life,” which describes deceptive compartmentalization. We have not yet established a term that defines and describes “living a double life;” hence the term deceptive compartmentalization. We do not yet have a term for creating a deceptive sexual or relational reality, hence the term deceptive sexuality. The term deceptive sexuality provides a way of describing deceptive sexual compartmentalization within intimate relationships and family systems.

The Secret Sexual Basement: An Educational Metaphor for Deceptive Sexual Compartmentalization  Secret sexual basement is a metaphor and a term that can be used interchangeably with deceptive, compartmentalized sexual or relational reality, or DCSR. The metaphor of a secret sexual basement is apt here, as we’re not merely discussing hidden behaviors, but an entirely secret and separate world. This world, crafted and concealed by the individual through a calculated practice of dishonesty, deception, and manipulation, remains isolated from their apparent life, marking a profound violation of healthy or ethical relational functioning and a betrayal of trust. It represents a person’s deceptively hidden sexual, romantic, and/or emotional intimacy with others that is not shared with the primary intimate partner – like having a secret sexual-relational basement that the person built underneath the relationship or family home.

This metaphor of the secret sexual basement helps us better understand and conceptualize deceptive compartmentalization, the double life – not just creating it, but then also maintaining the hidden reality and making sure the people upstairs don’t discover this secret world. Traditional definitions of infidelity and compulsive sexual behaviors may reduce the concept of infidelity to focus solely on the acts themselves. But creating a double life, a secret sexual basement…that’s a significantly more complex story.

The Problem
The problem with traditional clinical models is that both infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior are narrowly defined and do not acknowledge deceptive compartmentalization as a comorbid psychological abuse disorder. Despite thorough analyses of compulsive sexuality and infidelity in existing literature, there’s a notable absence of discussion on psychological abuse disorder as a concurrent issue. This oversight fails to recognize that such behaviors are not isolated incidents but part of a covertly maintained reality built on deliberate deception, dishonesty, and manipulation, like a secret operation conducted in a hidden basement. This creates and maintains a toxic and unhealthy system characterized by ongoing lies, manipulations, and information control, resulting in covert domination and a persistent state of abuse, particularly a form of ongoing systemic gaslighting. Despite some recognition of the deceptive nature of these behaviors, there remains a significant gap in understanding how dishonesty and deception are in themselves forms of abuse and how this applies to infidelity and problematic sexual behaviors such as compulsive sexual behavior or sex addiction-related behaviors.

The Solution

  1. Formally recognizing deceptive compartmentalization as a comorbid psychological disorder linked with infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior, or sex addiction.
  2. Recognizing deceptive sexuality as not just sex, but involving a form of psychological, intimate partner abuse – a distinct and differentiated disorder. Here it is critical to point to page 721 of the DSM-V, which designates Spouse or Partner Abuse, Psychological and provides designated codes for the abuser and for the victim. In the descriptors of this type of abuse, the manual states as a specific example: “Trying to make the victim think that he or she is crazy” (i.e., gaslighting). The DSM-V definition and description of spouse or partner psychological abuse disorder refers to the specific psychological abuse of gaslighting or the intentional manipulation of a human being’s perceptions of reality. However, when it comes to infidelity or deceptive sexual behaviors, most people do not clearly see the gaslighting system and the required dishonest and deceptive behaviors that constitute this type of legitimate psychological abuse problem.
  3. Using the educational metaphor of the secret sexual basement to identify and differentiate the deceptive sexual-relational compartmentalization as distinct from the problematic sexual-relational behaviors. Rather than relying solely on the term deceptive, compartmentalized sexual-relational reality (DCSR), which is the defining characteristic and essential meaning of deceptive sexuality, the metaphor of a secret sexual basement as a way to educate on deceptive compartmentalization has proven to be helpful for many people seeking to understand these issues.
  4. Naming the dishonest behaviors, tactics, and strategies used in the psychological operation of deliberate deception that are associated with deceptive sexuality – the behaviors that are required to keep two realities separate and are used to ensure the primary agenda of intentionally withholding life-altering information from the intimate partner or family members. The behaviors, tactics, and strategies will vary depending on what is needed to keep the sexual reality from being discovered. The term for this specific type of abuse is integrity-abuse behaviors and disorder.

The term deceptive sexuality provides a way of describing deceptive sexual compartmentalization within intimate relationships and family systems.

The Bottom Line
Infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior, or sex addiction, extend beyond mere sexual acts or illicit relationships; they usually involve significant dishonesty problems (i.e., infidelity and compulsive sexual behaviors are a two-part problem). This dishonesty escalates into deception and manipulation, culminating in a covert operation of gaslighting and psychological abuse. The professional field and society have yet to fully acknowledge deceptive compartmentalization as a form of psychological abuse, despite its frequent co-occurrence in cases of infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior. The underlying psychological operations, powered by the deliberate concealment of crucial life-altering information, remain unseen as long as the “secret sexual basement” exists. Recognizing the abusive nature inherent in these sexual problems is crucial; without this recognition, the victims of such abuse remain unseen and untreated, and help for abusers remains focused only on the sex part, leaving the dishonesty and deception part untreated, with no targeting or even naming of the systemic gaslighting.

Educational Terms
Coercive Control: A catch-all term that emphasizes the core of most domestic abuse, which is the need for power and control over another person and incorporates numerous types of nonphysical domestic abuse patterns (Candela, 2016).

Comorbidity: The presence of one or more additional conditions often co-occurring with a primary condition. In the context of mental health, comorbidity often refers to disorders that are often coexistent with each other, and refers to the presence of more than one diagnosis occurring in an individual at the same time. For example, infidelity and the abuse disorder of systemic gaslighting; sex addiction and the abuse disorder of systemic gaslighting.

Compartmentalization: A defense mechanism in which people mentally separate conflicting thoughts, emotions, or experiences to avoid the discomfort of contradiction; can also be a neutral term to simply mean to separate from the whole, to make a separate compartment.

Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder (CSBD): A disorder where the person lacks control over or is not able to resist engaging in sexual behaviors despite negative consequences. CSBD is characterized by a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges, resulting in repetitive sexual behaviors over an extended period (e.g., 6 months or more) that cause marked distress or impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Deceptive: Tending or having power to cause someone to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid; perceptually misleading.

Deceptive Compartmentalization (DC): A type of integrity problem that involves separating something from the whole, deceptively, which by – definition – lacks integrity and is dishonest.

Deceptive, Compartmentalized, Sexual- Relational Reality (DCSR): A person’s deceptively hidden sexual, romantic, and/or emotional intimacy with others that is not shared with the primary intimate partner. DCSRs are intentionally hidden and separated from the rest of the person’s life and reality.

Deceptive Sexuality (DS): A clinical syndrome that involves creating and maintaining a deceptive, compartmentalized sexual-relational reality in the context of an intimate partnership or a family system.DS is defined as involving two pathological systems: one that relates to the inability to control sexual urges or behaviors and/or sexual entitlement (which we call compulsive-entitled sexuality, or CES), and another that includes integrity violations and abusive actions (which we call integrity-abuse disorder, or IAD, a clinical term which refers to the dishonesty and deception problem).

Infidelity: The violation of sexual or relational rules or boundaries, which may be implicit or explicit. Many clinicians and researchers, including the Mayo Clinic, emphasize that the precise definition of infidelity differs for all individuals and relationships.

Integrity-abuse Disorder (IAD): A type of conduct disorder defined by a significant lack of integrity, characterized by dishonest, deceptive, and manipulative behavior and conduct, which can become a covert relational psychological abuse (gaslighting) system of domination and control. Integrity violations and abusive actions that result from deficits in integrity cause harm or injury to other people and relationships and/or cause significant impairment to important areas of life functioning.

Integrity Disorder: An endogenous psychological problem characterized by dishonesty, deception, and/or the intentional malignant manipulation of the reality of others, and deficits in integrity that result in deficits and problems with being honest or truthful.

Psychological/Emotional Abuse: A form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another person to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress. It is often associated with situations of power imbalance in abusive relationships, where one person maintains control and power over the victim and engages in behaviors such as bullying, gaslighting, or child abuse.

Reality: The world or the state of things as they exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.

Secret Sexual Basement: A metaphor for a DCSR; the terms can be used interchangeably. Secret sexual basement refers to a secret sexual or relational life, represented by the educational metaphor of a basement secretly built by a family member or one partner. It represents a person’s deceptively hidden sexual, romantic, and/or emotional intimacy with others that is not shared with the primary intimate partner, like having a secret sexual-relational basement that the person built underneath the relationship or family home.

Sexual-Relational: Refers to what is being deceptively compartmentalized, which is a reality consisting specifically of sexuality, emotional, romantic, and/or relational infidelity. The S and the R in the DCSR acronym refers to sexual-relational; the secret basement is specifically sexual-relational in nature.

References

1 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

2 Blow, A. J., & Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships II: A substantive review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31(2), 217–233.
https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2005.tb01556.x

3 Candela, K. (2016). Protecting the invisible victim: Incorporating coercive control in domestic violence statutes. Family Court Review, 54(1), 112–125.
https://doi.org/10.1111/fcre.12208

4 Drigotas, S.J., Safstrom, C.A., & Gentilia, T. (1999). An investment model prediction of dating infidelity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(3), 509-524.
https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-3514.77.3.509

5 Mayo Clinic. (2023). Infidelity: Mending your marriage after an affair.
https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/infidelity/art-20048424

6 Rokach, A. & Chan, S. H. (2023). Love and Infidelity: Causes and Consequences. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(5), 3904.
https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20053904

7World Health Organization. (2019). International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (11th ed.).
https://icd.who.int/

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Trish Haight, LMFT

Licensed Psychotherapist

Trish Haight, LMFT is a certified Deceptive Sexuality and Trauma Therapist (DSTT), a specialization in deceptive sexuality and trauma (DST), offered by The Institute for Sexual Health (ISH).Trish is a leading professional voice in Deceptive Sexuality and Trauma Treatment (DSTT) and is an Adjunct Professor and Faculty Member of The Institute for Sexual Health (ISH), and currently teaches Level 2 and 3 of the DSTT Professional Training along with Dr. Omar Minwalla, Licensed Psychologist and Clinical Sexologist. Trish formally trained directly under Dr. Omar Minwalla and was an instrumental part of Dr. Minwalla’s original core clinical treatment team at The Institute for Sexual Health from 2009 – 2015, which is referred to as Dr. Minwalla’s, Sacred Clinical Incubator, giving birth to both DSTT and IVTT, Intentional Vibe Trauma Treatment. IVTT is a treatment for systemic abuse, injustice, and complex trauma, and relevant in particular to survivor-based communities.

Dr. Omar Minwalla, Psy.D.

Licensed Psychologist & Clinical Sexologist

Dr. Omar Minwalla is a Licensed Psychologist and Clinical Sexologist trained at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Dr. Minwalla has spent 20 years as a first responder on the front lines of treating infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior. His grounded theory of Deceptive Sexuality and Trauma Treatment (DSTT) not only establishes a new standard of care for the treatment of infidelity, compulsive sexual behavior disorders, and sex addiction, but shines a light on a unique method for the treatment of systemic abuse, injustice and complex trauma, called Intentional Vibe Trauma Treatment (IVTT). Dr. Minwalla is the founder of The Institute for Sexual Health (ISH) which was one of the first and only U.S. treatment centers to challenge the “co-sex addict” model and articulate the systemic abuse associated with infidelity and compulsive sexual behavior disorder.

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