I love Counseling, I really do. However, if I was completely honest, I don’t like all the heartache that I see. One such topic that is particularly tough is dealing with couples who have come to me because of infidelity. For as long as people have made promises to be faithful to their partners, people have been breaking those promises. Aside from the hurt that comes with infidelity, romantic partners — both the cheated and the cheated upon — the guilt, betrayal, anger, abandonment, foolishness, and loss of trust are always present. It’s like watching a really bad movie that you’ve seen over and over again. The names may change, as well as some of the details, but the emotions and the pain are always almost unbearable. However, the interesting thing is that most people know that infidelity is wrong, and yet, people still do it. They do it even though they have seen the havoc that it has brought to other people’s lives. They do it even when they said they would never, and even though they might get caught. This begs two questions: The first is why, and the second is now what?
The mind is a tricky thing. We tend to assume that every thought that we have is obviously true, when honestly, that could not be further from the truth. Our intentions may be honorable but our impulse to be something other than what we are in our daily, monogamous lives, and the thrill that comes from the illicit rather than the predictable, is something that causes us to make choices that we end up regretting. We often feel entitled to things that we are not entitled to. For instance, living out the day to day causes a couple to see the flaws of the other person as well as the strengths, but what do we tend to focus on? The flaws, of course. In doing that, one partner will tell themselves, “I deserve better”, and instead of working together to come to a resolve, and knowing we may need to reach out for help and go to therapy, we give ourselves permission to step outside of the marriage to find relief. I have yet to talk to anyone who strengthened their marriage by turning to someone else. Yet, it happens.
In her book, “After the Affair, Healing The Pain And Rebuilding Trust When A Partner Has Been Unfaithful”, Psychologist Janis Abrams Spring writes, “The discovery of your partner’s affair forces you to redefine yourself in the most fundamental way. If you, my life partner, are not the person I thought you were, and our marriage is a lie, then who am I?”. And to add insult to injury, when asked why, what usually is revealed is what the non-cheating partner’s role was in the cheating partner’s behavior. Because yes, while it was the cheating partner who did the deed, more often than not the behavior didn’t happen out of the blue. Typically, one or both partners’ needs aren’t being met — sexually, emotionally, or otherwise. Maybe the cheating partner feels that their spouse isn’t affirming their sense of self-worth anymore. Maybe they feel like they’re not getting the same amount of attention as they used to, or their spouse isn’t helping them carry the burden of running the household. Whatever the reason, it is this that makes getting the time, attention, and affection from another person very enticing.
However, I would like to bring out the very important point that most non-cheating partners will refuse to evaluate themselves without a very heartfelt apology and a willingness to work to save the marriage from the cheating partner first, nor should they.
Couple’s therapist and author Esther Perel notes the importance of atoning for a breach in fidelity in her TED Talk. “Healing begins when the perpetrator acknowledges their wrongdoing. So, for the partner who had the affair…one thing is to end the affair, but the other is the essential, important act of expressing guilt and remorse,” she says. “But the truth is that I have noticed that quite a lot of people who have affairs may feel terribly guilty for hurting their partner, but they don’t feel guilty for the experience of the affair itself. And that distinction is important.” Perel goes on to say that the cheating partner needs to “hold vigil” for what the relationship was before the infidelity in order to relieve the non-cheating partner from obsessing about what may have gone wrong in the relationship to lead to the event. “That in itself begins to restore trust.” Perel goes on to say, that only then can the partner who was wronged think about forgiving the indiscretion and moving on. A narcissistic response such as “Well, it happens, we can’t change that, so he/she needs to just get over it!” does nothing but add fuel to the already large fire. When the cheating partner feels that they are doing the non-cheating partner a favor by offering to stay with them and that all should be forgiven and forgotten, they often find themselves on the outside of the front door. Trust, the most important foundation for any relationship has been broken. What took years to develop has been crushed into a fine powder in minutes. If you have ever tried to maintain a relationship without trust, you know that it is a miserable way to live, and most couples do not survive it.
Because of the deceit, there are consequences from the affair, even if there is reconciliation. The devastation that it causes relationships with children, family, friends is nothing less than traumatic. If you pull up the DSM-5 and look up the PTSD criteria and change the word ‘traumatic event’ to ‘infidelity, it’s almost going to be picture perfect in terms of the symptoms criteria. There will be triggers, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance behavior, and manifestations related to the knowledge about the affair, and everything related to the affair. Fallout from infidelity can also spill over into other roles that people occupy, such as being a parent or a professional. This can lead to guilt and shame because they often do not perform well in other areas because they are preoccupied with the trauma of the betrayal. So, what do you do if you have found yourself in this situation? I’m glad you asked because I have some suggestions:
Therapy. Both individual and couples counseling can be very important. Find a therapist that will be honest and understand that honesty and owning your part is crucial. Couples therapy can only be beneficial if both people in the relationship are willing to do the work that is needed for reconciliation. Both sides need to be realistic about this. This is not the time to try to make the other do anything or hope that the therapist can perform the miracle of making the unwilling partner willing if they are not.
Understand that it is going to take time, patience, and commitment to the process. People will often ask me how long the process will be, and my response is, “You didn’t get into this situation overnight and you are not going to get out of it overnight.” Although it’s not a popular response, it’s the truth. Forgiveness is often one step forward and two steps back. It is going to take time.
Develop a support system. Find people who will be truthful and are for seeing your marriage work, not those who are going to further the divide between you and your spouse. They can be friends, family members or spiritual leaders…but they have to be truthful and understanding.
Get ready to be accountable. You cannot rebuild trust without it. Why is accountability so important? Because to do the same thing and expect different results is the definition of insanity.
Is it possible to establish trust and build your marriage back strong? Not only is it possible, I have had people tell me years later that even though it was toughest thing they have ever done, they were glad they made the journey because it woke them up to the problems that they knew were there but didn’t want to admit to them.