Infidelity is something that affects countless couples. The Kinsey Institute sites research that shows that 20-25% of men and 10-15% of women engage in extramarital sex at least once during their marriage. (Laumann, 1994; Wiederman, 1997). So, of course, cheating is the reason that many couples end up in therapy, and I am often asked “how do we get through this?” Well, for the sake of every spouse who has been in this situation, I sincerely wish that I had a magic wand hidden in my therapy desk that I could simply wave to make all the pain and betrayal disappear. But, in reality, the answer to that question is extremely complicated, and the ability to “get through it” is dependent on so many factors. I will attempt to summarize this process as simply as possible in this post:
1) Get yourself a couples therapist and a separate individual therapist for each of you ASAP. There’s a lot that you will need help sorting out, and getting advice from your sister who now hates your spouse or your totally biased mother-in-law is definitely not the way to go. If you are the spouse who was cheated-on, you will likely need some help making sense of everything and processing your anger and grief without allowing your self-worth to take a hit. If you are the spouse who had the affair, you will need to discover and articulate things about yourself and your relationship that you likely ignored for some time. Even if your relationship ends, I strongly suggest that each partner goes to individual therapy in order to learn to avoid following the same patterns in your next relationships. Also, even if you read some great books on the topic in general, you will also need an experienced guide to help you sort through the factors unique to your situation…
2) Figure out what it is about the cheating spouse that allowed him/her to step outside the marriage. (These are the factors that put the owness of the infidelity squarely on the shoulders of the cheater, even if the relationship/spouse’s behavior was not ideal) Some examples of these factors include lack of impulse control, narcissitic or selfish tendencies, breakdown in integrity/character, unwillingness to delay gratification, alcohol/drug intoxication/abuse, insecurity, depression, lonliness, feeling powerless and acting passive-aggressively. These can be explored through examining family-of-origin dynamics, current behaviors, and personality aspects in individual and couples therapy, or even through psychological evaluation.
3) Assess how likely it is that these factors will change. Does the cheating spouse know and own the PERSONAL factors that contributed to infidelity? Is he/she willing and able (in the case of sociopathy or extreme narcissism, for example, there is some question about whether or not a person can form a loving attachment to another person, even with therapy.) to change these factors? Simple lip-service is not enough. Is there actual evidence of these characteristics changing in every-day life? Has there been complete transparency and honesty on the part of the spouse that cheated (sharing of passwords, checking-in frequently, etc.)? Was contact with the “other woman/man” immediately and willingly severed? One of the most telling ways to assess a person’s ability to empathize/delay gratification/be appropriately assertive/demonstrate respect is to note the attitudes and conversations in the aftermath of the affair. Is the spouse that cheated frustrated about hearing about it over and over? Is the spouse that was cheated-on suddenly diminishing and critical about everything? This communication says a lot.
4) Figure out what relational factors contributed to the infidelity. (Again, even if the relationship was not ideal, the only person responsible for the actual decision to be unfaithful is the person who chose to cheat instead of addressing the issues directly and honoring his/her commitment.) The health and happiness of the relationship matters. In one study on infidelity, respondents who reported that their relationships were “pretty happy” and “not too happy” were two and four times more likely, respectively, to have reported extramarital sex than respondents who reported that they were “very happy” with their relationships (Atkins et al., 2001). Within your relationship, were there any breakdowns in intimacy, connection, or communication? Common relational issues sited after an affair include disconnection, lack of respect, inattentiveness, feeling “emotionally unsafe,” and lack of consideration. Men commonly site that they sought admiration and appreciation outside of their relationship, and women commonly claim that they sought a feeling of being desired outside their relationship. Again, these factors often relate to tendencies adapted from patterns in one’s family of origin, and these need to be investigated and actively changed.
5) Assess how likely it is that these relational factors will change. Is each person, even the person who was cheated-on, committed to changing whatever contributions he/she has to this relationship dynamic? It is possible to remain feeling angry (justifyably) while simultaneously changing communication and behaviors. If the person who was cheated-on feels so hurt and angry that he/she is unwilling to make any changes, prognosis is poor.
6) Let’s be realistic here. Sometimes decisively choosing to end the relationship is the option best-suited for your particular situation. Even if there is willingness and evidence of personal and relational factors changing, a spouse who was cheated-on will experience a roller-coaster of emotions, oscillating between short periods of anger and longer periods of calm for quite some time (sometimes years). The spouse who was betrayed must decide (yes, it’s just a decision) whether he/she is willing to ride out that roller-coaster for a lengthy period of time until the ride becomes more tame or if he/she would rather end the relationship. The decision to work hard on the relationship and experience sporadic periods of emotional upheaval is not exactly an attractive prospect. It is no wonder that infidelity has been found to be the single most cited cause of divorce in over 150 cultures. (Betzig, 1989)
7) Both spouses, although in many cases this especially applies to the spouse who was cheated-on, have to forgive. “Forgiveness” has nothing to do with condoning, understanding, or approving of the other person’s behaviors. In fact, it has nothing to do with the other person at all. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves when we are wronged and we want to move past the icky feeling of betrayal and anger for ourselves. Forgiveness simply means “accepting that it happened, and that it is not possible to go back and change it. In other words, forgiveness is letting go of the possibility that it could have happened any other way.” Forgiveness is a lot like radical acceptance, and is the only way to get rid of the rage that accompanies allowing yourself to be bombarded with thoughts of “It shouldn’t have happened; He shouldn’t have done that; I shouldn’t have to be going through this….”
If you have any specific questions on this subject or any other subject related to couples, kids, or psychology, please feel free to contact me, and I will answer your question while keeping your information anonymous.
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