Think about this for a moment. Your spouse or significant other comes home and tells you they’ve been having an affair. What do you do? Or worse yet, maybe you found out accidently by catching him or her out with someone else. Fear, disappointment, betrayal, and a number of negative emotions overpower you and it seems as if your whole world is collapsing around you. Is there any chance of recovering from such an awful experience? The truth of the matter is yes, there’s always hope your relationship can survive an affair but it requires a significant amount of work. Let me help you understand how you and your partner can recover from infidelity.
First, its important to understand infidelity occurs more often than one might think. That certainly doesn’t justify it, but with the glorification of cheating found in most television shows and other media outlets the negative impact of infidelity has been ignored. According to a 2011 study by Mark, Janssen, and Milhausen about 20 to 25% of men and 10-15% of women cheat on their partner by having sexual relationships with someone else. And if you understand there are a number of other “types” of infidelity, you find this number is smaller than what actually occurs. For example, the above study is only identifying infidelity as something occurring when sexual activity is involved. But infidelity can take on three forms of behavior according to most psychologists. The first type of infidelity involves a sexual relationship but no emotional connectivity. Men tend to look for these types of extramarital encounters. They’re merely interested in a sexual encounter, not establishing a psychologically intimate relationship with someone else. Another type of infidelity occurs when a strong emotional connection develops with someone besides your spouse but there’s no sexual activity involved. Women tend to participate in this type of infidelity more so than men. After all, for most women, the more important element of any relationship is the emotional connection. Sex is a means for women to facilitate the emotional element of the relationship, the physical element is secondary to the emotional connection. If she can have the emotional connection without the sexual element she can often be quite satisfied in the relationship. I’m not saying sex is unimportant for women, but rather it generally is pleasurable because of the emotional connection she has with her partner. Lastly, there’s the type of infidelity involving both an emotional and sexual component and this type of infidelity is experienced equally among men and women. So when we talk about figures on infidelity it’s often only in the context of a sexual relationship ignoring the emotional component. Because of that, the numbers are probably higher than reported.
When a couple experiences the trauma associated with infidelity a number of emotions emerge. Betrayal as noted above is one emotion, a sense of hurt and disappointment is also associated with infidelity, and the feeling that trust is lost forever contributes to the pain caused by the affair. There’s also a strong desire for justice; the sense you’ve been wronged and deserve satisfaction for the pain you’re feeling cannot be ignored. Yet, for many couples there’s a desire to recover the pieces of the broken relationship and undo what has been done. It just feels like it’s impossible and the hope we might have for healing shrinks in the ocean of emotions we experience. Well, there is hope, but it requires plenty of hard work individually and as a couple to overcome the brokenness infidelity causes. Here’s what a couple needs to start doing to recover:
- Any contact with the individual outside the marriage involved in the cheating has to stop. The couple must focus on one another; the offending partner cannot continue any type of relationship with the person they were cheating with if things are going to improve. While that sounds like an obvious course of action you might be surprised how many people don’t do that, particularly when the infidelity has been purely emotional. Many people think some type of relationship can continue with that person and the wronged partner should understand why. The reality of the situation is your connection with the other person has to just end.
- The couple needs to be patient recognizing there will be good days and bad days during the healing process. There will be moments when the wronged partner feels the pains of injustice and betrayal and needs to express that pain. Then, there will be days when hope allows you both to see a light at the end of this painful journey. The important thing is to be patient as you both come to terms with what happened. The partner who had the affair must remember the pace of healing is established by the wronged partner. The person who cheats often wants to talk about what happened and get past it, but the affair can only be discussed when the wronged partner is ready.
- If you’re the partner who had the affair you need to consider why the affair occurred. Was there no emotional attachment to your partner? Are you addicted to sex or pornography? What is it about your current relationship and your own psychological and spiritual condition that caused you to go outside your relationship for emotional and sexual satisfaction? Then, when the the time is right, you need to share what you discovered about yourself that led you to cheat.
- Both partners have to take responsibility for healing the relationship. You need to make psychological space for one another and recognize the relationship is something you both have a responsibility to nurture. It’s something bigger than your own individual needs and requires sacrifices from both of you.
These four steps are important for healing from infidelity but in the end research has identified one key element producing lasting results for the couple. A study done in 2014 by researchers at the University of Missouri found couples who experience infidelity were able to save, and in fact experience greater satisfaction after the affair, if the partner who was wronged truly forgave the other partner. The ability to exercise forgiveness on the part of the one partner helped the couple experience something called post traumatic growth. Post traumatic growth is a type of growth that develops strengths to not simply correct previous weaknesses, but to create stronger relationship bonds moving forward.
For those of you struggling to rebuild your marriage after an affair there is hope. If both of you want to have a strong relationship its possible to grow from the effects of infidelity, but it requires a new commitment and willingness to explore what didn’t work in the past and over come those past weaknesses. Ultimately, the wronged partner needs to exercise forgiveness, something I talk about a great deal in my workshops and retreats. It is my hope you come through the storm of infidelity and capture a new sense of love and respect for one another. For that to happen, both of you need to make the choice to heal.
If you want to read some short reflections on starting the forgiving process try these links below: