There’s nothing more painful than finding out your spouse has cheated on you.
I still feel the wound when I found out my first wife had sex with a man she met while I was on a business trip. She insisted it was a one time lapse, she felt ashamed and told me it would never happen again. I wanted to believe her, but the uncertainty ate away at the foundations of our marriage and it eventually pulled us apart. It took many years for me to heal, but I did and found love again.
I’ve been married now to Carlin for 36 years and we’ve managed to stay true to each other though we’ve come perilously close to going over the line. Keeping a marriage passionate and alive for many years is not easy. Understanding and dealing honestly with infidelity can help couples survive and thrive. Here are some things we’ve learned over the years.
Infidelity is not Easy to Define in Practice
The dictionary definition seems pretty straightforward:
1. marital disloyalty; adultery.
2. unfaithfulness; disloyalty.
3. lack of religious faith, especially Christian faith.
4. a breach of trust or a disloyal act; transgression.
In practice, things get more complicated. Having clandestine sex with your best friend’s wife would likely qualify as infidelity. But how about getting emotionally involved—–Is it friendship or an emotional affair? Is watching pornography a disloyal act? How about withdrawing from sexual activity, being too busy, tired, or closed down. Is that a breach of trust? Think about it. What are your boundaries? What would constitute infidelity in your life? Talk to your partner. Listen deeply. Be open to hearing the truth.
Infidelity is as Old as Marriage and as Common
We write songs about “love and marriage going together like a horse and carriage.” But the ones that stick with us are the ones about infidelity. I still can hear Connie Francis singing “Lipstick on Your Collar” and Patsy Cline’s lament of “Your Cheating Heart.” Dolly Parton reminds us how important our partner may be to us and how vulnerable they are to being stolen in “Jolene.”
We listen to the songs and hope we won’t become victims of love. But we also know that passions are powerful. We see an attractive man or woman and our eyes widen, our hearts beat a little faster, and we long for something more. We take vows saying “until death do we part,” but no one stays married long without feeling the pull towards forbidden love. When is the last time you felt the pull?
Cheating Occurs Even in Good Marriages
Monogamy used to mean sexual fidelity for life. Now it means one spouse at a time as divorce and remarriage are increasingly common. Our marriages start out in a blaze of glory, passion, and commitment to love everlasting. But life happens and the fires of love cool as the stresses of kids, money, in-laws, and aging take its toll. When the marriage goes bad, many people want out.
Being a marriage counselor and therapist for more than 40 years, I also know that infidelity occurs in the best of marriages. People ask me, how can he/she love me if they… fill in the blank (get lost in pornography, have sex with someone else, have an emotional affair)? Living longer, we are also married longer. In even the best long-term marriage we get bored, seek adventure, want to try something new.
A woman friend told me once that all men need a little “strange.” I suspect all of us, at some point in our lives, are drawn to wanting to try something or someone new. It doesn’t mean we don’t love the one we’re with. Working out boundaries and keeping them updated are the keys to preventing an affair.
After Infidelity: Why Some Choose To Stay and Others Leave
It used to be that everyone came down on the person who had the affair. “How could you do that to her/him?” We would say to our friends, if not to the person’s face, “What a creep. If he/she wasn’t happy why didn’t they just leave?” Now we’re much harder on a person who chooses to stay. We all remember Bill and Hillary. People seemed a lot angrier at Hillary for deciding to stay than at Bill for his many infidelities. Some still haven’t forgiven her, long after they’ve forgiven him.
In my practice, I often counsel men and women who don’t want to leave. They feel deeply wounded, confused, and angry. But they still love their spouse and want to heal the relationship and get back together, but friends and family often badger them to leave. “You’re just acting like a doormat,” they’re told. “You’re better than that. Throw the bum out.”
Every couple is unique and every pairing is worth healing. Infidelity can cause deep wounds, both physical and emotional. One client got breast cancer during the time she was dealing with her husband’s infidelity. A close friend found his diabetes, which had been under control, flared up after his wife had an affair. But just as we can heal from physical dis-ease, we can heal from infidelity.
Infidelity Can Be the End of A Relationship, or It Can Be the Beginning
One of the most important and difficult questions clients ask me after a spouse has cheated: Should I stay or should I leave. Should I let him/her stay or throw them out? No one can decide for another what to do, but I’ve found the following guidelines to be helpful.
Betrayal is the worst wound we can feel. If you’ve been betrayed you need time and space to heal. Get support, surround yourself with friends and family, talk to a counselor. Don’t decide in the midst of the immediate trauma.
When you’re ready, talk to your partner. Are they truly sorry? Are they absolutely willing to commit to being faithful in the future? It takes time to rebuild trust and even to know if you can trust your partner enough to move forward.
Talk about your spouse’s needs in the relationship. What needs haven’t been met? Often the cheating spouse is hungry for such things as emotional connection, adventure, relief from stress, truly being seen and heard. Infidelity is never only about sex.
Often a partner’s infidelity says something about your own. It may appear that one person is the betrayer and the other is the betrayed, one person is guilty, the other is innocent. I’ve found that infidelity is often the last step in a series of smaller betrayals that both people have participated in. Think about it. If you’re honest, you’ll find many instances where you each have been disloyal and have violated trust.
Infidelity signals the end. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the relationship. When couples come to see me, I help them heal from betrayal, but then ask them if they’d like to start on the path of a new relationship, where needs can be more fully met and they can be close, yet free. Most couples answer, “Yes!” They know the path to a new relationship won’t be easy, that healing takes time, but they also come to know that the power of love can heal all and their relationship is worth being born anew.
If you are concerned about your relationship, if it’s in trouble, or if it’s good, but you want it to be great, come visit me at www.MenAlive.com. You’ll find a lot of resources that can help. If infidelity has touched your life, I know how devastatingly painful that can be, but it doesn’t have to be the end of you two. Infidelity can be prevented and if it happens it can be healed.
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