We all know the evils of infidelity. In previous blogs I wrote about them, citing statistics, characteristics of who is most likely to cheat, and what can be done to address these issues.
Here I want to approach this subject from a different perspective: infidelity as an alarm system about the state of the relationship, and as an opportunity to make it stronger.
Yes, I know that about 2/3 of relationships where one or both partners cheat end in divorce. As a psychotherapist working with couples, I also know how difficult it is to stay with the pain caused by infidelity and work thorough it. I am keenly aware of how hard it is to forgive and move on. However, in my long career of counseling couples I have seen some of them get stronger and closer to one another after infidelity was uncovered.
So, what makes the difference between couples who survive infidelity and couples who don’t?
There are several factors, in my opinion, that contribute to the difference. Some of them are:
- The cheater admits to his or her behaviors, rather than being found out;
- The infidelity is an isolated event, rather than part of a pattern;
- The infidelity was short lived and did not involve deep feelings on the part of the cheater;
- Couples used to have good communication and felt close to one another earlier in their relationship, even though at some point they lost closeness;
- Couples live in a social/religious environment where cheating is strongly looked down upon, and where there are less opportunities to get away with it;
- Couples have a strong feeling of what is right and wrong;
- The cheater has the ability to feel empathy for the partner and remorse for the cheating, and the other partner has the ability to forgive.
When these elements are in place, couples have a much better prognosis of surviving infidelity.
After an affair is uncovered, couples respond to it in different ways. All feel an array of intense emotions, like confusion, anger, rage, hurt, fear and disappointment. Some of them, however, are eventually able to get past them and move on. Others stay stuck in a cycle where the cheated partner continues to feel pain and anguish caused by the betrayal, and the cheater maintains a defensive stance and an unwillingness to talk about what happened. When this is the case, progress is extremely difficult to achieve.
The truth is, very often couples don’t know what to do to address their problems in a healthy way and reduce the pain and hurt they feel. One common approach is to say to each other, “Let’s start again. Let’s forget the past. What happened happened and we cannot change it, so why think about it?”
Well, this approach never works, as avoidance is not a solution to any problem, including infidelity. The simple reason for this is that we cannot forget something so traumatic, so unexpected and still unresolved.
Cheated partners have questions without answers and feel emotions they cannot express. Because security and trust in each other are gone, they cannot process thoughts and feelings with their partners, who used to be their source of comfort and support and now are the cause of their suffering. Without being able to processing their feelings, partners cannot re-establish trust and security in their relationship, thus maintaining a vicious cycle of attacks and defensiveness that cannot be broken.
In order to break this vicious cycle, feelings and the events that caused them need to be addressed together, at the risk of putting the finger on the wound that is still bleeding. Facing the issues rather than avoiding them is actually the way in which the wounds can be healed.
In the next blog post I will talk about what successful couples can do to get their relationship back on track.