Cheating in Marriage: Can We Trust Again?
When any type of cheating occurs in a relationship, there are two levels of pain: The first stems from the cheating or betrayal itself; the second from the lies and deceit that took place to cover up the betrayal.
Cheating, for most couples, is the ultimate hurt. Most people will say -- until it happens to them -- that cheating would be the ultimate "last straw." However, many couples also seek to try to recover, to renew their bond with each other and to strengthen their relationship.
Recovery from cheating is a choice that couples make. The decision to work through the trauma of betrayal means that difficult times may lie ahead as the couple struggles to understand what went wrong, to trust again and to commit to the marriage as a sacred, trusting bond.
In this article, we'll explore the realm of going outside the relationship -- how "cheating" is defined, steps couples can take to save the marriage and the healing process to recover from the pain and hurt.
What is "Cheating"?
It would seem obvious, but couples often fall into a trap of how they can/should define cheating.
Try this definition: Cheating is whatever upsets the other partner. This means that whatever they believe is a betrayal of trust.
This can include: flirting, sexting, internet contact with others, checking dating sites, contact with previous partners, unusual closeness with co-workers or friends. What matters is whether the other partner felt hurt, afraid of losing the relationship or that trust had been broken in some way.
Shirley Glass, in her classic book, "Not Just Friends," helped us understand the "line" that gets crossed. She distinguished whether the outside person was or was not "a friend of the marriage." Would your partner or spouse welcome this person into your home and feel trust? Is this person well-known to your partner and are your actions with this outside person something you would fully disclose to your spouse or partner? We can easily see how this definition helps distinguish friend or foe of the relationship.
Is the Marriage or Relationship Over after Cheating?
Not necessarily. Keep in mind that healing and recovery are a choice. Here are some facts to know:
-- 70 percent of couples choose to rebuild their relationship after an affair; however, divorce is two times more likely after an affair.
-- Less than 25 percent of those who cheated leave the marriage for the affair partner, and there is a poor rate of success for those new relationships
-- Affairs can happen in "good" marriages, though there is often found to be less connection recently in the relationship than in the past. This distancing does not excuse the affair, of course.
The statistics show some promise. However, the work itself is often not easy. Yet, couples who choose to work through the pain of the affair can experience a new level of closeness and connection, as well as improving how they communicate, how they prioritize the marriage and how they can positively express their needs for closeness in the relationship.
First Steps Toward Healing
The cheating partner makes a commitment to the marriage and to helping his or her partner heal. He or she admits to the affair or other activities and agrees to work to help the partner trust again. All contact with the affair partner has been ended.
We also advocate total "transparency." This means allowing your partner access to all your email, phone and internet communications. Your partner may exhibit considerable anxiety about any continued contact with the affair partner or with any form of texting or internet contact. Allowing them to check your accounts when they become anxious can help alleviate their fears. Some partners will complain, "I don't want to have to check up on him/her." And that's fine; others may need to reassure themselves that activity has ceased.
Recognizing the pain caused to the partner is an essential element of moving forward. Minimizing their hurt by diminishing the impact of the transgressions (such as, "It was just a few innocent texts. There was no personal contact.") actually can potentially increase distrust and pain. Keep in mind: Cheating is whatever your partner felt was a painful betrayal.
Handling the Emotions After Betrayal Is Discovered
Our strongest emotions -- both positive and negative -- are toward our partner. We form a powerful bond when we fall in love, and our feelings toward this one most-significant person will be most profound. Which is great when we are telling our partner how much they mean to us, how much we love them and how we cherish them.
Betrayal results in negative strong emotions. The hurt partner is outwardly expressing anger, a reflection of the deeper, primary emotions of hurt, fear, sadness and feeling overwhelmed by the news of the infidelity. They may be demanding to know more about the details of the affair -- how you met the other person, how often you got together, sometimes sexual details (more on this in a bit).
The partner who strayed outside the relationship typically feels attacked and often does not know how to soothe his or her partner's emotions. Too, there is often a desire to quickly move on from any discussions of the betrayal, a hope that the partner quickly will "get over it" and stop bringing up the topic. Too, coping with the betrayed partner's anxiety is challenging. Suddenly, it feels as if he or she is controlling, wanting an accountability of where you are at all times. The anxiety seems to come out of nowhere, suddenly emerging with incredible intensity.
The hurt partner repeatedly questions and seeks answers about the affair, your whereabouts, who you talk to and spend time with. The partner who had the affair often becomes frustrated with the barrage of accusations and may try to diminish the reality of their partner's fears. The betraying partner also feels, but may not express to their spouse, incredible shame and regret. These very-important emotions may not be seen by the hurt partner because the betraying partner resorts to defensiveness and avoidance of arguing and confrontation.
Learning to understand the role of these emotions is critical to moving toward healing and recovering trust.
The Hurt Partner's Needs
When cheating has been revealed, the hurt partner has a range of emotions, of course, and also lots of questions. There are feelings of hurt, anger, shock and despair. Here are some questions from the hurt partner that typically emerge:
--Most often, the hurt partner wants to know "Why?" Why did you go outside the relationship? What were you seeking that you could not get from me?
--What was missing in our marriage or relationship? More on this later.
--What occurred during the affair? Some caution here: Details of sexual activities can be traumatizing for the hurt partner. As much as he or she may want to know, it may not be helpful if very specific details are discussed.
-- What feelings did you have for the other person? Was there emotion between you and the affair partner or mostly sex?
-- How can I know this won't happen again? More on this in the following sections. Yet, this is the most critical point to rebuilding trust.
The Betraying Partner's Responses
Underneath your partner's anger and tears is a fundamental question: Am I still important to you and can I trust you again? Unfortunately, the betraying partner is often so uncomfortable with the entire subject of the cheating that they fail to fully engage in the discussion, to answer their partner's questions and to understand and fully appreciate their partner's pain.
Consider the following:
-- Answer your partner's questions as completely as possible at the outset. If you slowly give additional information about the cheating (usually after your partner has done more searching or has found out new information), your partner is hurt multiple times by each new revelation. It's harder to trust that there isn't something else you're not sharing.
--Stay calm. Your partner can be extremely angry; however, if your anger rises up, then the resulting argument can unfortunately set the stage for further difficulty in talking about what happened.
--Reassure your partner you are wanting to continue the relationship. That you will be transparent, as described earlier, and you will help him or her regain security and trust. Keep in mind that your partner may continue to need reassurance and comfort for some time to come.
What We Know About Cheating
By and large (though there are always some exceptions), cheating does not typically occur in a close and connected relationship. Both partners are able to discuss and resolve any concerns and to recognize when they have become less connected and why; they together talk about how their relationship has changed and why -- perhaps outside stressors, careers, kids, aging parents.
They understand they need to focus on their relationship as a priority, take time for themselves and keep the conversation open about how each is feeling.
It is when this distance is not discussed or acknowledged then there is potential that a chasm is created between the partners. Couples can become more vulnerable to cheating when one spouse seems controlling to the other, arguments have become more frequent, important issues are not resolved and when intimacy declines because of the fraying emotional connection. (Again, this does not excuse the betrayal.)
When the emotional connection deteriorates, partners can feel less important, that other priorities often come before they do and they may feel less attractive to and desired by their partner.
Sometimes, Help Is Needed to Aid in Healing
A betrayal of one partner going outside the marriage or relationship creates one of the deepest wounds that can occur between lovers. The nature of cheating is so very personal. As discussed above, the emotions may be the most intense experienced in the history of your time together.
When couples come to counseling, the goal is not to make the straying partner "the bad guy." Rather, it's to develop a deeper understanding of the lost connection and of what we call a "negative cycle" of repeated arguing and/or distancing.
With counseling, the couple can work toward actually strengthen the marriage because issues that were pushing you apart can be understood, addressed and healed.
It's not unusual for me to hear, as part of a couple's history, that a long-ago infidelity still comes up in arguments or weighs heavily on the betrayed partner. Yes, betrayal never fully goes away; however, when the couple decides their relationship and their love for each other is still very important, process of healing has a chance to succeed.
Linda Schwartz is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works exclusively with couples and individuals on relationship issues. She uses Emotionally Focused Couple therapy, the most effective approach to helping couples recapture their close connection, to learn to resolve issues through deepening their understanding of each other's needs and to heal infidelity and any past hurts in the relationship. Linda offers a free, 15-minute phone consultation to answer your questions about the counseling process. She can be reached at 602-882-0533 or Linda@awarecounseling.com.