We think we should be strong enough to survive alone. Regarding
marriage, we think that if we are betrayed by an unfaithful partner, we should
leave. Well-meaning friends tend to tell the spouse who was betrayed, “You
should leave the bastard!” as if that’s the right, and only, response.
But, leaving immediately is a poor solution because…
1) It oversimplifies the issue. Anyone who has experienced
infidelity (and marriage) for themselves knows the choices are not so black or
2) The ability to work through conflict is actually a higher level
skill than surviving on one’s own. It takes more maturity to resolve
issues than it does to escape them.
3) It indicates that the cheating partner is solely to blame,
ignoring all the tension and distance that led up to the affair. It places all
the responsibility for the affair on the partner who was unfaithful and implies
that the other person was an innocent victim. Although the partner who was
unfaithful DID MAKE bad choices and going through a rough patch in a marriage
doesn’t excuse actually having an affair, it’s highly unlikely that the
cheating partner is 100% the source of the problem.
When both partners work through the aftermath of an affair, it can
ultimately lead to a stronger marriage. A good recovery needs several
things to happen.
First, the couple needs to find a way to discuss their feelings about
what happened. The one cheated on needs to let their spouse know how
shocked, devastated, betrayed and angry they feel. Also, the cheater needs to
talk about their feelings about the marriage leading up to the affair.
This is very hard to do. Some couples scream, shout, or let
the spouse know in some other unproductive way how they are feeling. When this
happens, the feelings don’t get talked about in a way that allows the partner
to hear and take them in. That’s why, during this first stage of shock and
intense feelings, you need the support and help of a skilled couples
counselor like those here at Couples Therapy Center of New Jersey. A
good couples counselor will help both partners to get out what needs to be
expressed in a productive way. They will also help the other partner
to withstand this stage of intense feelings and find a way to have empathy for
their partner. Understanding and empathy for one
another are crucial to the repair process.
In the second stage, the couple explores what led up
to the infidelity. Affairs happen for numerous reasons and do not always
indicate that things were ‘bad’ in the marriage. They will look at
what was going on in their relationship, whether it was lack of connection,
hostility, having lost touch with oneself, falling into a role they believed
they needed to be in, or an unmet longing to feel desired, wanted, and
cherished. Couples need to ask, “What was occurring between us at that time?
How did we each contribute to the state of the marriage back then? How were we
each behaving that got in our own way of getting our needs met?”
Notice a very important shift here: from ‘you’ to ‘us’. A
knowledgeable couples therapist will lead the couple in exploring, not from a
place of blame and criticism but from a wish to learn from what has happened.
This will help the couple to honestly and maturely face what was going
on. This shift indicates a new perspective in the partners: The affair
happened to us. We were both involved in some way in this
unfolding, whether one partner was actively driving the other away with
negative behavior, being inactive in the relationship by not reaching out to
make things better, or if something else was going on. This shift is a
different way of saying, “something wasn’t right between us.” Often,
prior to an affair happening, the couple had tried numerous ways to make things
better but wasn’t successful. Then, one of them unconsciously upped the ante –
the affair raised the stakes. What they were trying wasn’t working so they
forced a change by committing the infidelity. In doing so, whether they knew it
or not, their relationship HAD to change then.
The third stage is all about creating a new relationship with your
‘old’ spouse. The two of you can’t go back to how things were before.
After all, that’s what lead to the infidelity in the first place. During this
third stage the sense of partnership, union, or ‘we’ is evident as the
couple discusses what needs to be different between them in order for them to
move forward together. Again, the counselor moves the couple away from
blaming the other (you need to change X) to help them jointly take
responsibility for the climate between them.
At this point, it’s also important that the relationship gets repaired
on a sexual level as well because the betrayal deeply impacted that
part of each spouse. A repaired sexual relationship is one in which each person
has asked him/herself, “What parts of my sexuality was I suppressing in my
marriage and could only experience with the ‘other’ person? How can I bring
more of my whole self into my sexual connection with my spouse?” Both partners find
the courage to express fantasies, alternate sides of personality, and
non-politically correct impulses in the marital sex. THAT takes real courage. Working
with an accepting therapist who knows that humans are complicated
beings with all sorts of deeper, shameful impulses that are okay to allow to
show up in a long-term union can help couples repair sexual
relationships and achieve this intimacy.
Although it can seem like it’s the ultimate betrayal, infidelity doesn’t have
to be a deal breaker. In fact, marriages can become stronger, leading
to new beginnings and deeper connections. Here at Couples
Therapy Center we can help.