Can Your Relationship Be Saved?
If you’ve experienced infidelity, cheating, and/or sexual secrets in your long-term and/or committed relationship please don’t make a rash decision – this is not the right time to break up your marriage and family. Wait until you have all of the facts, have considered all of the options, and have stabilized your feelings so that rationality can prevail. Let me help you work through the intense pain and confusion and at least explore the value and possibility of saving and rebuilding your relationship.
Whether the infidelity is physical, emotional or virtual (or any combination of these), most marriages DO survive a cheating spouse – divorce or break up is not inevitable, providing the infidelity stops and both partners are willing to do the hard work of recovery. In fact, while one or both spouses admit to some form of infidelity in 41% of marriages, only 17% of divorces are directly related to one partner cheating.
“But I didn’t have sex with him/her!”
This fact, if true, is small consolation to the violated partner. Having an emotional/sexual connection to another can be devastating enough, and, as we’ve seen demonstrated time and again by public figures, the lying and false promises can destroy relationships and careers, if the actual cheating doesn’t.
• Surprising to some, when couples were asked about marital satisfaction, 34% of women and 56% of men having affairs reported being happy in their marriages – cheating can happen in apparently happy couples!
• A national lawyers groups stated that 1/3 of divorce litigation is caused by online affairs.
• Percent of marriages where one or both spouses admit to infidelity, either physical or emotional: 41%
• Percentage of men who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 57%
• Percentage of women who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 54%
• Percentage of men and women who admit to having an affair with a co-worker: 36%
• Percentage of men and women who admit to infidelity on business trips: 36%
• Percentage of men and women who admit to infidelity (emotional or physical) with a brother-in-law or sister-in-law: 17% Average length of an affair: 2 years
• Percentage of men who say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught: 74%
• Percentage of women who say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught: 68%
• In almost 40% of cases, online sex led to offline sex.
• 30% of online affairs began after the partner already had a history of compulsive sexual behavior. Lying to cover up the affair was just as common, and just as hurtful, in cases of online sexual activity as in cases of offline, physical activity.
• Almost 70% of the couples with an online affair had experienced a significant decrease in relationship sex during the course of the online affair.
What counts as infidelity? In our ever changing world of online and business activity, it can help to define infidelity as anything of a sexual or intimate nature that you keep secret from your partner:
• Sexual behavior with another (incl: prostitutes, massage parlors)
• Secretive and excessive use of pornography
• Telephone, text messages (sexting), email, chat rooms, or webcam relationships
• Relationships w/co-workers that cross unacceptable personal boundaries
Any form of cheating is often a symptom of serious deficits in the marriage or relationship, and while it is never the violated partner’s fault, it will take openness, honesty and accountability on both partners’ parts to push through the problem and emerge into a new beginning. I know that is hard for the violated person to consider that they may have contributed to the problem, but it is necessary for this to at least be considered for the marriage to heal. Even in the case of sexual addiction, or compulsive sexual behaviors, it will take both partners to stimulate change. It may have started as an individual’s problem, but it sure became a couple’s issue!
Discovery of a partner’s infidelity can be an overwhelming and traumatizing event. In fact, the symptoms often experienced by the offended partner are very similar to those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), plus others, including:
• Difficulty falling or staying asleep
• Irritability or outbursts of anger, or crying
• Difficulty concentrating
• Overwhelming and intrusive thoughts and suspicions about ongoing activity
• Inability to stop checking your partner’s email, text messages, voice mails and browsing history.
• Physiological reactivity upon exposure to events that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the infidelity watching a TV show or movie that involves the subject, meeting a person with the same name as the partner’s sexual partner.)
Because an infidelity threatens our emotional, sexual, domestic and parental stability, it is easy to understand why our reactions can be so extreme. However, there is a way past these reactions, and many of the couples I work with in my private practice decide to stick it out and do the hard work to get past the pain and rebuild their marriage. If both partners put in the effort and are willing to be honest and open about themselves, their motivations, and their vision for a happy, fulfilling marriage, they can get through it successfully. A high percentage of couples will admit, after the work is done, that they actually have a better marriage, and are happier than before the discovery of the affair or other behavior.
Discovery of the ‘why’ of the cheating
The offended partner will often obsess about the reasons for the affair. This is an attempt to make sense of the events, place blame, and also to determine what changes need to be made to keep it from happening again. While the reasons are often multi-factorial, it is a worthwhile exercise and often a necessity to try to uncover this information. An effective way of getting to the core of cause is to ask the offending partner, “What was the message of the affair? What did you want your spouse to understand about him or her and the marriage?” Some common reasons we uncover in sessions are that the offender felt he/she had tried to communicate their needs but the partner denied or discounted the message; she/he didn’t have the emotional or communicative skills to identify what they really wanted to say; or that he/she weren’t even aware of what they were feeling inside. Whatever the message, determining this is a crucial step in repairing the marriage.
My process of working with couples recovering from infidelity generally includes these steps, although I tailor the process for each couple, as situations, circumstance, and personalities vary greatly:
1. Ending the affair or behavior: this may mean working with the violator to address issues of grief and loss, but true healing can’t commence if any relationship, sexual activity, or lying continues. Your partner has to know the the activity has ceased, although it might take time to convince him or her of it – you’ll learn it’s hard to prove you’re NOT doing something.
2. Full disclosure: You’ve already been caught or revealed the infidelity, so you might as well get it all out. Time and time again I hear the guilty partner promise that there is nothing else being kept secret, then the spouse gets a phone call, finds an old email, or finds a receipt or credit card bill that indicates that there was more from the past that wasn’t revealed. This self-defeating behavior by the violator is usually a sign of shame, guilt, and of not wanting to further traumatize the partner, but, of course, it has the opposite effect and can set the healing process back weeks.
3. Allowing the violated partner his/her feelings: Recognizing how much your partner has been hurt, as well as your own feeling of guilt and failure, makes if very difficult to let them continue to talk about the cheating and the pain. But shutting down the partner will only delay the healing process and possibly make it impossible to ever get beyond the pain, thus ending the relationship. I, however, do stress reason and fairness in this area. It is not ok for the violated partner to insist on rehashing the issue and prodding for details whenever the impulse comes over her (and it will invade her thought frequently and invasively in the first months). Rules and boundaries will need to be set – the violator can’t be constantly worried about being blindsided by angry outbursts or the need to talk about it – it is fair for him to ask to delay the next conversation until he gets home from work, or when the kids are in bed, or until he is in a better psychological place to have a rational discussion. As you go through the process of therapy you will find that the necessity for these discussions will diminish – this is a sign that you are healing.
4. Working on the issues that got your marriage to a place where one partner’s solution or outlet was to cheat: discussing and admitting to the problems and deficits in the marriage, learning how to better communicate your frustrations and concerns, and having frank discussions about your sexual wants, needs and frustrations are the core of rebuilding your relationship and the best way to keep infidelity from happening again.
5. Committing to allow time for the healing process to take place, and understanding that there will be setbacks, frustrations, discouragement and doubt: There will also be a slow recognition that your relationship is better than it had been, and that there really is a better future for you. You can recover from infidelity if you do the hard work involved, and will find that as it recedes into the past your life and relationship will look very different than it looks today. In a study of couples ten years after the affair, the majority of couples were happy they made the decision to stay together, and that they have a better marriage than before the violations. Like a broken bone that is stronger after it heals, marriages often strengthen after experiencing major crisis.
6. Acknowledging that the violated partner will have to work towards forgiveness for a healthy marriage to emerge: I don’t believe in “forgive and forget,” because, let’s face it, forgetting isn’t a realistic goal after such a trauma, but if the partner can’t eventually find a way to forgive, the marriage can last but it will never be healthy, happy and satisfying. And keep this in mind: if the couple has children, it is imperative that you build a good example of marriage, love and intimacy for them to have a chance of building their own healthy relationships in the future. One day your children might encounter serious marital challenges – will you be able to tell them that you handled your own with dignity, respect, and with serious consideration of their best interests?