Infidelity has existed since marriage and commitment were invented. And yet while most couples define infidelity as the forbidden fruit, it's universally practiced.
Definitions of infidelity vary widely because of accessibility to the Internet. Today there are many behaviors that might meet the criteria for “cheating” — sexting, watching porn, married or committed people joining dating sites, ordering up massages with happy endings — but estimates suggest that between 26 to 80 percent of partners in marriages or committed relationships report they've cheated.
Acting on the desire to seek emotional and/or sexual intimacy from another can yield devastating results for a marriage. Even one act can rob a couple of their sense of security, well-being, happiness and identity. Discovering infidelity begs us to question everything we believed to be true about our marriages — about our partners — and about ourselves.
When infidelity is discovered, the offended partner wants to know why. If you love me, why would you risk everything we have? How could you love me if you would choose to be with another? How did I not see who you truly are? How could I have given you my heart and soul? This common act begs the question that each and every partner asks after discovering his or her partner has been unfaithful — how could I ever trust you again and why would I want to?
The head/heart conflict
Discovery of an affair or transgression literally sends shock waves through your body and many times leaves you in a state of panic and confusion. The panic is understandable, when you consider that your entire world has been rocked and your sense of security and stability has just been shaken to its core. Confusion comes in wanting to know what to do next.
Consider this — in the split second before the discovery, you believed this person loved and cherished you and you loved and cherished them back. No matter how rocky the road became, you were in this together, The heart doesn’t dismiss these feelings in an instant. It continues to feel the need for connection and comfort.
At the same time, your mind is racing with all those voices you've heard a thousand times before — from friends and family and social media. Although common, society instills this idea that if you cheat, you’re out! But until you have experienced it first-hand, you really don’t know how you will respond. As your heart is telling you to reach for him, to let her comfort and reassure you, your head is screaming, “kick the cheater to the curb!” This creates an internal conflict that can be overwhelming. Your inner critic begins a painful dialog asking, “how could I stay?” “How little do I think of myself that I would condone the behavior of a cheater?” “She should be punished, he should have to feel the pain I am feeling.” At the same time, your heart is telling you … I love her, I want him in my life … We are more than a couple, we have children, we’re a family.
Should I stay or should I go?
Making the decision to stay or go is not an easy one. Either one is a painful process. If you make the decision to end the marriage, be as certain as you can that there was nothing you could have done to heal the relationship and remain a couple. It would be wise to seek the help of a professional who specializes in healing after infidelity, in helping to make this decision, especially if you have children.
If you and your partner make the decision to work through the pain and emotional distress to rebuild trust and to heal your marriage, again, it's wise to seek the help of a professional. It's difficult to navigate your way through this on your own. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered — how did this happen? How do we handle the day-to-day worry? How can I turn to you and tell you I'm afraid? How do we begin to rebuild trust? Will this happen again? A licensed marriage and family therapist, trained to work in the area of infidelity, can help you find the answers to all these questions.
What are the signs that suggest we can heal our marriage?
When I first meet with couples who have experienced infidelity, the pain and anguish are visible and palpable. Both partners are in extreme crisis. The injured partner is angry, sad, confused, and afraid. The partner who has caused the injury is dazed, afraid and at a loss for what to do. The first sign that suggests hope is that both partners enter therapy together, wanting to heal, understanding that commitment means a willingness to share, listen, and learn.
It takes two people to rebuild trust. With the help and guidance of the therapist, couples can find their way back to each other through connection and secure attachment if they are willing to do it together. Both partners must take ownership in the relationship. This is achieved as the therapist guides them toward finding ways to lean into rather than away from each other. In finding new ways to listen and hear — the couple begins to feel safe, validated and reassured. Although in the beginning one might be resistant, both partners must be motivated by their desire to heal and find love and trust again.
Resilience — Moving away from shame and blame and working together to make sense of it all
When working with infidelity, shame and blame are often the experience of both partners. The tendency to blame each other for what has happened is sometimes used to protect oneself from feeling shame. So comments like, “I did this because you weren't there for me!” are often met with the response, “That doesn't give you the right to cheat!” The therapist works to create a safe space where both partners can move away from shame and blame and move toward having a better understanding of how they got off track or out of sync and how they can begin to recreate connection and secure attachment once again.