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Love, honor and betrayal

Can this marriage survive serial cheating? TODAY contributor Dr. Robi Ludwig  offers advice.

Kevin and Sue have been married for 11 years, but it hasn't been wedded bliss. Kevin, a serial cheater, admits to having five affairs over the course of their marriage. Consequently, Sue no longer trusts him.  Enter Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist and author who in the premiere of TLC's "One Week to Save Your Marriage," will counsel the couple. Kevin and Sue along with Ludwig were invited to appear on TODAY. Here is an article on infidelity and marriage written by Ludwig.

To love, honor and betray

When most people hear the words infidelity and marriage, they tend to think, that marriage must be over. In some ways that thought is true. The marriage, at least the one that existed before the affair took place is over. The naiveté that existed in the marriage is gone forever, and the trust level will never be the same, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is over, or should be over. Now granted, infidelity is a very hurtful and painful event, but as a therapist, I want to understand what the motivation for the affair was and what the affair meant to the person who had the affair. I suppose one could easily get on their moralistic high horse and say, “That’s wrong!” but that is too easy. Everyone knows having an affair is wrong. What is not understood is why it happened in the first place, and what if anything can be done about it.

An affair is a behavioral communication; a conversation that never took place in the marriage. People have affairs for all kinds of reasons and not necessarily because they don’t love their spouse. Sometimes it’s done for the thrill. Other times it’s done as an ego boost. Some spouses have affairs during major turning points in their lives or use it as a mood regulator; like medication, to suppress uncomfortable or unwanted feelings. It can even be used to seek revenge or prove one’s lovability.

   Marriage is about reality, and reality is not always fun or sexy. Affairs are more about fantasy and escaping that reality. But reality is something that one needs to deal with successfully if one wants to be married in a happy and mature way. Now, I’m not making excuses for cheaters, but I do think it’s important to understand the motive for the cheating behavior, especially if a couple wants a shot at healing their relationship.

   The good news is an affair doesn’t have to mean the marriage is over. It is not necessarily a death sentence. In some cases couples can come out even stronger than they were before. However, this place of strength does not and will not happen over night! It’s a process, and in some cases a very, very long process. What is most important to know initially is that an affair does not have to equal a divorce. Like the saying goes, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Sometimes the unfaithful spouse can come out wiser and more grateful about his or her life than they were prior to the affair. Each day carries with it the opportunity to learn, grow and change.

An affair is never forgotten; a person does not get over an affair like a bad cold. It is a very painful event that needs to get incorporated into the storybook of the marriage. Two people can only get over the infidelity if they understand and accept that these scars will remain, but that it is possible to move beyond the pain. Both partners need to be willing to work at repairing the damage that has been done. This is especially true for the cheating spouse. The spouse, who was unfaithful, needs to make it their primary responsibility to take charge of the healing process. It’s their job to move the relationship forward. They must be willing to make a total commitment to heal the marriage and their spouse, no matter how long it takes.

Here are some of the things unfaithful spouses should do:

  1. They must be honest about the affair, and that means honest about everything.
  2. They must be willing to answer questions about the relationship; no matter how many times these questions have been asked.
  3. They should be empathic and fully understand the pain their infidelity has caused, not only for the spouse but to the family, which includes children as well.
  4. They must stop all contact with the other person.
  5. They must prove their love by being patient and understanding.
  6. They must understand why they had the affair in the first place, so they are not vulnerable to it happening again.

For the betrayed spouse:

  1. They need to give their spouse some time to prove themselves and their love again.
  2. They need to share and be open about their feelings.
  3. They need to not take responsibility for their partner’s affair; it’s not their fault!
  4. Ask the questions they feel are important; especially if they feel it will help them to move on.
  5. Check up on the spouse until a feeling of trust has been rebuilt.

Both couples need to be willing to seek counseling at any time during the healing process. It’s easy to get stuck, and that’s what counselors are there for, to help two people manage through the anger, pain and seemingly hopeless times.

There is no one path to reconciliation. This is something that takes time to achieve. Like anything worth achieving, it happens one day at a time. Couples should not expect too much of themselves too soon. It’s a grieving process. The relationship that existed prior to the affair is gone and needs to be mourned before a new one and hopefully healthier relationship can emerge. Granted, it is a tough road, but it is a road that might just be worth the effort.

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