Is infidelity a forgivable sin? When surveyed, 90 percent of Americans say that infidelity is wrong, yet 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women actually do cheat on their spouses. Infidelity is devastating families across the country as the cycle of self-blame, betrayal and anger can be difficult to break. We work with many couples who choose to stay together after an affair. If they seek help early and confront the different issues that instigated the affair, there can be real hope of relationship recovery.
Commit to a solution
First of all, don’t expect a quick fix. Infidelity impacts on the basic fundamentals of your commitment to one another, your sense of trust, safety and familiarity. We encourage couples to commit to therapy every week for a while. We also suggest that the couple make an adultery contract that states the adulterer’s promise not to cheat again and to cut off all contact with the affair. One successful technique is for the adulterer to regularly assure the betrayed partner that there has been no contact with the affair and if the affair tries to contact him or her, they must announce it and report that they did not accept the call or call back. This helps to increase the trust in the relationship. Another key part of rebuilding that trust involves letting their partner know what their schedule is and avoiding having long periods of unaccounted-for time.
Check your anger
The victim of the affair is often plagued with thoughts of the betrayal. He or she will think about times their spouse may have lied, will visualize the details of the adulterous sexual encounters and may obsess about many lies they have been told. Feelings of depression, lack of self-worth and extreme anger at the adulterer are also common. It is important to allow the victim to vent their anger, but in a controlled, time-limited way. While there may be sufficient remorse over his or her behavior, it nevertheless becomes very difficult for the adulterer to feel invested in the marriage, and its healing, if they are being constantly bashed for their past behavior. I often advise couples to allow 10 minutes a day for venting. The victim can yell, scream, throw emotional darts, but only for a short period of time and then must stop. The betrayed spouse should be able to ask questions in order to move on, and the adulterer must answer them, but it’s important to avoid giving the gory sexual details, no matter how much the victimized spouse asks. It will not help with sexual healing later on.
Address the root of the problem
When we see couples after an affair, it almost always becomes evident that the infidelity was about much more than seeking sex. It is also common for the spouse having the affair to feel unremorseful, and for the victimized spouse to feel that it wasn’t his or her fault either. Neither partner wants to take responsibility. But in order for healing to begin, each partner must explore the personal issues that may have inspired the infidelity. Sometimes it’s inspired by low self-esteem, or is a symptom of a larger midlife crisis where the adulterer is questioning everything in his or her life, including work, marriage and their place in the community. Other times there is a family history of infidelity, where having an affair was actually a “learned behavior” and was condoned or encouraged. Once there is some clarity about what issues each partner has brought to the table, you can start working on yourselves and the relationship.
Forgiving infidelity is a hard process to move through, both individually and as a couple, but it never ceases to amaze me how marriages can actually thrive after infidelity. An affair is a life-changing event for both partners, but once they do the work, on themselves and the relationship, their marriage may be even better than before.
Laura Berman, LCSW, Ph.D., is the director of the Berman Center in Chicago and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Learn more at Dr.LauraBerman.com.