Can Couples Survive Infidelity?

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Couple in bed texting whilst girlfriend is asleep
Couple in bed texting whilst girlfriend is asleep

The big news of this week is about Mohammad Ali's death on June 3, 2016. It was a well known fact about Ali that he cheated multiple times on his wives. He was very famous, had many women interested in him, and often engaged in one night stands with these women.

However, infidelity is not solely a challenge for very successful men and women. While it is understood in our culture that people in positions of high power, high wealth, or high popularity will likely cheat, the infidelity rates for the common person are also staggering. 57% of men and 54% of women admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they have had. Researchers know that people are not always honest about their actions so the numbers may be higher.

Why do so many people cheat? Is it possible to be fully monogamous in a relationship or are we kidding ourselves? What is it that couples are doing to prevent cheating in their relationships? As a Couples Therapist, I find myself in the trenches daily helping couples work through the aftermath of an affair. It is long, excruciating, and painful work for the couple to do and yet half of my practice is focused on guiding couples through this crisis.

Right after a person finds out about their partner's infidelity, they experience a wide range of emotions-pain, anger, fear of losing their partner, confusion, jealousy, shock and even numbness. They feel lost, deceived, and alone.

The unfaithful partner experiences a similar range of emotions. They sometimes feel confused, anxious they could lose their partner, ashamed and guilty for the choices they made, angry, bitter, and disillusioned. I tell all my clients to expect to feel like they are riding a roller coaster of emotion over the next several months with extreme highs and extreme lows.

The difficulty is that many people feel as though they need to take action when they feel these extreme emotions. In response to anxiety about losing their partner, they may find themselves spending every minute they can together. In response to feeling confused, they may find themselves questioning the actions taken during the affair relentlessly. In response to anger, they may find themselves seeking revenge. Who hasn't heard a story of someone who violently assaulted the lover of a partner at some point?

Why are couples choosing to work at it? Somewhere deep down, I think many people understand that an affair is not a full relationship. You only get the good parts-great sex, positive time together, and no responsibilities. In an affair, you don't see how the other person handles chores or child rearing. You don't really have to engage much in the day to day grind or as I refer to it in my book Pre-Marital Counseling: A Guide for Clinicians, "The Business of Relationships."

When the infidelity is found out, many unfaithful partners reevaluate the choice they made and often decide to stay and work on their marriage. According to Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego researcher, 67% of people whose spouses committed an affair were still married and living together. This is a stark contrast to the old belief that if someone has an affair, it means the end of the relationship.

If your relationship has recently suffered from an affair, you are not alone, but the road to recovery is a long and difficult one. Many of the couples I help work for years to rebuild the trust lost from the infidelity. That's only one part of the rebuilding process. Couples also have to rebuild their sex lives, improve the quality of their relationship, and sort through the various mixed emotions without making the situation worse for each other.

If you are trying to figure out whether to work through an affair with you partner, a good first step is to seek help from a counselor in your area. It is not an easy task, but many couples who work through infidelity can find a way to improve their relationship.