Infidelity is all too common and when it occurs, it raises many questions. Should you stay? Can trust be rebuilt? Of all of the real-life stories of women interviewed for my research, Catherine’s story best illustrates the searing pain of infidelity and the toxic impact it can have on all family members.
In her late 30s, Catherine put it like this: “My husband is a district manager of a large company and his pattern was to have affairs during his business trips. It tore apart our family and he became more and more detached. Our relationship deteriorated and our kids suffered.”
As a busy professional and mother of two school age children, Catherine reenacted patterns from her past when she married Brian, since both of her former boyfriends had been unfaithful. Catherine was attracted to a partner who bore a strong resemblance to her father – who was emotionally unavailable and unfaithful to her mother. She suffered from low self-esteem and doubted her own judgment.
Once Catherine understood the message in her pain and the meaning it had for her, she was able to focus on herself rather than Brian’s behavior, and thus begin the recovery process. According to author Stephen Stosney, PHD, “negative emotions hurt until we start on the path of healing and improving.” For instance, when Catherine began to think of things to improve her life, like returning to college, rather than her resentment toward Brian, her life improved.
Catherine was also able to tell Brian that there were certain things he needed to do in order for her to stay married to him and begin the process of healing and restoring trust. The following list is from Living & Loving After Betrayal by Stephen Stosney, PHD.
What Your Partner Must Do:
1. Value and appreciate you. This means letting you know you are an important part of his or her life.
2. Respect you as an equal partner and listen to you without trying to control you.
3. Deal with his or her guilt, anger, and resentment, and other emotions without blaming them on you.
4. Show compassion and express caring – especially during arguments.
5. Support you emotionally and personally as you attempt to achieve goals.
6. Attempt to earn your trust over time and make compensatory repair.
7. Ensure your physical and emotional safety.
However, if you have survived infidelity, you may decide that divorce is the only option. Even if you suspected that your partner was cheating, knowing is intensely disturbing. In many cases, the decision to terminate a marriage is made in haste. Regardless, divorce is typically a painful process for all involved.
Knowing the type of affair your spouse is involved in can help you determine the serious of it but does not take away the pain associated with it. Nonetheless, assessing the degree of seriousness and the threats that it poses to your marriage, can help you to make a decision about continuing in the relationship.
Truth be told, while infidelity can be devastating to a marriage, some specialists believe that it is important to try to resolve the crisis and rebuild trust if possible. According to therapists Rona B. Subotnik, L.M.F.T and Gloria Harris, Ph.D., getting to the root of infidelity is crucial. In their book Surviving Infidelity, they write, “Because extramarital sex still plays a role in the dissolution of many marriages, and because the divorce rate continues to be so high, it is important to know more about it.” Subotnik and Harris’s goal is to keep most marriages together – even after trust has been broken by the wounds of infidelity.
Assessing the Seriousness of the Threat
Fortunately, there are many ways to assess the seriousness of the threat infidelity has on a marriage. First, let’s look at some basic definitions of adultery, infidelity, and affairs. Adultery is either a legal or a religious term defined as sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse. On the other hand, infidelity means unfaithfulness or disloyalty; whereas an affair is an illicit amorous relationship.
The four types of affairs as described by Subotnik and Harris also include on-line affairs. They are as follows: serial, flings, romantic, and long-term. At this point, you might wonder – what difference does it make? Don’t all affairs have a severe impact on the integrity of a marriage?
Actually, serial affairs are not always serious in terms of the threat they pose to a marriage but they put a partner at great risk for exposure to Aids and sexually transmitted diseases. Serial affairs, which are a series of one-night stands and/or a series of many affairs, indicate an attempt to avoid emotional intimacy. However, flings – which can be a one-night stand or can go on for months— do not involve any emotional investment and are the least serious type of affair.
Surprisingly, romantic love affairs ― think the movie Casablanca ― and long-term affairs pose the greatest threat to a marriage. The romantic love affair involves a high degree of emotional investment and can be quite serious if it goes on for a while. Just as the names applies, the long-term affair lasts for many years and poses the most threat to the integrity of the marriage because it involves a high level of emotional investment and can go on for decades.
Three Questions to Help You Decide Whether to End Your Marriage After Surviving Infidelity:
1. Would you want to be married to your partner if you trusted them again?
In other words, do you have enough admiration and respect left to salvage the relationship? Be honest and ask yourself: Do we still have fun together and enjoy each other’s company most of the time? If your partner has had a romantic or long-term affair, the answer might be a definite “no.”
2. Have you let go of your anger and resentment about your partner’s betrayal and are you ready to move forward?
Is your view of him or her becoming more positive in spite of their actions? Can you imagine ever feeling happy in your relationship or wanting to be close or intimate with them?
3. Can you forgive your partner for their actions?
This does not mean condoning their actions but simply not letting them have power over you. Research suggests that a continual willingness to forgive can help heal marital problems, both big and small. In fact, marital therapists have found that forgiveness is an essential ingredient of healing from infidelity and contributes to a long-lasting, successful marriage.
If your answer to one or more of these questions is “no” and you think it is time to take the next step, you owe it to yourself to tell your partner you want a divorce. At the end of the day, you are the only person who knows if your marriage can survive infidelity. However, if you decide to divorce, be sure to keep things as amicable as possible – for you, your spouse, and especially your children.