What to do with your marriage after realizing your partner has had an affair is one of most challenging problems anyone could face. Staying is hard and leaving is hard. It’s a catch-22 and an excruciating one, to say the least. The pain is magnified when you both have children. You realize their lives will be forever changed, usually for the worse, by your divorce.
People who choose to stay with a spouse who has cheated are often judged harshly, even shamed, for making this decision. Yet, there are many reasons such condemnation is unfair.
Those outside the bounds of the marriage have no idea what has transpired that led to infidelity. As a marriage therapist, I get an up close and intimate look inside of marital distress. Infidelity is often the reported reason for seeking help. When the cheating has been an affair with one other paramour or a one-time incident, as opposed to a habitual pattern of cheating, working through this crisis can transform the marriage. This is in part because the cheating is indicative of much deeper problems the couple had been experiencing – problems that may only come to light after the infidelity is exposed.
Betrayed spouses stay for a variety of reasons: financial limitations, fear or harming the children, still being in love, religious beliefs, and so on. More vital that these reasons are the betrayed spouse’s realization that he or she played an integral part in the creation of the marital distress or disconnection. Both partners essentially “co-created” the state of their union. It’s when these insights arise that both partners can do the razing, excavating and rebuilding of their marriage.
Rest assure that betrayed spouses aren’t “stupid,” “naïve,” or “foolish” as many are so frequently called. They are courageous, conscientious and wise. They often agonize intensely over the “stay vs. go” decision.
When they decide stay, they are empowered to become both self-reflective and forgiving. For these partners, choosing to stay is an attempt to create a new relationship with their spouse that is deep, intimate and emotionally connected. This is not what they had before. Furthermore, it is the real underlying reason why many marriages either don’t survive, experience infidelity or slide into roommate status. Emotional disconnection is the main show in town…the precursor to affairs and the fundamental reason for many divorces.
There are common themes among betrayed partners I often hear. Some of the women acknowledge never wanting sex, prioritizing the children above all else, constantly criticizing or berating their husbands. Some of the men admit putting work above all else, ignoring their wives or not making them feel cherished. Both husbands and wives disclose struggles with addiction, conflict avoidance or not making time for each other. Exploring the impact of these behaviors can conceivably get a couple to the core of the problems that left the relationship vulnerable to infidelity.
The cheater is by no means off the hook just because the spouse decided to stay. The unfaithful spouse must also take a long hard look at their behavior and role in the marital problems. This person must be extraordinarily remorseful for their choice to cheat. Having a deep understanding of why and how the choice to cheat was made, instead of bravely facing the marital problems head on, needs to be fully understood. If the motivation is lacking to do the hard work both on oneself and for the sake of the marriage, the couple will remain susceptible to more infidelity.
Certainly, a couple can always divorce. Electing to stay and work on the marriage requires tremendous strength and commitment from both partners. The last thing these spouses need is to be judged or looked down upon for making the choice that is right for them and their family. They need you to know that you are not walking in their shoes. They need your compassion, support, and understanding.