Infidelity in relationships: Three things that get in the way of healing your relationship from cheating

I frequently work with married or dating couples in which one partner has cheated on the other, although the forms of cheating can vary. Many affairs involved having sex with a person outside the couple; these are clear cases of infidelity. In other cases the infidelity occurs more subtly, such as when Kahlil texts his friend Rachel about his sexual fantasies while he and his girlfriend Chandra are experiencing problems. Susan has another type of affair when she maintains a close, confiding relationship with her running friend, Andre’, even though she maintains to her husband Jordan that she had never kissed or had any other sexual intimacy with Andre’. Many people have written about why affairs happen. Here I address the issues that get in the way of healing from infidelity.

Partners often disagree about what constitutes “cheating.” Infidelity occurs when relationship boundaries are crossed, including sexual, emotional, and informational boundaries; partners don’t always agree about where those boundaries are and get hung up on whether “serious cheating” really happened. The exact boundaries in a relationship differ among partners but usually involve the belief that one partner has shared an experience with someone outside the relationship that should be restricted to the couple’s experiences within the relationship. A clear example is sexual intercourse with someone outside the relationship. Other situations are not so clear. After Kahlil texted to his friend Rachel questions about whether his sexual fantasies were normal, he justified this as a way to try to understand why he and Chandra were not sexually compatible. Kahlil did not see that this was a major crossing of boundaries because he mainly talked about his own preferences, not Chandra’s. In the example from above of Susan’s close friendship with Andre’, Jordan was not able to say what he did not like about her and Andre’s close relationship although he knew vaguely that they shared information about their marriages with one another. Susan stated she felt accused and controlled by Jordan’s complaints.

Agreement about when boundaries are crossed in relationship intimacy is not necessary to begin the healing process. It probably indicates that the partners need many more careful discussions about where the boundaries in their relationship stand. If couples get stuck on arguing about whether an infidelity occurred, or how serious was the crossing of the boundary, these important discussions will never happen. It is better for the couple to agree that at least one of the partners felt their implicit relationship boundary was violated. Their disagreement underscores the need to talk about where the boundaries are in their relationship.

The partner having the affair usually misunderstands the impact on the other person. Individuals having affairs usually know they are hurting their partners but often believe that this is the only effect. To the contrary, infidelity can be traumatic and life-changing in ways similar to other traumas such as a mugging or an assault. People who are harmed by an affair feel that the earth has moved underneath them. They are usually surprised that their partner has cheated; if they had suspicions, they had already started to feel confused and doubted their own conclusions about what was real and what was imagined.  After being told that the affair is over they continue to have questions—“Is my partner hiding something?” “Why is she getting off the phone when I walk in the room?” “Why does he not want to have sex?” “Is it still going on?” No explanation or reassurance by the offending partner is trusted. In the days, weeks, and even months after an affair comes to light, there is no one thing the unfaithful partner can say to calm these suspicions. There are many ups and downs. The smallest reminder of the affair can ruin the harmed partner’s mood. The couple often experiences the relationship as unstable. The unfaithful partner may wonder why the injured partner continues to be so moody and mistrusting even after the affair has been over for some time.

It can also be uncomfortable for a person whose partner has cheated to know that the partner has shared private information about the relationship. This adds to the injured partner’s feelings of vulnerability. This lethal combination of feelings makes even small infractions, say, shared intimate information or an “affair of the heart,” difficult for the couple to overcome. Even when an inappropriately close relationship not involving sex is revealed, the injured partner suspects that the outside person knows something intimate and embarrassing about him or her. This situation often keeps the injured partner from trusting enough to begin the healing process.

Disagreement about the meaning and importance of the affair can prevent healing from it. At times the partner who had the affair tries to convince the injured partner that the relationship was just sex and “didn’t mean anything,” or was a mistake and that he or she still loves the injured partner. In a brief affair, Jason had a one-time sexual liaison with a business associate whom he sees occasionally at industry conferences. He tried to convince his wife, Anne, that it was a mistake and that he still loved her. After two months of trying his best to make up for it, he became frustrated and tired, unable to convince Anne how little the other woman meant to him. Anne’s frustration was that Jason did not seem to get how the affair changed everything for her. It signaled to her that she was no longer desirable to him and that he obviously did not care how she felt. It did not matter to her that Jason now was on his best behavior; she kept trying to explain how his affair made her want to protect herself and unable to feel close to him as long as he did not understand how devastated she was. Jason felt continually punished by this, leaving him wondering when this punishment would end.

Each of the problems described above lead to a seemingly endless loop of unresolvable arguments about the affair and continued mistrust of the offending partner. Fortunately, there are steps that a couple can take to move beyond these roadblocks. My next blog entry will address these important steps: stabilizing the conflict in the couple caused by the affair, connecting the affair to pre-existing (and sometimes hidden) problems in the relationship, and helping the couple to address those problems or move ahead without one another.

Check out Coming Back Together: A Guide to Successful Reintegration After Your Partner Returns from Military Deployment, by Steven L. Sayers, Ph.D.

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