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.

When is it time to go to couple therapy?

A lot of couples wrestle with the decision to seek couple or marital therapy. Anita was unhappy that she and Chris fought, but he thought that all couples argued and she should not make it such a big deal. He did not want to involve a third party in their troubles. Thomas wanted Cassandra to go to marital therapy because they rarely had sex, but she was just fine with how things were. One spouse may not always see that their partner’s unhappiness reflects an underlying problem with how the couple functions as a unit.

No single factor will help a couple decide whether or not to seek therapy. Here are some things to consider:

Go to treatment before you and your partner are so bitter that one or both of you won’t be willing to make changes to improve your relationship. Recently one wife stated that she did not want to seek help because,

“All the couples we know who have gone to marital therapy have gotten divorced.”

Most couples simply wait too long. Partners become so hurt and self-righteous about their positions that they become unwilling to make changes in how they talk to and treat one another. Related to this is the idea that “We’re not doing that badly (as to need couples therapy).” Underlying that concern is the notion that to go to therapy means admitting defeat, admitting the significance of the problem, or worse yet, admitting blame for problems in the relationship.

Go to marital therapy when you want to have a happier relationship, not when it is the last thing you try before you give up. Your enemy in your attempt to improve your relationship is not your partner; it is hopelessness.

Go to therapy when you and your partner stop working as a team and instead are working against one another. A classic example of this is disagreement about child-rearing philosophies. Most parents can be caught off guard by challenges that some children present. When partners dig in and the goal becomes to convince one another that their ideas about parenting are “right,” the opportunity to take what is best from both partners’ ideas is lost. If this occurs, a therapist may be necessary to help the partners learn the skills of collaborative problem-solving.

Go to therapy when your disagreements or arguments are having a negative effect on your children. The parental relationship is the most powerful model of a relationship that children have. Children learn how to treat intimate partners and how they should be treated by their partners by watching their parents. If they see constant arguing or two people living separate lives, they will believe that this is how intimate relationships should be. Also, intense conflict or disengagement between parents threatens a child’s sense of security. Research suggests that parents in conflict tend to use poor and inconsistent child-rearing practices leading to anxiety, depression, disruptive behavior, and/or academic failure.

Go to therapy when you or your partner feel your needs are not being met, and this is leading to frequent arguments. These needs may include needs for (more) closeness (or distance, which couples are always negotiating), or different ways of talking about daily problems, and the need for more (or less) and different ways of lovemaking. Differences in needs between spouses do not mean a relationship is doomed—some differences in needs occur in every relationship. It is impossible for an individual to find a partner who is an exact match in every way, and often small differences become magnified over time.

When you and your partner take a long time to make up (or never make up) after an argument, it is time to get marital therapy. Consider this: when partners spend a great deal of time treating each other coldly, talking minimally, neither is experiencing the benefits of a relationship. These benefits include having fun, joking around, relaxing with one another, supporting one another, and having satisfying sex. Looked at another way, think about the time between when your arguments “flare-up” with angry words and the time you decide to bury the hatchet and stop feuding. For some couples, this period of time is several hours or a day, but for others, the feud continues for days or even weeks. Some partners never commit to end the fight or to solve the problem but maintain a resentful and negative attitude toward one another. This is a corrosive state that will end a marriage if the partners do not make changes.

There are many options for obtaining marital therapy including private practices, nonprofit institutes that specialize in couple and family therapy, and hospital based clinics. Referrals to therapists who are trained to conduct marital therapy can be found at http://www.abctcouples.org/ and www.therapistlocator.net/.

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