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.

The four best (almost) free things you can do to fix your marriage

Nancy and Michael were aware they had problems but did nothing about it because of one of the most common reasons–they did not think they could afford it. They were unwilling to take just any therapist off of their insurance plan’s list. What can a couple do about this?

There are at least four steps any couple can take that may improve their relationship satisfaction. Which of the following options you chose depends on the nature and seriousness of the problem, but these are all good options for most couples. Some are free, and some are very low cost.

Try an online couple therapy program. This online program called Our Relationship is a research study that is patterned from a well-researched approach called Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy. The program will help you understand your core problems and provide ways to stop blaming each other and seek solutions to these core issues. You can get a feel for the information provided through the link on the web age: “View a Sample Activity.” It is free, confidential, and is based on the research at several universities. The program also includes one to four telephone or Skype consultations with a therapist. The site discusses the research that supports this general approach and the background of the developers of the program, Drs. Andy Christensen and Brian Doss.

Work together on a self-help relationship book. Dr. Andy Christensen and Neil Jacobson are responsible for one of the largest and most successful research trials of couple therapy ever conducted. The approach tested, Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy, is presented in an easy-to-use format for couples in a book called Reconcilable Differences, Second Edition: Rebuild Your Relationship by Rediscovering the Partner You Love–without Losing Yourself. The volume can be bought at major book retailers online for less than $20. You’ll note that it is based on the same research as the online program above.

Respond to the challenge of infidelity. Another self-help book can help you figure out what to do when your partner cheats. The book, Getting Past the Affair: A Program to Help You Cope, Heal, and Move On, by Drs. Douglas K. Snyder, Donald H. Baucom, and Kristina Coop Gordon, does not assume that you want to stay with your partner. The first goal is to help you and your partner stop hurting one another and stabilize your relationship, the second is to figure out why the affair happened, and the third goal is decide whether to stay together or to separate. This book can also be bought for less than $20.

Attend a marriage enrichment program at your church. This is a good option for you whether or not your relationship is unhappy because it may help prevent problems in the future and simply help you enjoy your relationship more. Programs across the nation vary widely in focus and quality but here are the most important characteristics: 1) the importance of commitment to your relationship is emphasized (see this blog post and this blog about the importance of commitment), 2)  communication skills that reduce conflict, and 3) strategies for keeping fun in your relationship. A great example of such a program is PREP.  You’ll find at the PREP site listings of program workshops presented throughout the US.  Although these programs do have fees they tend to be cost effective compared to individual or couple therapy.

There is definitely help for couples who do not have the money or time to pursue couple therapy if they are willing to commit to understanding their issues and working on their relationship. I look forward to feedback about readers’ experiences with these options.

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