A skilled relationship therapist successfully can guide couples on this difficult journey
We all know that cheating in a marriage happens, in fact, the statistics are quite startling – approximately 57 percent of men and 54 percent of women admit they have been unfaithful; 22 percent of married men and 14 percent of married women report they have strayed at least once. Among spouses who have been unfaithful, 56 percent of men and 34 percent of women describe their marriage as happy.
In working with couples dealing with infidelity, I have found numerous reasons for the affairs: affirmation, self-worth, experimentation, exploration of fantasies and fetishes, escape from day-to-day stressors, feelings of inadequacy, childhood trauma, addiction (substance abuse, gambling), fear of growing old, wanting something more than they have … and many more.
When one partner finds out the other partner has cheated, gut reactions automatically surface: they want to seek revenge, they want a divorce, they want to know every single detail of the affair …
The biggest step a couple can take is to seek counseling as soon as possible from a skilled relationship therapist. Infidelity is not something a couple can work through on their own. They have too many negative emotions dragging them down, and they don’t know how to begin sifting through the mess and figure out if they are in or out of the relationship. A third, neutral party can guide the process to a resolution. I call this “affair recovery,” which is a long and extremely challenging journey and totally worth it when you make it to the other side.
Couples come to me with many questions:
- Should they try to save the relationship?
- Do they want to save the relationship?
- How do they begin affair recovery?
- Is the damage repairable?
- Will they heal?
- Will they ever be able to trust their involved partner again?
- Can they forgive and move on?
When I first meet couples, I establish a list of “do not” rules:”
- Do not seek revenge.
- Do not make rash decisions about your future.
- Do not tell everyone you know that your partner had an affair.
- Do not post anything on social media about the affair.
- Do not criticize your partner on social media.
- Do not place blame on yourself.
- Do not involve the kids.
- Do not try to handle the infidelity on your own.
Through our sessions, I assess the damage the infidelity has caused to both individuals. Their relationship has changed; one partner has disinvested in it, has kept secrets, lied, and broke a loving and trusting bond. The other partner feels betrayed. Their world is unraveling, and they don’t know what to do about it. Emotions are overriding objectivity.
Together, and sometimes individually, we work through these emotions that seem unmanageable, and I help couples learn ways to talk about the situation calmly, leaving blame and accusations behind. This is no easy task, but this has to happen first before we open the conversation of saving the relationship.
Do they want to save it? They may not know that answer yet. That is why we progress slowly, cautiously and positively through affair recovery.
When the couple starts talking about fixing their marriage, the involved partner needs to acknowledge the pain their partner has been living with, express sincere remorse, be brutally truthful and transparent, and do whatever they can to restore trust. The injured partner may feel the pain of infidelity never will go away, and their partner needs to acknowledge these feelings. The pain and the grief will subside over time, but early on in therapy, it seems like an impossibility. The involved partner must understand that, be patient and give their partner the time they need.
During therapy, I remind the couple to express their feelings calmly and openly. Listen to each other’s perspectives, feel all of their feelings – this is healthy and will help in the healing process – and ask questions that will help with recovery. Forgiveness is a process, and it will not happen in a few short weeks.
The partner who broke the relationship agreement must break off the affair, take responsibility, answer questions openly and honestly, sincerely apologize and express regret and do this as often as needed (and mean it), and ask how they can help their injured partner heal. They need to have genuine empathy for their partner and what they did to them. Expressing guilt does not fix the relationship. It is an emotion, not a problem-solver.
The involved partner should not pull away, justify their actions, blame their partner, lose patience, pressure their partner to get over it, or hide anything else. It will take a long time to rebuild trust and keeping more secrets is a relationship death sentence.
In our sessions, we also talk about what breaking the relationship agreement says about the involved partner.
- Is your partner insecure, impulsive, selfish or immature?
- Is cheating a chronic problem?
- Will the cheating stop?
- Is your partner truly sorry?
- Do they apologize often and openly express why they are sorry for what they did?
- Do they do things they feel will lessen your pain?
Their words AND their actions are important. If the involved partner is not willing to be honest or starts the blame game, affair recovery becomes much more difficult. That is why the involved partner must come clean.
In addition, the involved partner must end the affair. Delete contact information, block numbers, stop social media communication, block social media connections, and cut off all contact. This is an act of empathy and selflisness that must occur for their partner to re-build trust.
I also remind the injured partner that they are not to blame. It is not their fault, and I say this repeatedly. Begin to put themselves first, focus on their own healing, find supportive people, and take a break from social media. It can stir the pot of negative emotions. Self-care will help immensely in the healing process.
How long will it take for affair recovery?
Healing can take weeks, months or even years. The affair has changed both people in the relationship. The involved partner made a poor choice and is living with the consequences: their partner’s overwhelming mental, emotional and physical pain.
I find that if a couple focuses on the symptoms that contributed to the affair instead of the act of the affair, they can begin the recovery process. In our sessions, we talk about how infidelity may not mean the love is gone in the relationship, but it will take time to restore trust and rebuild the relationship. Ultimately, through therapy, the couple will uncover their issues and the decision about their future together will become clearer and clearer. It’s tough therapy because the elephant remains in the room – will the spouse cheat again?
In my experience as a therapist for almost 40 years, and what I share with couples, is that a loving marriage can be saved if the involved partner deeply and genuinely is sorry for the betrayal and is willing to work to earn forgiveness and restore trust. I have found that if the couple’s relationship is strong enough and both partners are willing to put in the work to save their marriage, they will heal and move forward, often rebuilding a foundation for an even stronger relationship.
In conclusion, it is very important to seek counseling from a therapist with experience and training in couples therapy and infidelity. The couple needs a third party to guide the process step by step, with each step leading to a resolution that works for them.
The relationship is going to have to change – no matter what the couple says or thinks. It will never be the same, but it can be better because the problems that caused so much hurt were uncovered and resolved. Infidelity is a two-person crisis and needs to be treated that way.