The Problem of Infidelity
Infidelity (or cheating) is defined as the act of one member in a relationship participating in sexual or romantic relations with someone outside the relationship. This definition holds a bit of flexibility, as each individual may have his or her own definition of the term “cheating”. For some, cheating involves sex. For others, merely looking at or thinking about a rival is unacceptable.
Often, and especially for women, “emotional infidelity” is more difficult to process than physical infidelity. For those people, a spouse that cheats physically is less of a concern than one that forms a strong emotional bond with a rival. But no matter how you define them, affairs are devastating to relationships. But what exactly constitutes infidelity? Watching porn? A hookup? Paid sex, sexting, chat rooms, a massage with a happy ending?”
Types of Infidelity
There are different types of infidelity, based on the nature of the relationship between the two parties, as well as the situation they find themselves in. And these circumstances may play a role in whether or not the two parties are able to reconcile. Here is a brief description of a few different classes of infidelity:
Sometimes a relationship between the two parties lacks a strong emotional connection, and thus the offending party is seeking additional love, connection, and validation outside the relationship. In many cases, these affairs occur because the offending party feels trapped in their current relationship (for any number of reasons). The two parties have tried to improve the situation, but their needs are not being met.
The two parties are in a committed relationship. However, in this case, one of them finds himself or herself in a situation where there is an opportunity for an affair, and gives into carnal desire. Afterward, the offending party feels remorse because of the harm they have done to their partner and the relationship. This becomes an even more complicated issue in open relationships where the negotiated boundaries of the agreement are violated.
In this form, one person in the relationship seeks approval and love from an outsider, and thus won’t refuse their sexual advances, even though it means harming the relationship with their significant other. This kind of person has a strong fear of rejection, and instinctively takes action to avoid feeling the pain of rejection, even though the person they intend to appease is an outsider. The offended party feels hurt because their partner cares more about the outsider’s approval than his or her own.
In this type of relationship, the cheater has little or no feelings for the spouse or partner. Thus, they long for a new relationship that can help them feel fulfilled in the ways that the current partner is unwilling or unable to provide. In many cases, unfulfilled sexual desires and fantasies play a role here.
Conflicted Romantic Infidelity
In some cases, an individual can feel genuine love, affection, and sexual desire for more than one person at a time. This leads to a conflict of interest, as the rival outsider becomes a true love interest, even though the offending party has not lost any desire for his or her spouse or partner. This situation can become worse if the offending party cannot be candid about his or her feelings. In open or polyamorous relationships these conflicts can become a complicated and blurred set of boundary and trust violations.
Reach Out When You're Ready.
Damage to the Partner and the Relationship
When cheating occurs, the biggest problem that arises in a relationship is a lack of trust. How can the offended party move forward while unable to trust his or her partner? And how can the offending partner repair trust? The person who remains in a relationship after their partner cheats feels hurt, worthless, sad, depressed, and wants and needs validation for who they are as a person, and in particular, sexually. However, the person they need that from is their partner, and that partner is not in any position to provide that validation until the relationship is repaired.
If the relationship involves other people, children for example, the loss of trust can be devastating whether or not they become aware of the infraction. If the couple lives with other friends or relatives, the infidelity can strain loyalties, forcing parties to choose sides, and wasting a lot of time as these parties must now wrestle with their own bitterness and learn to forgive. It also can lead to changes in physical circumstances, as the couple, their children, and others may have to make new living arrangements to accommodate the change in their relationship.
How can a Couple Move Forward from an Affair?
This is the million dollar question, and the focus of any therapist who attempts to help a couple reconcile after infidelity. There are no simple answers. Everyone is different. And the details are important; some things that might be devastating for one party to hear might be no big deal to someone else. This section explains some basic rules of engagement. But mainly, they simply serve as a starting point for deeper discussion.
One thing is true: Affairs and betrayal redefine a relationship. You will never have the same relationship with your partner again. If you both choose to work hard to rebuild trust and connection, you may be able to keep your marriage. In some cases, it can become a better relationship built on mutuality, respect, vulnerability, and most of all, honesty.
Be Honest about What Happened, and Why
This is the most important step. Both parties need to hear the whole truth, good and bad. You might be thinking, “How is any of this good?” Actually, there is good in a relationship if the two parties still want to sit down after an affair and talk. And sometimes expressing the positive elements can lead to healing and reconciliation. But the ugly parts must come out – all of them. It’s only fair, given the commitment both parties have made to each other.
Check for Remorse
Once the truth is out, the offended party now has a choice. If he or she is to consider continuing in the relationship, the offending party must show remorse. Another word for this is brokenness. Does the other person care that they have hurt their partner? How does it make them feel to know that they have done so? Or to see their reaction when they learn the truth? These moments are very important, and personal. They require privacy, and adequate time to explore.
Be Honest About What you Want
Both parties now have to make a decision. The offended party in particular is now empowered (by the truth) to proceed. The decision to forgive the offending party is one hurdle, but the decision to trust is completely different. Forgiveness is a critical step for the injured party to obtain healing. But moving forward with the relationship is a value judgment that only the offended party can make. If he or she decides to remain in the relationship (assuming their partner is interested), then other important decisions are to follow.
If the couple attempts to reconcile, there must be a show of good faith on the part of the offending party to win back the trust of the other. Boundaries will insulate the relationship to a degree. But they do two other important things. By setting the boundaries, the cheater shows a willingness to protect the relationship. More importantly, how that person observes those boundaries will show the partner whether or not they are really taking the relationship seriously, and how seriously.
Move Forward with Honesty and Care
If both parties are committed to reconciliation, it will show in how they interact. It is very difficult to hide your feelings when there are only two people. Either both parties want to be intimate, or they don’t. If one does not, some quality counseling and rigorous honesty should quickly reveal why that is. And once the truth is out, the couple can face it together, or not.
Meet Jim Brillon, an expert in helping couples cope with infidelity
Jim Brillon is a licensed marriage and family therapist who counsels couples who are going through all manner of challenges in Orange County. If you or your partner has recently been unfaithful and you are seeking help to save the relationship, call our office and make an appointment for yourself, or both you and your partner. We have helped countless couples find a path forward to reconciliation.
In many cases, these couples were very far apart emotionally. We cannot make any promises; your willingness and ability to work through the hurt to rebuild trust will depend on you and your partner. The reasons people stray are varied and often unconscious and may involve excavating unmet needs. With a skilled counselor guiding you, you stand the best possible chance for a favorable outcome.