Infidelity is a common problem in intimate relationships and the mistrust that results can destroy a marriage or relationship. Few things compare to the loss and desolation a person feels when they have been betrayed. With intensive couples counseling, some couples can recover but it is a slow and up and down process that takes a lot of effort on the part of both people.
Karen, 44, shares her struggle to regain trust in her husband, Colin, 46, after she found out in a text message that he’d been having a fling with someone from his past. During a couples counseling session, Karen reflects:
“I just can’t seem to get over the idea that it could happen again. I’ve asked Colin why it happened and he just says he was unhappy and we bicker a lot, but who is to say he won’t reach out to her again. The women he slept with sent me a detailed text about their affair and it felt like someone stole my heart and my pride. It will take me a long time to forgive him.”
Surely there are no guarantees in life but during our sessions, Colin reassured Karen that he made a horrible mistake and it would not happen again. He said, “If I ever feel dissatisfied with our marriage, I’ll tell you rather than running to the arms of someone else. I know that this just made things worse and I’m left feeling incredibly guilty for causing you so much pain.”
In a recent article for The Gottman Institute’s website, Taylor Irvine tackles the topic of infidelity and describes it as one of the most challenging and emotionally fraught issues in marriage. But rather than forecast doom for couples struggling to rebuild trust and move past the pain of an affair, Irvine adds insight and context to an all-too-common cause of divorce.
Likening adultery to the “check engine” light on your car’s dashboard, Irvine frames cheating as the symptom rather than the problem in and of itself. Certainly, cheating is a betrayal that has the power to destroy the emotional dynamic of a relationship, but it’s not often that partners are able to unwind the factors that led to infidelity in the first place.
Affairs are often seen not just as a mistake, but as a series of ongoing deceptions that cut to the heart of the aggrieved partner’s self-esteem, upending their belief in the most foundational elements of their union, including love, trust and a shared history with their significant other.
But more often than not, infidelity is the last domino to fall in a pattern of long-ignored issues ion a relationship. In other words, affairs rarely just happen. Rather, they grow out of unhealthy patterns that develop over a long period of time.
The typical stressors in married life — financial strife, the pressures of raising children, flaws in a couple’s communication — are part of the equation. However, the disconnection and emotional distance that can develop in a marriage most often lead to a spouse seeking what they are no longer getting in their marriage from the outside.
Whether infidelity is driven by emotional or physical needs not being met — or commonly, by a combination of the two — the result is rather predictable. As Irvine puts it, “the betrayed partner experiences a rocking of their world and may be left wondering, ‘should I stay or should I go?’”
But in a projection of hope for couples devastated by cheating, Irvine suggests that moving beyond the “anger, sadness, pain and humiliation” relies first on forgiveness. If the betrayed partner can avoid “harboring contempt,” it enables both spouses to turn their focus back toward their relationship and begin the work of repairing the loss of trust as well as the underlying issue that may have led to infidelity.
Successfully rebuilding after an affair is a matter of learning to love and communication with each other in ways that anticipate and avoid conflict. Irvine relates that couples who can “defuse arguments,” and “respectfully accept one another’s differing perspectives” can ultimately rebuild their marriage and “engage in healthier conflict discussion, turn towards one another, and increase emotional atonement” on the road to “long-term relationship satisfaction and growth.”
Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.
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