The Dynamics of Infidelity: Now What?
Studies verify that 45-50 percent of married women and 50-60 percent of married men are guilty of infidelity. In any relationship, bouncing back from infidelity and moving into repair is possible. Cheating does not necessarily mean that the relationship is over. Whether the relationship survives and moves into healing or dissolves, infidelity is laden with transformative energy on many levels.
So how does one move past the cheating and chooses to stay in the relationship? Understanding the difference between the needs of hurt partner and the role of the involved partner is the first and most important step. Understanding that infidelity is a traumatic experience, and, like grief, takes many years to heal is equally important. Infidelity takes the hurt person through the wall against which he/she has been leaning. It is a whirlwind of shattered assumptions and a re- rebirth of some sort. It is a cathartic reconnection to a primal “trust” wound – one that the hurt person may have suffered in his/her earlier years of childhood.
From the hurt partner’s perspective, infidelity comes with some sort of transgression or deceit– this does not apply to “open marriages”. When the hurt partner either discovers or is told about the infidelity, he/she has been hit over the head with a thunderbolt! He/she is mostly in a traumatized state where even basic needs (eating, sleeping, engaging with others) are challenging to meet. The hurt partner needs to talk to somebody for support and to process the mental and emotional chaos that he/she is experiencing.
Universally, the hurt partner has two questions for the involved partner: “How could you have done this/How could you live through the deceit/What were you thinking at the time?” and “How do I know you are not going to do it again / How do I rebuild trust?” With the first question, the hurt partner is trying to put it all together. He/she wants to know the make and year of the truck that just ran him/her over! They want to make sense of and draw a timeline of the lies. At this stage, it is very important that the involved partner be accountable. That is key to moving into recovery mode. Unless the involved partner takes responsibility for the action of betraying the other, it is hard to move on. The involved partner also needs to be empathetic to the hurt partner; he/she needs to slow down and to listen to the other’s grief. Like grief, moving on from infidelity takes several years; like grief, it goes from center-stage to recede to the background; like grief, even though it is in the background, something may happen to trigger it and the emotions go back to the foreground.
Most importantly, both partners need to know that trust is not an on/off switch. It gets built and rebuilt over time. There are certain aspects that the hurt partner may trust the involved partner with (such as taking care of the children, if they are around) but not other aspects (traveling solo on business trips). Trust gets built as the hurt partner feels the recovery of the involved partner. The hurt partner needs to feel that the other has genuinely held himself/herself accountable for the action and has taken responsibility to heal his/her own wounds. They need to know that the involved partner has plummeted the depths of why they did what they did to understand it … that they are seeking change to ensure that the action is not repeated. Reassuring behaviors are extremely helpful to the hurt partner. One cannot forgive what is still going on! These behaviors require an open, reveal-all purge: passwords, voicemails, phone records, etc. These are all fair game in the early stage of recovery. Initially, both partners need to have an open conversation at least once a week and go through the process together.
Slowly, slowly, slowly, the dynamic may normalize, but the process usually takes between 2-5 years, if both partners are working together through the recovery stage. It is advisable that professional counsel be sought if one/both partners feel stuck. This does not mean that the relationship is an unhappy one throughout the entire recovery years. However, like grief, it will be present in both partners’ lives for a while.
What the involved partner needs to know is that his/her partner needs to receive compassion, empathy and accountability. If the intention is to repair the relationship, the involved partner must act with congruence to the fact that he/she feels bad and that he/she takes responsibility for hurting somebody he/she loves. For the involved partner to come back from the affair with an attitude of arrogance is anathemic to healing the relationship. The involved partner needs to be humble and at the service of the partner because he/she understands that the partner has been deeply hurt; he/she needs to be soft and not defensive – it is about the hurt partner and not about the involved one; he/she needs to be emotionally generous, truthful and transparent – willing to give their hurt partner whatever they need to know.
With this said, the recovery process is a challenge because there is a built-in asymmetry between the involved partner’s position and the hurt partner’s position. The involved partner’s secret life and whatever stress that went along with it is over. The involved partner is busted, and everything has come out into the light! The involved partner has been living with his/her secret for so long, and now it is over. For the hurt partner, the nightmare has just begun. The involved partner needs to get out of it, and the hurt partner needs to get into it. The hurt partner needs to tell the involved partner how they feel. He/she needs to ask questions about what went on – natural questions that need to be answered. If the couple feels pressed or stuck, again, they need to seek arbitration/counsel. All this falls under reassuring behaviors in the recovery stage. The involved partner needs to make changes that are emotionally generous to the person who is hurt. The recovery needs patience and time. It is a grief-like trauma. It will take years until the hurt partner is fully over it. The involved partner will hear about it for years, especially when there are triggers. The involved partner needs to be OK with this! He/she needs to accept this because he/she has the courage and humility to stare with the eyes of the healing offender. The involved partner will be at peace with saying to the hurt partner “ I will bend over backwards to give you what you need; I am truly sorry that I hurt you.”
The involved partner may not necessarily be sorry for the infidelity or the affair, and that is not the point. In this dynamic, there is no legislation of people’s feelings. The affair may have come about with terrible feelings or with positive feelings. That is irrelevant. The key point is that the involved partner feels responsible and accountable for the damage that he/she has done to the person that was hurt, to the children in the relationship (if they are there), to his/her reputation, and to his/her own sense of integrity. Feeling bad is expected, but feeling shame is not. Guilt is about feeling bad about the action but still holding oneself in warm regard as a flawed human being, like the rest of the human race. Shame is belittling oneself, and it is of no use to anybody. The partner knows he/she has moved from shame to remorse when he/she moves from self pre-occupation into caring for the person he/she has hurt.
The involved partner also needs to understand that there is some degree of narcissism involved in having an affair. Understanding the source of this “over-ride”, no matter how glorious or busting it may have been, is vital for recovery. The affair was an act of betrayal and selfishness. The involved partner needs to understand this and to understand what the source of this action is. He/she needs to redirect the energy to fixing whatever is ailing in the marriage/relationship and to find whatever lit up in him/her when in the infidelity and bring it back home. The involved partner owes it to himself/herself and to his/her partner. Otherwise, both partners have co-created a situation that they need to courageously release themselves from…but not before trying, trying and trying again to become better versions of themselves and healing their own inherited wounds.