We have all heard the stories: service member so and so was unfaithful to his partner while deployed. Mrs. Smith was unfaithful while her husband was TDY. The stories and the salacious gossip can go on and on and on. And it often does, taking on the trappings of a cautionary tale or of a cheap supermarket tabloid. Cheating. Infidelity. Heartbreak. No matter how you slice it, it’s hard to cope with. I’ve been a psychotherapist for over a decade and I have worked with couples at every stage of their relationship: from pre-marital counseling to divorce and custody proceedings and everything in between. I would venture to say that everyone reading this is likely to have been touched by infidelity in one way or another. You may have been cheated on, or you may have been the one to cheat. Your parents’ marriage could have been affected, or a neighbor, friend, fellow military spouse, or your spouses’ battle buddy. None of us are immune. That is probably why it frightens us so much. Even the “perfect” couple could be affected. Gulp. Even “you” or I could be. This is all true. Despite all of this, I’m here to tell you that if this happens to you, you can survive it. Your relationship can survive infidelity.
Now I’m not going to sugar coat this. It just plain stinks (I would use a more “colorful” word here if I could). It’s awful. Right up there with a root canal without anesthesia. Healing from infidelity is hard, painful work. Many of us know relationships that have broken up because of an affair, but that’s not what I’m addressing here. In fact, if both people are willing, infidelity is something that can be worked through. You might think “yeah, right. Is that truly possible?” I am here to tell you that it is.
Here’s the skinny though: You BOTH have to be 110% committed to repairing the damage, rebuilding trust, and reconnecting. Stopping secrecy, building a more honest relationship, and being completely open are key.
Here are some suggestions to help you and your partner survive infidelity:
Infidelity is emotionally devastating. Forgive one another and allow each other time to heal individually and as a couple.
Take the path towards forgiveness.
Before you even begin the path toward processing the affair, it’s easier to know there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Forgiveness is a choice; it’s the only way to move forward after infidelity. There are ways to let go of the past. I’m not talking about forgetting; that’s harder and not everyone can (or should) forget, but without a path toward forgiveness, truly saving the relationship becomes less possible.
Communicate openly and honestly.
Once the initial shock is over, discuss what happened openly and honestly no matter how difficult talking or hearing about the affair might be. Open and respectful communication is vital for restoring and maintaining intimacy. Share your feelings, listen carefully to your partner’s experiences, and stay in regular contact when you’re not together. Be patient, just as if reconnecting after a deployment; it’s hard work to fall in love again.
If you feel consumed by betrayal and despair, take a moment to focus on appreciation. Think about everything you appreciate about your mate. After a few minutes of refocusing in this way, notice what changes inside you.
Make sure to schedule dates at least once a week. Rekindle the spark and get to know each other again. Even though you’re married, you can still keep dating.
If you were disloyal, take responsibility for your actions. End the affair and stop all interaction or communication with the other person. The cheating partner must be willing to provide all details honestly and completely and take the steps necessary to prove his or her trustworthiness.
Seek out counseling and other support.
Seek help from a licensed therapist who is specifically trained in couple’s therapy and experienced in dealing with infidelity. Counseling can help you put the affair into perspective, identify issues that might have contributed to the affair, and learn how to rebuild and strengthen your relationship. Reconnecting with family and friends, and even finding a support group to join can help you feel less isolated.
Postpone final decisions.
It might take a long time to figure out what led to this crisis and where to go from here. Your first impulse is probably not the wisest. Before choosing to continue or end your relationship, take the time to heal and understand what issues were behind the affair. Re-negotitate togetherness. Learn the lessons that might prevent future problems.
Now not every relationship affected by infidelity can, or even should, be saved. One of the most gut-wrenching decisions you may have to make is whether to give your cheating partner a second chance. This decision is especially difficult when your spouse lied to you, manipulated you, or tried to cover up the affair. Every person has their line in the sand, the one thing that is a deal breaker. Only you know what that line is for you. Sometimes too much damage has been done or reconciliation remains elusive. If you do choose to rebuild your relationship, focus on rebuilding trust. Talk about your fears with your partner, such as whether you’re afraid of being betrayed or never being trusted again. Share your feelings, listen to each other, and reset your relationship boundaries. If both of you are committed to rebuilding your relationship and you have the strength and determination for the task, the reward can be a partnership that grows in lifelong depth, honesty, and intimacy.