by Melissa Chapman
Many of us believe that our marriage would be so over if we ever found out that our spouse cheated on us. But would it be, really? It’s hard to know until you are in that position. Acclaimed marriage therapist, Michele Wiener-Davis offers 10 things you should know about how to recover from infidelity in your relationship.
The ultimate betrayal
When you get married you take vows to honor, cherish and never have sex with anyone other than your spouse. You enter into this contract with unilateral trust.
Most of us believe in the sanctity of marriage and our ability to sustain monogamy with our chosen spouses for 50 fairy tale years (or more!) of wedded bliss. We want to believe that our marriage and the bonds we share with our spouse are unbreakable, especially if we’ve worked hard to maintain open communication and an active sex life.
And then maybe it happens: Someone cheats. And we’re left wondering if our marriage can survive this infidelity?
According to Michele Weiner-Davis, author of Divorce Busting and The Sex-Starved Marriage, the short answer is: Absolutely. Yes, you can forgive your spouse for cheating.
“A lot of my work involves working with just one spouse. However, when it comes to working out the issues of forgiveness about betrayal, both spouses are necessary,” says Weiner Davis. “But the cheating spouse may not be ready to participate and that’s when my working with the spouse who wants the marriage to work can be helpful. Together, we can lay the groundwork for future work as a couple. But in the end, if the cheating spouse completely refuses to take responsibility forever, there’s not much hope for the marriage.”
Healing shattered trust
As a marriage therapist for two decades, Weiner-Davis admits she’s heard countless clients confess that the discovery of an affair was the lowest, darkest moment of their entire lives. And because affairs shatter trust, many seriously contemplate divorce after infidelity occurs.
However, she points out, it’s important to know that no matter how bleak things might seem, it’s possible to revitalize a marriage wounded by infidelity. It’s not easy – there are no quick-fix, one-size-fits-all solutions to save a marriage from divorce – but years of experience have taught her that there are definite patterns to what people in loving relationships do to bring their marriages back from the brink of disaster.
Here are 10 things you should know:
1. Healing occurs in stages.
Healing from infidelity involves teamwork, notes Weiner-Davis. Both spouses must be fully committed to the hard work of getting their marriages back on track. The unfaithful partner must be willing to end the affair and do whatever it takes to win back the trust of his or her spouse.
The betrayed spouse must be willing to find ways to manage overwhelming emotions so, as a couple, they can begin to sort out how the affair happened, and more importantly, what needs to change so that it never happens again. Although no two people, marriages or paths to recovery are identical, it’s helpful to know that surviving infidelity typically happens in stages.
2. The betrayed spouse will feel a range of emotions.
If you recently discovered that your spouse has been unfaithful, you will undoubtedly feel shock, rage, hurt, devastation, disillusionment, and intense sadness. You may have difficulty sleeping or eating, or feel completely obsessed with the affair. If you are an emotional person, you may cry a lot. You may want to be alone or, conversely, feel at your worst when you are. While unpleasant, these reactions are perfectly normal.
3. Your marriage can improve, but not immediately.
Healing from infidelity takes a long time. Just when you think things are looking up, something reminds you of the affair and you go downhill rapidly. It’s easy to feel discouraged unless you both keep in mind that intense ups and downs are the norm. Eventually, the setbacks will be fewer and far between.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the affair.
Although some people are more curious than others, it’s very common to have lots of questions about the marital affair, especially initially, says Weiner-Davis. If you have little interest in the facts, so be it. However, if you need to know what happened, ask. Although the details may be uncomfortable to hear, just knowing your spouse is willing to “come clean” helps people recover. As the unfaithful spouse, you might feel tremendous remorse and guilt, and prefer avoiding the details entirely, but experience shows that this is a formula for disaster. Sweeping negative feelings and lingering questions under the carpet makes genuine healing unlikely.
5. Why it happened may be a lingering unanswered question.
Once there is closure on what actually happened, there is typically a need to know why it happened, says Weiner-Davis. Betrayed spouses often believe that unless they get to the bottom of things, it could happen again. Unfortunately, since the reasons people stray can be quite complex, the “whys” aren’t always crystal clear.
6. The cheater needs to come to terms with what motivated their actions.
No one “forces” anyone to be unfaithful. Infidelity is a decision, even if doesn’t feel that way. If you were unfaithful, notes Weiner-Davis it’s important to examine why you allowed yourself to do something that could threaten your marriage. Were you satisfying a need to feel attractive? Are you having a mid-life crisis? Did you grow up in a family where infidelity was a way of life? Do you have a sexual addiction?
7. It’s important to explore whether your marriage is significantly lacking.
Although no marriage is perfect, sometimes people feel so unhappy, they look to others for a stronger emotional or physical connection, says Weiner-Davis. They complain of feeling taken for granted, unloved, resentful or ignored. Sometimes there is a lack of intimacy or sexuality in the marriage. If unhappiness with your spouse contributed to your decision to have an affair, you need to address your feelings openly and honestly so that together you can make some changes. If open communication is a problem, consider seeking help from a qualified marital therapist or taking a communication skill-building class. There are many available through religious organizations, community colleges and mental health settings.
8. The unfaithful spouses must demonstrate sincere regret and remorse.
You can’t apologize often enough, says Weiner-Davis. You need to tell your spouse that you will never commit adultery again. Although, since you are working diligently to repair your relationship, you might think your intentions to be monogamous are obvious, they aren’t. Tell your spouse of your plans to take your commitment to your marriage to heart. This will be particularly important during the early stages of recovery when mistrust is rampant.
9. Conversely, talking about the affair can’t be the only thing you do.
Couples who successfully rebuild their marriages recognize the importance of both talking about their difficulties and spending time together without discussing painful topics. They must intentionally create opportunities to reconnect and nurture their friendship. They should take walks, go out to eat or to a movie and develop new mutual interests. Betrayed spouses will be more interested in spending discussion-free time after the initial shock of the affair has dissipated.
10. The key to healing from infidelity involves forgiveness.
According toWeiner Davis, this is frequently the last step in the healing process. The unfaithful spouse can do everything right – be forthcoming, express remorse, listen lovingly and act trustworthy, and still, the marriage won’t mend unless the betrayed person forgives his or her spouse and the unfaithful spouse forgives him or herself.
Forgiveness opens the door to real intimacy and connection. But forgiveness doesn’t just happen. It is a conscious decision to stop blaming, make peace and start tomorrow with a clean slate. If the past has had you in its clutches, why not take the next step to having more love in your life? Decide to forgive today.