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After Infidelity

How can couples learn to move on following one partner's infidelity?

Infidelity, or even the possibility of infidelity, is something that every couple needs to deal with at some point.

Based on survey results, an estimated 22 to 25 percent of men and 11 to 15 percent of women admit to having had extramarital sex although the actual numbers are likely higher.   According to the 1994 Janus report on sexual behaviour,  40 percent of divorced men and 44 percent of divorced women reported having had one or more extramarital affairs during their marriages.  

And there are numerous consequences once the infidelity comes to light.  Along with loss of trust, partners admitting extramarital relationships often find their relationships with other family members (including parents and children) to be damaged.  Emotional problems such as reduced self-esteem, feelings of betrayal, depression, and anger are also common.   Given the damage that can arise, it is hardly surprising that infidelity remains the most frequently cited cause for divorce.

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But people can survive infidelity.   Couples who attend counseling to cope with one partner having an extramarital affair often discover that relationships can become stronger than ever as both partners learn to put the infidelity behind them.    Many spouses dealing the trauma associated with an unfaithful partner can also report posttraumatic growth that allows them to become stronger over time.  

Factors reported by couples successfully coping with infidelity can include having a good social support network, a strong motivation to stay together,  treasuring acts of kindness, and learning to find meaning in their experience.   Even in couples who agree to stay together however, the process of reconciliation can be rocky as the broken bonds of trust are carefully mended. 

A recent study published in Couple and Family Psychology examined the various factors linked to successful recovery from infidelity.   Conducted by Nancy L. Murdock and a team of fellow researchers at the University of Missouri- Kansas City, the study examined what allowed couples to stay together following a partner's affair.   A final sample of 587 participants (86 percent women and 12 percent men) were recruited from online support forums designed for people coping with infidelity.  The study was limited to adults in a committed relationship with a partner who had engaged in sexual intercourse with someone else more than six months prior to participating in the research.   As Murdock and her fellow researchers pointed out, the actual research looked at how personal growth and improved relationships occurred following infidelity,

All of the participants completed a questionnaire with items relating to relationship status, time since the affair, current relationship status, and stage of forgiveness.   Psychological factors that were examined in the study included:

  • Level of trauma related to the affair.  The Impact of Event Scale (IES) was used to assess the degree of emotional impact including posttraumatic symptoms that occurred following the discovery of the infidelity.
  • First identified by Murray Bowen as part of his systems theory of the family, differentiation of self refers to the ability of individuals to separate their intellectual and emotional functioning from their families.   People with poor differentiation tend to have difficulty with relationship boundaries, being either too emotionally distant or else unable to develop proper adult intimacy.   They are also more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress since they are less objective and more reactive.   Based on previous research, poor differentiation can lead to greater difficulty in recovering from extramarital affairs.   Differentiation of self was measured using a standardized 46-item inventory. 
  • Along with differentiation of self, the researchers also looked at level of commitment to the relationship.   The survey included sample items such as "“I have put a great deal into our relationship that I would lose”,  “I want our relationship to last for a very long time”, and “If I weren’t dating/married to my partner, I would find someone else”
  • Relationship satisfaction was measured using a 32-item measure examining how participants interacted with their partners and to identify participants who were experiencing high relationship distress.
  • The Forgiveness Inventory is a 23-item measure looking at how participants forgave their partners based on a three-stage model of forgiveness developed by Kristina Gordon and Donald Baucom.  Based on the scale scores, the researchers were able to measure how far the injured partner had come in the forgiveness process. 
  • Posttraumatic growth is defined as the positive life change that occurs after someone has experienced a traumatic event.  Posttraumatic growth was measured using a 21-item inventory designed for trauma victims.    Five factors were examined with the measure:  new possibilities, relating to others, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation for life.

The results showed that level of trauma related to infidelity was not a strong predictor of forgiveness.   Still, people who were high in differentiation of self were also more likely to report lower trauma and a higher level of posttraumatic growth than low-differentiation participants.   Results also confirmed previous research showing that forgiveness and posttraumatic growth are an important part of recovery from infidelity.    The process of forgiving an unfaithful partner seems strongly linked to posttraumatic growth, both in terms of greater emotional relief and the restructuring of beliefs and assumptions about the relationship.   This includes a decreased urge to punish a partner who has had an affair. 

While infidelity can pose enormous challenges, this study has some important implications for couples attempting to move on afterward.   Marital counselors need to take a closer look at personality factors such as differentiation of self as well as recognizing that forgiveness is a process that can go through different stages.   Helping couples dealing with the kind of emotional numbness or impulsiveness that often follows trauma relating to infidelity can encourage the posttraumatic growth needed to cope.     That can also mean educating couples on the importance of keeping a healthy emotional balance and to stay engaged even as they are working to rebuild their relationship. 

As part of his treatment model, Murray Bowen suggested that differentiation of self could be increased by having individuals learn about the balance betwen emotional and intellectual functioning.  Counselors can also train couples dealing with infidelity with the various stages of the forgiveness process.  One example of a stage model of forgiveness is one which was proposed by Everett Worthington.   The stages include:

  1. Recognizing that forgiveness is an option.   Though it often takes time for a partner who feels betrayed to reach this point, the angry rumination will eventually subside and the possibility of moving on will seem more feasible. 
  2. Acknowledging that the partner who has been harmed can share some responsibility for the state of the marriage prior to the infidelity.  While not the same as "blaming the victim," accepting that one's own actions may have contributed to the infidelity can be an important part of forgiveness.  This can include accepting that the pre-infidelity relationship had flaws which need to be addressed.
  3. Learning to express feelings of hurt and betrayal in a way that promotes actual dialogue instead of endlessly ruminating about negative feelings.   This can include self-talk to work through internal emotional distress.
  4. Recreating one's own self-image into something that can provide a new direction for the future.   This involves letting go of old attitudes and misconceptions that may have been contributing to relationship problems in the past.

 For couples looking into group or individual treatment to cope with infidelity, counselors specially trained in forgiveness techiques can be invaluable.  Leslie Greenberg and his colleagues report good results with emotion-focused couples therapy addressing forgiveness issues.  As well, online support groups and forums designed for infidelity issues may help  couples who are reluctant to seek out face-to-face counseling. 

While the research by Nancy Murdock and her co-authors highlighted some of the factors that can help couples handle infidelity, every case is different in some way.    Depending on the length of time that the infidelity lasted, whether there are children involved in the relationship, what kind of outside support the recovering couple can draw on, or even religious beliefs, the decision to stay together and attempt to work through the infidelity rather than breaking up is never easy. 

It is essential for couples dealing with an extramarital affair to recognize that forgiveness is a key part of recovery.  In learning to forgive, we also experience the emotional growth that can make us stronger in future.   As Leo Tolstoy once said, "Let us forgive each other - only then will we live in peace."

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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