Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

After the Affair: The Uncertain Road to Healing

Can the infidelity-damaged relationship survive?

The Petraeus and Broadwell families can take comfort in one thing: this too shall pass. The TV trucks will depart. The photographers will zip up their equipment bags. The phones will stop ringing with pleas for exclusive interviews.

When it does pass, they will be alone to face days that most who have experienced them call the toughest time of their lives.

Everybody knows somebody. In my work with families, I have seen the damage first hand.

One woman I encountered said it was more than the hurt and the jealousy when she discovered her husband’s multi-year affair with a co-worker. “I defined myself as part of a relationship,” she said. “My life and his life were this single thing. All of a sudden everything I believed about that life turned out to be a lie. The foundation I thought was strong just washed away. If the last nine years weren’t true, what is true now? Who am I?”

Can the infidelity-damaged relationship survive? The answer is yes – and no – and it all depends. A host of conditions, qualifications and cross-considerations are infused with the diverse realities of individual lives.

It’s no surprise that statistics on the ability to fix a relationship torn apart by infidelity are as murky as the ones about infidelity itself.

The best efforts of research are up against the fact that cheaters have no reason to be honest about secrets that could destroy their lives. One study of newly divorced people found that 15 percent said they had an affair, but 40 percent said their spouse had one.

Estimates from therapists range from 30 to 80 percent. All estimates are complicated by powerful variables. Was it a one night stand, or a long time parallel relationship? Did it happen when the marriage was new or after years of investment?  Did the straying partner just wander off the path for a bit, or did he or she find a soul mate?”  Was the infidelity the cause or simply the symptom of a collapsing relationship?

Many say gender is a factor.

Multiple studies conclud that men are more deeply affected by a sexual affair; women, by an emotional one. The reason may reside deep in our genes. Through the ages, men could never be absolutely certain that an offspring was his – opening the possibility of raising another man’s child. While women could be fairly certain of that, an emotional attachment threatened the loss of the man as provider.

As to which betrayal inflicts more grievous wounds to a relationship, generalities are easy to accept; but virtually impossible to prove.

The stereotype is that men are less likely to accept a blow to the male ego, and are quicker to divorce. But there is a counter argument that more marriages survive when the man cheats simply because it is less likely there is an emotional connection.

It’s certain, however, that healing for either gender is massively complicated by celebrity.

The raw wounds of the betrayal are marinated in public humiliation. We’ve seen the glassy-eyed misery on the faces of wives standing beside men confessing to “bad choices.” We’ve seen human anguish served up nightly in a hearty media feeding.  The quiet and privacy needed to begin the healing is denied in the public eye – at least until the public eye discovers something else to look at.

What next after the affair?

First, of course: stop it.  Completely. Sever all contact. This is non-negotiable.

Be brutally honest – the time for secrets is over. What happened? Where? Why?  Without that, you’re suturing the wound over an active infection.  

Get to the problem. Was it sex? Was it loneliness? Was it boredom? Was it repeating a family history of cheating?  

Be real. Even it seems unlikely – is forgiveness a possibility? Or will life become an unending cycle of punishment and recrimination. “You forgot to take out the garbage.” “Yeah; well you cheated on me.”

If you see hope, keep talking. Don’t withdraw in hopes that emotions will simply cool, and you can move on. It seldom works that way. Professional help is usually important in confronting difficult truths, and breaking through fortified positions.

Most important to repairing an infidelity-damaged relationship is to be absolutely certain that both share the commitment to repair it. This is not a quick fix.  One can’t drag another toward healing. It has to happen hand-in-hand, side by side. Going through the motions out of guilt or for show is simply cruel.

Time will reveal the damage to the Petraeus and Broadwell families, and their ability to repair and move on. We can only wish them well. Recovery from betrayal is hard – especially when the world is watching.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce.  Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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