Most people in a close relationship enter into it with every intention of being faithful to each other. Over time, though, even the most committed of partners may find themselves attracted to someone else. Even without anything being wrong in a relationship, a third party may come along to throw it into at least temporary chaos.
One of the ways that partners can become tempted to stray occurs when such a third party becomes the interloper. Perhaps you’re at a wedding reception, seated with a mutual friend of the couple when that friend starts a little one-on-one with your partner, leaving you out of the conversation entirely. It gets a little embarrassing, if not irritating, when your partner and this new person continue to carry on an intense conversation from course to course. They hardly take heed of the rest of the table, much less you. Although you can’t hear exactly what they’re saying, it seems as though things are getting pretty personal. You hear your name mentioned and the friend takes a quick look at you. They then get back into the conversation, more deeply than ever.
The longer this goes on, the more irritated you feel, and the less able you are to enjoy what is supposed to be a happy occasion. You know it’s ridiculous to be jealous, because all they’re doing is talking. However, you sense that your partner is flattered by this stranger's attention. There’s laughter and giggles, and the wait staff liberally pouring bubbly only makes things worse as far as you’re concerned.
No one can deny that it’s ego-boosting when someone treats you as if you’re funny, sexy, and intelligent. However, when your partner is the recipient of this attention, and it’s not from you, the effect can be jarring. You never thought of yourself as a jealous person, and you know you can trust your partner, so why should this upset you? Are you really that insecure? Or is your partner really so bored or unhappy with you that anyone else seems like a better companion?
One might argue that sometimes it’s good to challenge your assumptions about your partner. Taking each other for granted can be the first in a series of steps toward dissatisfaction if not dissolution. When you see your partner in the reflected admiration of a stranger, perhaps it’s a wake-up call that you need to stop being so complacent. The jealousy you feel might even inspire you to do some of your own counter-flirting, as it were, to “win” your partner back.
Let’s move to considering what happens when your jealousy has a more realistic basis: A third person comes along to tempt your partner away, and succeeds. Your partner has now been truly unfaithful to you, and there’s no question about the legitimacy of your feelings of betrayal. Even though your partner didn’t initiate the affair, it’s happened, and so as much as you may blame the third party, it’s hard not to assign some of the blame to your partner.
University of South Alabama psychologist Keri Johns and co-authors tackled the question of how partners can learn to overcome feelings of blame and betrayal, and move on to forgiveness. The subject of their research was infidelity in general, not the effects of being the victim of a third party’s influence over your partner. However, their approach can prove helpful in understanding how to manage the consequences of this variant of betrayal.
The researchers divided forgiveness into positive and negative dimensions: In positive forgiveness, you look at the event and your partner without feeling angry or resentful. In negative forgiveness, or "unforgiveness," you’re looking for vengeance, and your emotional life is filled with turmoil. In other words, negative forgiveness isn’t forgiveness at all; it’s the absence of the ability to give your partner another chance.
Part of what will influence your ability to engage in positive forgiveness is the nature of the infidelity: Eventually, you should be able to get over that harmless (if still annoying) conversation that occurred throughout the wedding reception. You may place your blame on the nosy busybody intervening in your enjoyment of the evening rather than your partner, who was just the more-or-less innocent bystander trying to be polite. It will be particularly easy for you to do so if your partner apologizes and seems genuinely sorry. The actual affair, by contrast, will present more of a challenge to your ability to engage in positive forgiveness.
To conquer negative forgiveness, or the inability to get over the infidelity, requires considerably more effort, according to Johns et al. They propose that in these cases, you can successfully pave the path to forgiveness with mindfulness—the ability to be aware of, and even accept, your negative emotions:
"[A] mindful individual might experience the emotions and mood states associated with a negative event, such as infidelity, in a more observant, equanimous, and objective perspective, as well as in a more self-compassionate and less avoidant manner” (p. 1463).
In other words, you can forgive your partner—and also forgive yourself for having these feelings—by admitting to and eventually confronting them. You also don’t need your partner to apologize. Through mindfulness, you can be more compassionate, empathic, and accepting of negative emotions.
Through an online survey, the research team administered questionnaires to measure general mindfulness tendencies and forgiveness in 94 participants (49% male, average age 42 years old), who stated they had been victims of infidelity. Not all of the findings supported the researchers’ predictions, but there was evidence that some aspects of mindfulness—such as being aware of your actions and nonjudgmental about your inner feelings—were related to greater levels of forgiveness. Being able to observe without reacting to negative emotions also seemed to benefit the forgiveness of betrayal.
To sum up, when your partner is the “victim” of flirtation, it might be best to acknowledge your feelings of irritation or jealousy rather than try to suppress them. As tempting as it may be to blame your partner, this might not be the most productive strategy. Innocent flirtations can remain just that as long as you don’t allow your own anger to fan the flames of your partner’s, and your, annoyance. In more serious cases of betrayal, as difficult as it may be to do so, forgiveness may come as you acknowledge and accept your feelings. Whether or not your relationship continues, your personal fulfillment will benefit from putting your mindfulness tools to the task.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016
Johns, K. N., Allen, E. S., & Gordon, K. C. (2015). The relationship between mindfulness and forgiveness of infidelity. Mindfulness, 6, 1462-1471. doi:10.1007/s12671-015-0427-2