Thanks to the recent Ashley Madison hack and data dump, countless unsuspecting spouses and partners are learning that they’ve been cheated upon by their significant other.
Needless to say, this is a nightmarish experience. Often, more upsetting than the actual cheating is the betrayer’s revealed history of lying and secret keeping. Essentially, the one person the betrayed partner thought would always be honest and loyal has not been, and this revelation just shatters their relationship trust. In response, the betrayed often find themselves in the midst of an emotional and psychological tornado, spinning from one fear-based thought to another with little to no control—just like any other person in crisis.
In addition to emotional lability (drastic mood swings), common responses include:
In general, I find that most betrayed spouses are not looking to divorce—at least not at first. Most often in the immediate aftermath of learning about a betrayal, they are just trying to figure out how to get through the day. This is where crisis counseling techniques—grounding, being in the here and now, mindfulness, and walking through daily life strategies—is most useful to the client, as opposed to trying to understand why the cheating occurred. Usually the betrayed partner has very basic questions, and needs straightforward support.
Quite frankly, at no point during my two-plus decades as a psychotherapist specializing in sexual intimacy and betrayal concerns has this been more apparent than right now, in the wake of the Ashley Madison hack. As such, I provide below a simple FAQ for betrayed partners.
Should I throw in the towel and ask for a divorce?
Not right away, unless you were already planning to do so and the infidelity has pushed you over the top. Otherwise, I advise a cooling off period of at least six months, which gives you and your partner a chance to think about what you really want, long-term, after the initial shock of disclosure has worn off. This doesn’t mean that you and your cheating spouse need to sleep in the same bed or even under the same roof. In fact, a bit of time apart might benefit you both, giving you some much needed space in which to think. You might also want to seek outside help from an experienced couples’ therapist who can help you with the process of healing and rebuilding relationship trust.
What about the kids?
There are two primary considerations here: First is safety. Most likely your spouse has been hooking up with other adults, so he or she is not a direct danger to your kids. However, your kids could still be inadvertently exposed age-inappropriate sexual materials (online pornography, sexualized chat sites, etc.) and this possibility must be addressed—the sooner the better. The second pressing concern is what to tell the kids about the infidelity. My first piece of advice here is that you need to remember that whatever you say now cannot be unsaid later on, so temper your comments. No matter what, your kids don’t need to hear highly judgmental statements or graphic details. Usually it is best if you and your spouse sit them down and tell them something like, “Your mom/dad and I are having some difficulties right now, but we’re trying to work through them. We know that there is some tension in the house, and we want you to understand that it is not your fault. We both still love you and we care about your wellbeing, even though we might not seem normal to you for a while.” Then, if the kids have any questions, and they probably will, you can answer them in an age-appropriate way.
Who should I turn to for support?
First of all, don’t “go public” on social media or elsewhere. This sort of aggressive behavior can do a lot of damage not only to the cheater, but to you, your kids, and other family members. Plus, it’s hurtful and vindictive and it won’t make you feel better. Instead, turn to supportive, empathetic friends and family members who can listen without judging. Better yet, turn to a therapist who can listen and provide objective support and advice. Unlike friends and family, a professional therapist is not emotionally invested in your relationship. Instead, he or she is invested in your emotional health and long-term happiness. Therefore, his or her priority will be guiding you toward the best possible decisions, taking into account your highly individualized needs and desires.
I want to know everything. Is that reasonable?
Yes. Most betrayed spouses want to know much more about what happened than the cheater would like to tell. And they have a right to know! In fact, gaining this knowledge is empowering and an integral part of the healing process. Plus, the truth is often not as bad as the stories that many cheated-on partners have made up in their head. That said, the process of disclosure should not be undertaken without the guidance of an experienced couples’ therapist who understands the nature of infidelity and its aftermath. A good couples’ therapist can guide you and your spouse through the process of full but non-graphic disclosure and the healthful processing your emotions afterward. Over time, the clinician can also help you and your spouse heal from the pain of betrayal and reestablish relationship trust.
If I become more sexual with him/her, will that stop the cheating?
No. A thousand times no. Losing ten pounds, cooking his/her favorite dinner, dressing sexy, and becoming more overtly sexual will not stop infidelity. Remember: YOU DID NOT CAUSE THE CHEATING. So please don’t sit around thinking, “If only I were prettier/richer/younger/whatever this wouldn’t have happened,” because that is just not true. Anyway, why would you want to have sex with a person you no longer trust? It might make you feel better for a few minutes, but it definitely won’t fix anything. There is a time and a place in romantic relationships for sexual activity, and this is not it.
Can I set some boundaries?
Definitely. The first boundary should be NO MORE CHEATING. This one is non-negotiable. You should also ask for no more lying and secret-keeping (but don’t expect full compliance with this right away, because cover-ups are often second nature for cheaters). Other boundaries to consider include: installing filtering and monitoring software on all digital devices; being accountable for every penny spent; being home at a certain time and calling if running late; check-ins during the day; etc. If your partner is serious about saving your relationship, he or she will agree to and abide by these conditions without much fuss.
Will I ever trust him/her again?
Maybe, but only if he or she earns that right. Unfortunately, that probably won’t occur as quickly as either of you might like. In fact, you and your spouse are likely to struggle with trust issues for 9 to 18 months after initial disclosure – and that’s if the cheating stops and he or she becomes rigorously honest and abides by whatever boundaries you’ve established. And no, the newly created trust will not be the same as the pre-cheating trust. But that’s OK. In fact, it might even be a good thing. You and your spouse’s new level of honesty and forthright sharing could actually help you become more emotionally intimate than ever. And that’s a very good thing. Believe it or not, I’ve had couples tell me (after they’re well into the process of healing) that infidelity was the best thing that ever happened to them because it uncovered the cracks in their relationship and forced them both to become better partners.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction.