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3 Things Every Couple Should Understand About Affairs

Once a cheater, always a cheater? Not necessarily.

Key points

  • A partner may cheat for many reasons that have nothing to do with their primary relationship.
  • It is possible for a partner to never cheat again if they have remorse, are committed to repairing trust, and willing to take responsibility.
  • Being discovered in an affair can bring a sense of a relief to the cheating partner.
Just Life/Shutterstock
Source: Just Life/Shutterstock

I’ve been specializing in helping couples on the brink of divorce for nearly four decades. Needless to say, I’ve learned more about infidelity than I ever thought possible. I’ve worked with couples struggling with the fallout from everything from emotional affairs and one-night stands to long-lasting and multiple affairs.

I’ve paid close attention to what couples find helpful when trying to rebuild and repair their marriages after betrayal and what has thwarted their progress. There are three commonly held beliefs that make healing more challenging, beliefs that are often perpetuated and endorsed by popular media, friends, family, and even some well-meaning therapists.

These beliefs, although completely reasonable and rational, aren’t always valid, and believing them unnecessarily prolongs the pain and makes true reconciliation difficult, or in some cases, impossible.

I’d like to set the record straight and debunk these myths. If you are struggling to feel yourself again or trying to rebuild your marriage after an affair, take heart; there may just be a more helpful way to think about what has happened in your life.

Lie #1: There must be something wrong with your relationship if your spouse cheated.

Although conventional wisdom suggests that people must be unhappily married and have innumerable unmet relationship needs in order to cheat, this is not necessarily the case. While it is true that some people have affairs to address emotional and physical voids and feelings of disconnection from their spouses, time and time again, unfaithful people insist they dearly love their spouses and that they are satisfied in their marriages. Research on infidelity bears this out.

So, if not to fill voids stemming from marriages, why do people cheat? There are many, many other reasons people hook up with affair partners—to boost their self-esteem, to affirm their own attractiveness, to experience variety or novelty, to assuage boredom or depression, to deal with demons from the past, as a result of lowered inhibitions due to excessive alcohol, just to name a few. In others words, some people are unfaithful due to their own internal issues that often have nothing to do with their spouses’ actions or personalities or the quality of their relationships.

When betrayed spouses believe that their marriages must be flawed, or that they aren’t lovable people, or that they’ve failed as partners, their self-esteem takes an unwarranted hit. They ruminate about the ways in which affair partners outshine them, how they don’t measure up. “After all,” they tell themselves, “if things were okay between us, my spouse wouldn’t have strayed.” Although this reaction is completely natural and understandable, it’s not always based on reality.

To complicate matters, when couples seek professional help to repair their marriages after infidelity, therapists often quickly redirect the focus of the discussion from the details and impact of the affair to what “must be missing in the marriage.” There’s an assumption that you first must identify and fix what was broken in the marriage in order to affair-proof the relationship for the future.

Although it’s inevitable that various aspects of the marriage will need bolstering, this may be the result of the infidelity, not the cause. Either way, focusing on what may have contributed to the unfaithful spouse’s decision to cheat should not the first item of business; the affair and the havoc it wreaked in its path should.

Lie #2: Once a cheater, always a cheater.

You’re heard that saying,” Once a cheater, always a cheater,” haven’t you? Everybody has. Compelling, but it’s simply not true.

When unfaithful spouses are willing to take responsibility for their actions, are committed to doing whatever their betrayed spouses require to rebuild trust, are remorseful, are willing to be transparent and bear witness to their spouses’ intense feelings, and are extraordinarily patient about recovery’s inevitable ups and downs, real change is possible, even probable.

In fact, many unfaithful spouses are vehement about their decisions to remain monogamous in the future because cheating violated their own moral north stars. I’ve worked with countless couples over the years who have used the crisis of infidelity to strength their commitments to each other.

Lie #3: Giving up a lover is very, very difficult.

This myth will be the most challenging to debunk because when people scour the internet for advice on healing from infidelity, they’re warned that breaking up with an affair partner is really, really hard. They’re told that unfaithful spouses may go back to their affair partners repeatedly. They’re cautioned that unfaithful spouses might be silently longing for the love and/or lust they shared with their paramours.

As a result of these predictions, betrayed partners think their spouses are lying or minimizing when they say, “I’m completely over the affair,” “I have absolutely no interest in contacting my affair partner,” “I don’t like when you mention his/her name because for me, that relationship is in the past.”

Are these statements lies? Perhaps. Not all people quit affairs cold turkey. But here’s what I’ve learned from most of the couples in my practice.

Believe it or not, by the time an affair gets revealed or discovered, many unfaithful spouses have been caught in a cycle of guilt and shame for a long time due to their duplicitous lives. They haven’t felt good about themselves for weeks, months or even years. At first, the infatuation of the new relationship outweighed these dark feelings. But infatuation is always fleeting and when it disappears, feelings of guilt and shame take center stage.

Unfaithful spouses often think about ending affairs long before it actually happens, but the momentum of their illicit relationships prevents them from following through.

So, confessing, whether done spontaneously or after the discovery of clues left behind, often triggers an overwhelming sense of relief. And ending the affair—although sometimes emotionally-laden or awkward—offers an exit from the messy emotional conundrum and a chance to press the reset button on life.

When betrayed spouses truly take to heart the possibility that leaving a lover may be easier than conventional wisdom suggests, it facilitates the healing process and invites the past to be in the past where it eventually belongs.

The bottom line is that recovering from affairs is hard enough without hanging on to ideas that are painful or flat-out incorrect. And although it is completely understandable why it might be challenging to rethink the three myths outlined above, it’s worth the risk. You might just save your marriage.

Facebook image: Just Life/Shutterstock

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