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How Couples Can Survive Cheating (And Why They Even Try)

An affair doesn't necessarily mean a relationship has gone bad.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

You may have heard about the recent hacking of the website Ashley Madison, which bills itself as “the most successful website for finding an affair and cheating partners.” The hacker collective calling itself “Impact Group” promised to “out” the site’s members, including explicit descriptions of the individuals’ sexual fantasies.

As a therapist specializing in working with couples, this scandal brings up so many important subjects that it is difficult to know where to begin. The truth is, most people don’t know that relationships can bounce back from infidelity and be stronger than ever. I am not at all advocating affairs, but I do want to instill some hope that relationships can overcome them.

Ashley Madison is reputed to have between 33 and 37 million members worldwide, an astounding number—and it is only one of the dozens of current sites, if not more, where people can pursue extramarital affairs. What does this say about the success or failure of marriage as a cultural institution?

Some researchers have estimated that marital infidelity occurs in about 2.3 percent of married women, and about 4.3 percent of married men. Other studies suggest that as many as 25 percent of men and 11 percent of women will, at some point in their lives, end up in bed with someone other than their partner. I suspect the numbers are even higher. Recent research strongly suggests that, despite cultural and religious assumptions and demands, humans are not actually "wired" for monogamy. (This is a subject for deeper examination than can be adequately discussed here, but something we really need to have more dialogue about.)

That being said, infidelity is the Number One reason couples come to me for counseling. They are desperate to stay together, and sincerely want to work through the pain and betrayal. Infidelity can hurt almost like the pain we experience when someone we know has been murdered. In reality, the old marriage has died. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a new marriage. I’m happy to say, in fact, that it is possible. I can testify to the fact that, if a relationship can survive an affair and get to the other side of healing, it becomes better than ever. It doesn’t happen, though, without a lot of hard work and difficult conversation.

Here are a few important things I’ve learned about getting through infidelity to a better place:

Affairs don’t necessarily indicate a bad marriage. People cheat for myriad reasons. Some of my clients have told me they cheated because they were too afraid or ashamed to talk to their partner about their sexual preferences or fantasies. They may have cautiously suggested a sexual practice that was met with disbelief, disgust, or accusations of perversion, and vowed never again to raise the subject. However, the suppression of a fantasy or desire, as the majority of therapists will acknowledge, does not rid a person of the desire. In most cases, it simply shoves it into the unconscious, where it will eventually come out in inopportune, inappropriate, and destructive ways.

Some men, rather than bringing up such a subject, feel shame that they automatically assume their wife will freak out. They then project their own shame upon their partner, often unjustly. Even if the wife initially is not open to such experimentation, the man’s desire for it is not likely to go away, and he may seek out a different avenue with which to vent it. Similarly, a husband's unwillingness to be more romantic doesn’t mean his wife's desire for it will go away, either.

I work with couples to help them have honest, open, and extended conversation about such things; to see each other’s different points of views, and to give each other the chance to feel empathy and compassion toward each other—and perhaps be willing to experiment.

One of the most common and difficult things to work through after infidelity is seeing the relationship in terms of perpetrator and victim. Love and desire are extremely subtle and complicated emotions. Esther Perel, an author and psychotherapist specializing in infidelity, says, “The dilemmas of love and desire are way too complex to yield simple answers of good and bad, victim and perpetrator, right and wrong.”

I agree.

If the betrayed partner, for example, takes the victim’s attitude of, “You did this to me, and now it is up to you to fix this problem because I have nothing to do with it,” then the problem will neither be understood nor resolved. The problem can have its root in sexual frustration, feeling neglected or neglecting, feeling ignored or ignoring, loneliness, or many other things. Condemnation, and taking refuge in the role of victim, is useless. Even worse is when the injured party becomes the shamed one, as in when a friend or relative says, “How could you even think of staying with that cheater after what he did to you?” It takes real courage to face subtle problems in a relationship that have led to infidelity. Such simple judgments by others only compound the problem.

At the same time, the betraying partner must be willing to talk about it openly, and way beyond his or her comfort level. The betrayer has to be willing to listen to the pain of the injured partner for as long as is needed to begin to lessen the trauma and emotions around the infidelity and to begin to rebuild trust. They must be able and willing to feel and share their remorse, guilt, and empathy for the hurt they caused.

Also important is that this talk must happen in a controlled situation, in the presence of a therapist, or in some other ritualized and controlled setting or healing space. This venting of one’s pain should not be spontaneous or done in public or in front of other family members or children. Such strong reactivity must be contained by both parties to ensure a healthy dialogue. It is much too vulnerable an interaction and quickly polarizing for those outside of the relationship. Again, private conversations about the infidelity can engender empathy and compassion for the injured partner as well as the betrayer.

If the betrayer wants to salvage the relationship (or, rather, build a new marriage), he or she is going to have to become completely transparent for a period of time. That is, no secret passwords for emails or computers, no secret meetings or letters. Nothing can ever be deleted. If not, the injured partner cannot learn to trust again.

Over time, the injured partner needs to understand that total transparency is no longer useful, and needs to prepare for that to end and learn to trust in the dark. This is not easy.

Infidelity has been with us since the institution of marriage began. If the Ashley Madison scandal is any indication, it will remain with us in the future as well. Therefore, it is important for us as a society to come to terms with the reality, to find ways to effectively deal with the shame and pain and to try to help couples reestablish the bonds that brought them together. As for the broader question of monogamy, we may eventually have to come to terms with the idea that some of us are simply not well suited to it.

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