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The Secret to a Faithful Relationship (or Getting Out!)

Why it’s so hard to stay present in your relationship

An unfaithful relationship presents a choice: do the work or get out. Image: Flickr/EnaAhpea

There’s a distinction we can make between “infidelity” and “unfaithfulness." Infidelity can be seen as actual cheating. Unfaithfulness is that, but can be something else as well: wishing your partner were not your partner and wanting out, but not being able to leave. It’s becoming guarded in a way that separates you from your partner, as if you are angry strangers. It’s widening and solidifying the void between you. In an unfaithful relationship, you lack trust in your partner. Unfaithfulness encourages distraction and vice versa – beyond the physical distraction of intimacy with another person or the fantasy of being without your partner, it’s the process of dismissing your partner into the background, whether overtly or very quietly, in favor of all sorts of instant gratification. In this day and age, in this world of cell phones and Facebook and Twitter and all-too-easy ways to connect with your ex from high school, it’s incredibly challenging to stay authentically present and emotionally connected and committed to your partner for the long haul.

For couples struggling to stay connected to each other, or struggling to find the strength to change themselves or their relationship, there are two main outcomes to strive for. Couples can work toward finding ways to change patterns in a way that deepens their relationships, or they can work toward finding their way out of the relationship. As a therapist I have worked to facilitate both outcomes. The reality is that the stagnant space of continuing an unfaithful relationship is emotionally destructive, demoralizing and isolating. Sure you can find ways to keep going, but it becomes harder and harder. How far gone one or both partners are into this abyss helps us to determine which direction to take the relationship.

People in unfaithful relationships can be miserable and hopeless, trapped in the sadness of sacrificing themselves. It can start to feel like you’ve given up and are trudging through life and relationships like the walking dead. You feel too discouraged to address the relationship’s challenges because it would require actually admitting to yourself that your internal fantasy world and your external lived world are at extreme odds, which can evoke further shame, self-disgust, and hopelessness.

Addressing the problems in your relationship requires acknowledging how your history, your sense of self, your value system, your moral compass, and others’ expectations have all contributed to your unhappiness. Instead, it can seem like you are just supposed to continue trudging through, feeling like the walking dead than it is to assert your desire for change and actually address the conflicts in a way that could create substantive change in one direction or another. The process and sheer magnitude of this kind of change is daunting and challenging in so many ways. Maybe your past attempts to disconnect and disengage haven’t stuck. You might be scared, overwhelmed, even hopeless about making substantive change happen, and so you continue to acquiesce to your partner’s needs, put yourself second, rebel and/or retreat, feel resentful, so the cycle of despair, remorse, frustration, and anger continues.

Over time your emotional health deteriorates. You feel resigned to misery and undeserving of more. You feel like you’re not a “fighter.” You keep trying to make the best of it, but without communication, you are left feeling more dissatisfied each day.

For your emotional survival, it’s important to look at yourself first and work toward compassion for your self and your situation. You are who you are; your past is your past, but it does affect your present; you are where you are; your reality is your reality. Again, compassion for yourself is crucial. Trying to understand your relationship from a place of self-compassion rather than self-disgust can help you to better understand why you do what you do. This process alone can create subtle shifts.

Work toward respecting and honoring your emotional needs. It is healthy and appropriate to have these needs – they reflect a longing and even hopefulness to feel more emotionally connected and present. If you experience your partner as not supporting you in this process or even further shutting you down, he or she may not be able to repair the relationship with you, or may not want to. As scary as it is, resuscitating your emotional health may require ending the relationship.

But if both partners are willing, this process of reevaluation may mean seeking to restore or create faithfulness within your relationship.

Let's take one last look at the cycle of unfaithfulness: lack of respect for each other’s internal worlds and longings creates tension, which leads to stress and anger, which creates frustration, which makes you want to rebel or just check out, which makes it difficult to maintain faithfulness.

Faithfulness can be cultivated and sustained only when your partner acknowledges the value of your independent self within the relationship and you acknowledge your partner’s. Being invested in and supportive of how your partner spends his or her day, and having your partner be a respectful proponent of how you spend your day – regardless of how you spend it – also enhances faithfulness. If necessary, it requires feeling the disappointment of your partner’s reluctance to acknowledge your independent self to the point that you insist on honest communication to help him or her to understand. Faithfulness is a commitment to knowing that you’re more valuable than the situation you feel oppressed into. Your partner’s ability to hear, understand and validate your experience is key to returning to faithfulness.

However, this mutual openness likely has limits. As much as reciprocal openness is key, relationships without boundaries may not be a healthy choice either. Don’t push yourself past the comfort zone of your own personal need for boundaries and privacy, but do your best to be freely transparent to the degree you’re capable. Full transparency doesn’t work for most people – it’s too naked, too exposed, it can make you feel too merged, carrying with it it’s own challenges.

Most importantly, your attempt at repair through openness is certainly not for those whose partner demonstrates physical or emotional abuse. In those instances, it becomes vital to find your way out, not open yourself up further.

But for those whose relationships have eroded for other reasons, open communication in which each partner feels safe is essential to begin to restore and re-establish faithfulness.

To engage in ongoing work in progress means you both have to really want it. You both have to commit to transcending the patterns created by your past dysfunctional relationships and challenging upbringings to achieve a healthier pattern in the present. Add to this challenge all the other distractions of technology or fantasy or another’s real or cyber arms, or the ability to be immediately heard and understood outside the relationship, away from reality, and it can be tempting to shy away from the hard work it takes to find faithfulness.

If you choose to do the work rather than falling further into the unfaithful abyss, start by asking to have a conversation with your partner – alone or supervised by a professional if both of you are willing. The conversation doesn’t have to be about everything that’s wrong in the relationship. Instead, the process of simply opening a dialogue with your partner is progress in itself. This conversation can’t be one-sided. For the sake of your emotional health, look for the courage to insist that just as you give of yourself, your partner needs to give of him or herself as well. Whether you need help with this process or you facilitate it yourself, it’s necessary to have mutual goals that include healthy, open, focused and engaged dialogue. Only then can you establish or reestablish the faithfulness that has been missing.

Again, there are two reasonable alternatives: working to achieve a faithful relationship or working to let go. Remaining in an unfaithful relationship may be physically sustainable, but isn’t emotionally sustainable – it’s wrenching or deadening, or both. Eventually it leads to feeling like a shell of your former self. Avoiding the emotional deterioration of being trapped in an unfaithful relationship is an ongoing process that requires commitment and hard work. It requires the belief that you deserve contentment. This belief can overpower the fear of upheaval that you would cause by addressing your problems or leaving the relationship. It requires the courage to choose one difficult path or the other – faithfulness or upheaval – rather than standing trapped at the crossroads of an unfaithful and emotionally destructive relationship stuck in misery and pretending not to be.


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