Affairs/cheating/infidelity, whatever name you prefer, is an emotive topic because we see it as the ultimate betrayal. Society labels it as such. Some cultures, family, friends, print media, and online/social media weigh in heavily. No matter what, it certainly causes hurt, strong emotion, opinion. Sex is a taboo topic at the best of times, and infidelity raises complex questions about ourselves, our partner, our relationship with one another, and it raises trust issues that possibly didn’t exist before. Although, to be honest, there may have already been a few trust issues in your relationship. Trust is not just about monogamy or infidelity. It’s also about being a reliable and steadfast person, someone who supports and has their partner’s back.
No matter how it’s broken, when trust becomes problematic in our relationship it’s to the fore of our minds and it takes time to find emotional equilibrium again. How long it takes to get on top of the initial pain, the secondary hurt, the relegation of the pain and hurt into something else, something handled well that is now settled into the background, depends on the people within the primary relationship. Then there’s how much capacity someone has to forgive or to be accountable. Not everyone has to forgive, just for the record, because some people can’t, and they shouldn’t feel wrong or be shamed if that’s the case. However, for those couples wishing to regroup, trust needs to be rebuilt, and accountability is essential.
And some pertinent questions are, how long has the couple been together? How much love is in the relationship in the first place? Because the relationship may have been limping along and withering for some time. Do the couple seek out professional assistance? Because good therapy helps. And after something hurtful happens to us we become hyperaware. When it’s infidelity, now we notice all the cheating in movies, books, songs, and it feels like they’re shouting loudly at us, or sending an arrow straight to the heart, reopening the wound, and our hurt is magnified. If this is currently causing problems for you, vet the movies, the music, the stories you watch, listen to and read for a while. With the right assistance, it will pass.
It’s also not unusual for people to advise friends, and anyone else who will listen, to kick someone out if they cheat. Once divorce was the shame (unpleasant times) now staying and trying to make it work is the more contemporary shame (also unpleasant.) Believe me, having other people’s voices in your head, especially when you have a lot of your own thoughts spinning around, and your own decisions to make, confuses you immensely. People’s advice can be well-meaning but if it comes from a place of moral superiority, it isn’t going to be helpful at all. It can actually ingrain more shame, and for the Hurt Partner their partner having been unfaithful can already have stirred up feelings of shame. Sometimes friends become very judgemental about you, your relationship. Know that you have the capacity to make decisions for yourself, for your relationship, for your life. This is why I suggest people only disclose to a select few non-judgemental friends. Maybe a family member… with a caveat attached. Sometimes, when you disclose to family and you want to get back with or stay with your partner, they can make it very difficult. They may not forgive your partner. But at the end of the day this is your decision to make, not theirs. It can become quite complicated now if family disapprove when there are birthdays and holidays and family get-togethers to navigate. Parents or siblings, once they know the details, can judge quite vociferously. And just because they’re your family doesn’t necessarily mean they’re looking out for you.
Also, it’s not unheard of for families to show minimal support to their adult child(ren.) There’s phrases such as, “you made your bed, now lie in it” – a common phrase not that many years ago and still used. This isn’t helpful or productive. Support is important, it just needs to be balanced. This is why I believe wholeheartedly that talking to a professional, independent third party, working through your own feelings, seeing what you and your partner can sort out together, and doing some significant reflection about what you personally want, feel, and desire, and why that is – personal awareness, self-differentiation – is the very best thing anyone can do for their relational life. And when I use the word relational I’m talking about you as well as any other relationships you have – your partner, your family, etc. It’s an absolute truth that quite a few people don’t know who they are. You can’t ask for what you want if you don’t know what that is. If you don’t know who you are or you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll certainly struggle requesting things, let alone setting any boundaries.
And pre-affair, if not pre then at least post, mull over the following – affairs are a fantasy, you don’t live your real life with the Affair Partner. You only get the good parts. You don’t change nappies, worry about the mortgage, pay the rent, look after a sick partner, raise children, pay bills with them, etc.
Around two thirds of people post affair, with counselling, decide to stay in their relationship.
Male vs Female Reactions:
Without lumping everyone together, because there are always exceptions, I’ve found in practice that what upsets men the most about their partner’s infidelity is inline with the sexual act itself – ‘what did my partner do sexually with the other person? Was it a blowjob or oral? Did they have sex in different positions? Were they more physically attracted to them, more sexually demonstrative? Did they like the sex more? They don’t act like that with me or they won’t do those things with me (anymore.)’ What I find upsets women more is the emotional, the connected – ‘was my partner more romantic with the Affair Partner? More attentive? Did they tell them they are beautiful? Did they communicate with them when they don’t with me (anymore?) Did they talk about me and our relationship with the Affair Partner?’ Or two big ones – ‘did they tell them they love them? Did they say that they would leave me for them?’ Just an added tip for the last two, unfaithful partners will quite frequently say something that they don’t often mean during an infidelity, for various reasons. Universally male or female, if you were unfaithful with your partner’s best friend or a family member, this causes a deeper layer of complexity no matter the gender.
How do we recover?
The rate at which we recover is up to the individual, the people within the primary relationship. No matter what, it takes time. It will depend on how deeply entrenched the belief of monogamy lies within. It depends on the Hurt Partner’s connection with the Involved Partner, the one who had the infidelity, and what they want. The Involved Partner’s willingness to be transparent and be accountable. How big the infidelity was – was it years? Did they create or parent a child with the Affair Partner during a lengthy or even shorter affair? Did the Involved Partner keep going back to the Affair Partner? Did the Involved Partner then continue to lie about it? The age of the partners has quite a bit to do with it. And did your partner gaslight you? Or yell at you, “how dare you accuse me of an affair! What’s wrong with you? I would never!” And, are there numerous infidelities or one?
The Involved Partner, the one who was unfaithful, shouldn’t give sound bites of information about the infidelity because they’re nervous about what their partner will think, or it’s too embarrassing to hear out loud. It’s too late for that now. Now is the time for honesty. Table pertinent information quickly, and answer questions truthfully, don’t leave it up to your partner to have to find extra details out from other sources. We live in a digital age, trust me, everything can be found. Be open and honest. Don’t dance around the truth, otherwise your partner will have growing problems trusting you. The worst thing that can happen is you lie initially, and, to be frank, pretty much everyone does when first confronted about infidelity – to protect themselves, to protect their partner – but then, the bigger issue is whether you continue to lie after. It’s also hugely problematic when the Involved Partner says ‘it’s over’ when it isn’t. This creates large obstacles. Now, you not only have a partner who is hurting, but you have a partner who will find it increasingly difficult to believe another thing you have to say. This leads to anger and deeper, harder to budge resentment.
If infidelity has occurred, know that there is help at hand. Talk to a professional and work toward the best outcome for you.
Macarthur Relationship Counselling has over thirty years of clinical experience working with relationships, infidelity, and more. It is judgement free therapy designed to help you and your relationship at an emotionally complex time.