By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD
Cheating, infidelity, and affairs are extremely traumatic events in love relationships. Marriage and committed relationships are fundamentally based in trust and security. Infidelity and trust issues are a leading cause of severe relationship distress. Infidelity is an extreme violation of basic trust and safety in a relationship. There are many types of infidelity, including emotional affairs, sexual affairs, online flirtations, and other violations of trust. Some partners consider the excessive use of pornography as a type of infidelity.
Why Do People Have Affairs?
More than half of the couples we see in therapy and in our Connections marriage retreats have experienced some type of infidelity. It is often a primary focus of our work with couples. Women have affairs less frequently than men, but it’s not uncommon. There are many reasons why people have affairs. Most frequently people who have affairs don’t feel loved or desired, and their circumstances provide an easy opportunity (such as a close work relationship).
The offended partner, sometimes referred to as the injured or betrayed partner, is devastated. Trust is shattered, and this partner feels victimized, violated, deeply wounded emotionally, and often furious. The betraying partner – the one who cheated – may feel ashamed, guilty, anxious, and sometimes relieved that he or she no longer needs to hide this terrible secret.
When an affair is discovered – or strongly suspected – the betrayed partner needs a plan of action. In most cases, the betraying partner should be included in this process.
What should the betrayed partner do? What actions should be taken?
There is no single action that will fit every person and every circumstance. This is not a “One Size Fits All” situation. That being said, the following steps and coping skills are recommended:
- The devastating emotional impact of the infidelity must be addressed. You should seek out emotional support from a neutral third party. Counseling or psychotherapy is strongly recommended because of the neutrality of the therapist. Talking to a close friend or family member can help, but can also present complications, since in many cases this person already knows your partner, and these relationships may be negatively affected in the future. And can a family member or friend really be neutral?
- When you have direct evidence that your partner has cheated (or when your partner has already admitted to cheating): You should confront your partner in a non-attacking manner. The best strategy is to state clearly and simply that you know your partner has cheated, and that this behavior is totally unacceptable. Then wait for the response. If your partner denies the affair, then you should provide the evidence, as calmly as possible. If your partner admits to cheating, and is willing to explain and clarify, this can be a productive start. If the situation escalates emotionally, you should take a time out and resume the conversation later, if possible.
- You should demand that your partner end this relationship immediately. A total no-contact rule is best in these cases. No texts, emails, phone calls, and certainly no in-person meetings. If your partner works with the other person, you should ask your partner to avoid talking to that co-worker about anything other than essential work-related matters. If your partner refuses to end the relationship, it may be time for an ultimatum – either give it up, or face the consequences that you will end your relationship.
- When there is no definitive evidence, and when your partner denies cheating: This is a more difficult situation that will require time and patience. If you have considerable circumstantial evidence (that is, no actual proof, but it’s more than “just a feeling”) there are some difficult choices to face, and therapy is recommended. In most of these cases, I’ve found that there is already significant relationship distress in addition to the infidelity and trust issues. It may be time for a trial separation – possibly separate bedrooms in the case of married couples or cohabitants. Some time and distance apart can be very revealing.
- You need to fully experience the depth of emotion that occurs when cheating is revealed. You should allow yourself to feel all of the pain, sadness, fear, anger, and shame without denial or attempts to control the feelings. Meditation and journaling can be quite helpful.
- Couples therapy is highly recommended. This will provide a forum, in a neutral setting, for you to explore and discuss what happened. Couples therapy is an ideal setting for your partner to explain the cheating and why it happened. Your partner should eventually be able to hear you, with unconditional acceptance and openness, your feelings and concerns. Your partner should be able, after some time in couples therapy, to express empathy and compassion for your emotional injury. The meaning behind the affair should be explored – that is, how and why this happened.
- Self-care should be a priority. These coping skills include: Eating a nutritious diet, even if you’re not hungry. Avoid drinking excessively. No drugs at all unless prescribed by a physician. Exercise can be very beneficial. Do your best to get a good night’s sleep. If you experience physical distress, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, or chronic insomnia – or if you are unable to work – you should consult a physician.
- Practice positive thinking (when the painful feelings aren’t overwhelming). As difficult as it seems right now, this is a temporary situation. It will pass with time. Often, an affair is a wake-up call. Perhaps there were problems in the relationship that weren’t being addressed; or perhaps your personal needs were not adequately being met in this relationship.
- Over time, assuming the relationship continues, a process of forgiveness is recommended. Forgiveness does not mean letting your partner off the hook. Rather, it’s a letting go of the anger and resentment. Tell yourself that in forgiving you set yourself free – free from the anger, the pain, and the suffering.
In most cases, therapy is necessary to fully heal and to move on with life in a positive manner. Couples therapy or one of our Connections retreats is highly recommended. For further information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our relationship experts, please contact us today.