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Infidelity / Affair Recovery

Infidelity—unfaithfulness in a marriage or committed relationship—can severely strain a relationship and each of the partners. One partner’s affair can leave the other person feeling devastated, alone, betrayed, jealous, confused, and aggrieved. Sometimes, an affair ends a relationship, and other times couples are able to repair the relationship and may be stronger as a result. Whether the relationship weathers the storm or not, an affair changes everything.

What Causes Infidelity?

Affairs happen for myriad reasons. Although 99% of married adults in the United States expect sexual monogamy in their relationships, studies suggest that at least 20% will engage in extramarital sex at some point. All relationships require feelings of stability and security, physical and emotional intimacy, and companionship. When any one of these is deficient, one or more partners is likely to feel dissatisfied, and this can increase the odds of infidelity.

 

Adultery doesn’t always occur as a result of relationship dissatisfaction, though—sometimes a partner may enter an affair based on personal dissatisfaction or for the personal gratification of obtaining an ego boost, a new sexual experience, or shared emotional intimacy.

 

Some of the reasons a person may engage in infidelity include:

Statistically, men are almost 80% more likely than women to have engaged in adultery, and living in a larger city increases the odds that an incidence of infidelity occurs by almost 50%. Infidelity is also more common among the young, with twice as many cases of infidelity reported among those aged 18–30 compared with those over the age of 50.

 

Some researchers point out that sexual monogamy is not common in the natural world. It is, in fact, constructed by humans as an ideal that tends to conflict with the biological desire for multiple sexual partners. Still, we continually aspire to such ideals, and many cultures throughout the world demand sexual fidelity by harshly punishing those who stray. The manner in which couples recover from infidelity will depend in large part on their cultural background and their personal or religious values surrounding infidelity.

Therapy for Infidelity

Many couples pursue therapy to determine whether or not to continue the relationship after an affair and to process their feelings surrounding the incident. The couple’s choice to either maintain or end the relationship will be respected and the therapist will serve the couple’s goals. Therapy can help each partner express their emotions and needs in a safe space, reveal each partner’s level of commitment to the relationship, teach the partners skills for repairing trust, and guide the couple through the process of healing.

 

A therapist can also help clarify the true nature of the relationship by encouraging an open evaluation of the relationship’s strengths and weaknesses. If unhealthy patterns exist, such as codependency, emotional abuse, or repeated affairs, the therapist may call these into question. In addition, therapy can help those people who feel they are to blame for their partners’ infidelity to work through those feelings and obtain new perspectives.

The Recovery Process

Although there are no steadfast rules for determining how quickly or whether a couple will recover from an affair, experts agree that healing can occur within two years, though some couples may take longer and others recover sooner. There is no concrete timeline for recovery, though, and the length of time it takes is directly related to what happens immediately after the affair is discovered. Other factors influencing the recovery process include each partner's communication skills, tolerance for conflict, capacity for honesty, acceptance of personal responsibility, and attachment style. Just as each relationship is distinct from another, the process of recovering from infidelity will vary from one couple to another.

 

Recovery typically progresses through the following phases:

  • Trauma Phase: Following discovery, the betrayed partner experiences shock and significant emotional trauma as a result of finding out about the affair. He or she may feel angry, vengeful, and hopeless. This phase is often a roller coaster of emotions, ranging from loss and grief, to rage and frustration, and can be accompanied by bouts of tears or conflict. Both partners struggle with thinking clearly during this phase, and both may experience physical symptoms such as loss of appetite and weight.  
  • Issues Clarification: It is during this time that couples begin to examine what led to the affair. Although there is still a great deal of emotional instability, partners want to understand why the affair happened. The sooner couples can begin this process, the sooner they can reap the rewards of closure. Enlisting the help of a therapist is vital during this extremely psychologically stressful time.
  • Addressing the Problem: This is when the real work begins. As emotions become more manageable, spouses can tackle the difficult task of working on the issues that led to the affair. There will be highs and lows as guilt and anger become mixed with longing for the relationship as it once was, but couples who persevere through this phase will be able to finally address the issues that are at the root of much of their discontent.

A close-up of a couple's hands clasped as they are seated side-by-side

Next, couples can embrace the new relationship they have created. After working with a therapist, couples will likely have stronger, more genuine bonds. Trust may still be difficult for the betrayed partner, and each will have difficult days understanding why the affair happened and accepting that the previous life they knew has been changed forever. But by practicing techniques learned in therapy, couples can continue to develop an open, honest, and new relationship, free of the encumbrances of the affair.

Repeated Affairs

When a partner engages in repeated affairs, several issues are called into question. Were there issues leading to the first affair that were never addressed? How was the first affair handled? Was the offender genuinely remorseful? Did he or she take responsibility for his or her actions? Did the other spouse acknowledge his or her jealousy, dependency, anger, or even denial? Any of these unresolved issues can contribute to the recurrence of infidelity. Hilary Silver, LCSW has observed in her practice that repeated affairs tend to occur as a result of love or sex addiction and that "The behavior is a compulsion rather than a statement about the state of the relationship."

 

Partners experiencing multiple infidelities must explore both the pre- and post-affair factors, identifying any behaviors, communication, and emotions exhibited, and each partner’s role in the relationship before and after. Partners should be honest with their feelings of hurt, guilt, and shame. In order to protect the relationship from future infidelities, the foundation must be solid after the affair, not riddled with doubt and insecurity.  

Case Examples of Infidelity

  • Deciding to reveal an affair: Trudy, 27, seeks therapy because she is feeling very guilty for cheating on her partner, an affair she recently ended. Trudy has not yet revealed her infidelity to her partner and is terrified of doing so, as she does not want this relationship to end and does not want to hurt her partner’s feelings. Trudy feels she “ought” to tell her partner but isn’t sure it’s the best course. The therapist helps Trudy clarify and evaluate her motivations for telling or not telling might be and the possible consequences of each path. Once Trudy has decided that her commitment to honesty requires her to tell her partner, the therapist helps her prepare for this task, and afterwards, to manage her anxiety. Couple’s work with a different therapist is recommended to help the pair recover further.
  • Determining whether or not to separate: Don and Felicia, in their 40s, enter couple’s counseling after Don reveals he has a mistress, whom he is unsure  he is ready to stop seeing. Felicia is angry and depressed, feeling she should leave the marriage but she’s “still in love with Don.” The therapist forms an agreement with the couple that they will decide whether to continue the marriage or dissolve it within one month. Don breaks off his affair, but is still very ambivalent. The therapist helps the couple uncover long-standing problems with intimacy in their marriage, and Don admits to other, previous affairs. Don and Felicia are both recommended for simultaneous, separate individual therapy – Don, to work on his compulsions, and Felicia to work through feelings of inadequacy and anger. After several months, Felicia decides she needs a trial separation, and Don admits he is still having an affair; however, they continue therapy together. Don finally ends his affair, and one year later, the couple reunites and begins picking up the pieces with help from the therapist.

References:

  1. Barash, David P. and Lipton, Judith E. (2001). The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  2. Lewandowski, Gary W., Jr, and Ackerman, R. A. (2006). Something's missing: Need fulfillment and self-expansion as predictors of susceptibility to infidelity. The Journal of Social Psychology, 146(4), 389-403. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/199795534?accountid=1229
  3. Treas, J., and Giesen, D. (2000). Sexual infidelity among married and cohabiting americans. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62(1), 48-60. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/219753615?accountid=1229
  4. Whisman, Mark A. and Snyder, Douglas K. (2007). Sexual Infidelity in a National Survey of American Women: Differences in Prevalence and Correlates as a Function of Method of Assessment. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(2), 147-154. Retrieved from http://www.public.iastate.edu/~ccutrona/psych592a/articles/Sexual%20infidelity%20in%20women.pdf 

 

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Last updated: 09-30-2014

     

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