Infidelity in relationships is often misunderstood. By the victim, by outsiders, by society as a whole. And understanding this has been pivotal in my work with couples.
Infidelity is NOT about a partner’s lack of sexual appeal, relationship boredom, or because the perpetrator is a terrible, awful, no-good person.
Here’s the more likely causes:
- The affair serves as a thing that a person turns to (like alcohol or video games) when the emotional tension and anxiety between partners becomes overwhelming.
- It can also be something that is sparked by recent loss or changes (death of a loved one, big moves, loss of career) when big life questions are sparked, “Is this it? Am I enough? Will I ever feel that thing again?”
- It can also be a desire for attention, to feel special, or to feel important. As Esther Perel expertly puts it, “Affairs are less about sex, and a lot more about desire”.
So, the other thing people aren’t talking about: How common are affairs and what do most couples do? Depending on the definition of cheating (from viewing pornographic material to having sex with another person) the percentages range from 25-75%, and most couples do in fact stay — even though, in society most people respond that they would tell people to leave a person, and most people experience a feeling of shame for staying.
However, staying can be a great thing. Infidelity in a relationship can become an opportunity for growth and for the relationship to reach a new level of honesty and openness that wasn’t there before. It can actually strengthen and better a relationship. Although it isn’t recommended, similar to how I wouldn’t recommend a terminal illness or alcoholism, these experiences when they do occur can be a thing that cripples a couple or becomes a generative experience.
Some specific things couple’s can do to heal from an affair:
- If you are the perpetrator, acknowledge your wrong doing and end it. It is crucial that you express guilt or remorse for your actions and the hurt it has caused your partner. You could also become the person to bring up these conversations and be the protector of boundaries to build safety and decrease paranoia in your partner.
- As the victim, do things that you really enjoy and that bring back a sense of identity, security, and joy into your life. Also, try not to ask about the tiny details of the affair because that will only cause re-traumatization and pain.
- Together, uncover the meaning, motives, and other relationship anxieties that have been kept under the rug. Ensure space for trust to be rebuilt and for the perpetrator to work on the parts of self they are longing for or struggling against.
- Seek therapy and additional help. Going through an affair can be incredibly painful, self-defeating, and hard to do alone. Seeking help to work on both personal and interpersonal relationship issues can ensure that you are addressing the roots to the affair and the roles both partner’s may have played in their relationship dynamic. It can also help the perpetrator identify the anxieties they are struggling with within themselves and their relationship that fuel them to seek outside resources (i.e. relationships) to alleviate their anxieties.
At the end of the day, neglect, indifference, violence, and a partner’s withdrawal to alcohol or something as harmless as video games can be other forms of betrayal in a relationship. Good can come out of addressing affairs and it’s totally worth it and okay to stay. As a hopeful, shameless therapist, I hope that any such hard experiences in your life (affairs, illnesses, or the like) can be sources of growth and intimacy for you and your loved ones.