The media is agog these days with tales of public figures caught cheating on loyal, seemingly unsuspecting spouses. Amidst the uproar, it’s rare that reporters dig any deeper than the racy headlines or ask poignant questions, questions like: once the paparazzo leaves, if the couple decides to stay together, how do they – how can they – rebuild their relationship?
This question is a true equalizer, one that every couple faces when one of them strays – whether they live in a governor’s mansion or a mortgaged-to-the hilt condo. When one partner has betrayed their vow of fidelity, how can the other forgive and trust again?
The answer: Not easily. Not quickly. Sometimes not at all.
Infidelity strikes at the very foundation of a marriage or marriage-like relationship (and for the sake of brevity, when I refer to “marriage,” I mean any union of love, trust, and day-to-day inter-dependency). For many couples, an affair causes a breach that is irrevocable. For others, once the initial shock passes, separation seems like the wrong approach; instead, they hope to repair the damage and begin anew.
1) The partner who cheated must be absolutely committed to being monogamous with his current partner. He or she must not only agree to exclusivity, but must want it for her/himself – otherwise, he will cheat again.
2) The spouse must believe that he or she is loved and desired, despite her partner’s infidelity. Yes, she knows that he desired another, too, but, even so, she must feel wanted and must want him as well. If not, what is the point of moving forward? Staying together just “for the children” or the “business” or the “bank accounts” doesn’t lead to a real marriage. And if a real marriage isn’t important to you, then why make a fuss about cheating in the first place?
3) The cheater must become an open book. She must be willing to answer any questions the spouse puts to her – about the affair, the other man/woman, the sex, and the romance. While some partners want to know every gory detail and others do not, the cheater – as the party who has “done wrong” – must be willing to abide by the spouse’s needs for disclosure, not her own preferences for privacy. She must agree to be reachable, accountable, and uncloaked. While the spouse has no right to dictate what she does or where she goes, he does have a right to know where she is going and with whom, what she is spending, reading, watching, or browsing online. No hiding; no secrets. This is absolutely crucial to establishing a new brand of trust in the broken relationship. After all, infidelity is not just about sex or love, per se, but about the failure to keep a sacred agreement. As the cheater makes and follows through on new agreements, her sincerity is tested. If she passes these tests she will hopefully begin to regain her partner’s trust.
The betrayed party will need varying degrees of access to information over time, and those needs may ebb and flow unexpectedly. Like it or not, the cheater’s mantra must be: “all info, all the time.” Any defensiveness about full access will set off alarms – as well it should. The cheater – no matter what her reasons for having an affair – previously chose duplicity rather than honesty to deal with them, and if she indeed wishes to make amends, then the cost is the loss of her right to privacy. Put another way, the cost of duplicity is honesty. Ironically, honesty and openness breed intimacy – which is what the couple is ostensibly seeking now. So, in the end, honesty is hardly a punishment – unless, of course, one has something to hide.
3) The cheater’s partner may have the right to information, to knowledge, to openness – but she or he does not have the right to abuse, belittle, insult, or repeatedly remind her partner of how she was wronged. If the couple chooses to work on the relationship, they both have to do the work. It isn’t solely up to the cheater to make amends while his aggrieved spouse glowers or rages until spent. Yes, there is a stage in grieving and healing when anger needs expression – but it should be managed well, and that is best done with a therapist’s guidance.
4) Rarely does cheating arise out of a cozy nest where both partners’ needs are well satisfied. Usually, intimacy breaks down before cheating begins. This is not to say that the relationship or the partner is to blame for a cheater’s behavior, but to suggest that both people may have grievances; both may need to examine their role in creating a context or culture from which one partner sought escape. If healing is to occur, the factors that preceded and precipitated betrayal must be examined so that the relationship can be understood and repaired, too. Healing is not just about one person’s recovery from the effects of her partner’s affair – it’s about changing the dynamics that made the affair (or affairs) seem like a far better option than faithfulness or truth.
5) In time, the wronged party must be willing to let go of the past. If the cheater comes clean, works hard to improve the marriage, demonstrates accountability for his behavior, reveals that he understands the pain his infidelity caused, and continues to be an “open book” – then, she needs to begin fresh, too. If he has made these efforts, yet she has a lesser investment in healing and forgiving than in hanging on to resentment, bludgeoning him with guilt or anger, or withholding affection and sex, the marriage is just as doomed as it would be if the cheater continued his affair. I would even suggest that the person who wallows in resentment and mistrust becomes a cheater, too – of a different sort. She or he cheats the marriage of a chance at renewal and cheats their spouse of the forgiveness they have worked to earn. Healing can’t occur when anyone cheats, whatever form it takes.
Healing a broken marriage and a betrayed heart is a lengthy, taxing process; one that’s worth starting only if you both still believe in each other and in the ideals of commitment that originally brought you together. Even then, healing is miserably painful. Healing is hard. Healing is costly, and there is no guaranteed outcome. Healing takes a lot more out of you than you’d expect, and a lot more time than you’d imagine. Yet, if a couple can give themselves up to the healing process, something new may be born; a bond that is stronger, wiser and more resilient than ever before.