For people who have discovered that their partner has been unfaithful, even the word – Infidelity – can trigger emotional and physical spasms. Unfaithfulness in a marriage or a committed relationship can strain a relationship to the breaking point. One partner’s affair can leave the other person feeling devastated, alone, betrayed, jealous, confused and aggrieved. Sometimes, an affair ends a relationship. But sometimes, couples are able to repair their relationship on their own or with the help of a therapist. In the best of cases, their relationship becomes even stronger than it was before the affair began.
What Causes Infidelity?
Many social science studies show that most adults expect sexual monogamy in their primary relationship. However, up to 20 percent of adults will engage in extramarital sex at some point.
Affairs happen for a wide variety of reasons, but the most common reason appears to be relationship dissatisfaction. In general, a meaningful and long-lasting relationship requires mutual feelings of security and stability, physical and emotional intimacy and companionship. When one or both partners feel that one or more of these needs is not being met, their dissatisfaction can lead them down the path to Infidelity.
Still, adultery does not always occur as a result of relationship dissatisfaction. Sometimes, a partner may begin an affair to ease their own sense of personal dissatisfaction or for the personal gratification of obtaining an ego boost or to explore a different type of sexual experience.
Types of Infidelity
Several different types of Infidelity can occur in a relationship:
An Object Affair is the neglect of a relationship for the sake of pursuing an outside interest. This pursuit may reach the point of a near obsession.
In a Sexual Affair, one partner indulges in sexual contact outside the relationship, but he or she generally experiences no emotional attachment to the other person. Men, far more than women, tend to have a more difficult time forgiving a sexual affair, research shows. Women appear more likely to forgive extramarital intimacy when emotions are not involved.
A Cyber Affair, or Infidelity committed through “sexts” and chats, may remain entirely online and never reach the point of sexual intimacy. This type of affair may include the singular or shared viewing of pornography, which adds another issue to the mix. Some people make a compelling argument that pornography is a form of Infidelity.
An Emotional Affair occurs when one partner becomes emotionally dependent on another person, generally of the gender to whom one is attracted. In an emotional affair, a person may spend hours talking on the phone or in person to someone other than his or her partner. This behavior may seem harmless. But since the person engaged in emotional Infidelity often discusses relationship problems with the object of his or her attachment rather than with his or her partner, it can strain a primary relationship. Sexual activity is usually not part of an emotional affair, even though sexual attraction may indeed be present.
It is important to consider that what one person considers to be Infidelity may not be considered Infidelity by another. For example, people often disagree about whether viewing pornography is a form of Infidelity. To the person who feels betrayed by this habit, feelings of hurt and inadequacy often result.
Some view Infidelity as sexual intercourse outside the relationship and therefore may not consider an emotional affair to constitute cheating. In some cases, however, an emotional affair can actually be more detrimental since it may indicate that the partner committing the Infidelity is no longer invested in the primary relationship.
This is why it is helpful for partners to discuss their views and expectations about monogamy and relationships outside of the primary relationship. Being candid can stem confusion and prevent future disagreements or transgressions.
Therapy for Infidelity
Couples can, and do, recover from Infidelity. But the manner in which recovery occurs largely depends on their cultural background and their personal or religious values. Many couples, initially in a state of great confusion, pursue therapy to determine if they ought to continue the relationship. Soon after, the focus of the therapy shifts to helping the couple process their feelings so that they can resume a healthy relationship.
A therapist can serve as a supportive listener as each partner expresses his or her emotions regarding the Infidelity. A therapist also can help the couple determine their needs and future goals for the relationship. Often, a couple wishes to repair and rebuild the relationship, even if one partner isn’t entirely certain this goal can be accomplished. In this case, a therapist can assist by helping each partner discover his or her level of commitment to the relationship, teaching the partners skills for rebuilding trust and guiding the couple through the healing process.
A therapist also can 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 behaviors into question. In addition, therapy can help those people who feel they are to blame for the Infidelity work through these feelings and develop a new perspective.
When a couple decides to end their relationship, a therapist can still be of assistance to both partners. The partner who was betrayed may find it beneficial to discuss his or her anger and feelings of inadequacy. And a therapist can help both partners cope with the trauma of the loss of their life partner.
The partner who committed the Infidelity may feel regret and wish to understand what caused him or her to pursue an affair in the first place. A therapist can help by helping the person determine ways to communicate feelings of dissatisfaction more effectively so that he or she does not repeat the behavior.
The Recovery Process
Recovery following Infidelity can be a lengthy process. Although there are no ironclad rules for determining how quickly or even if a couple will recover from an affair, experts agree that healing can often occur within two years. Some couples may take longer to fully recover, while others can repair their relationship sooner. The length of the recovery time is often directly related to what happens immediately after the affair is discovered.
Other factors that influence how quickly and effectively couples recover include each partner’s:
Tolerance for conflict
Capacity for honesty
Acceptance of personal responsibility
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: Upon learning of the affair, the betrayed partner may experience shock and significant emotional trauma. He or she may feel angry, vengeful and hopeless. This phase is often marked by a roller coaster of emotions, ranging from loss and grief to rage and frustration, and it can be accompanied by bouts of tears or conflict. Both partners also may experience physical side effects from the trauma, particularly appetite and weight loss.
Issues Clarification Phase: 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 occurred. The sooner couples begin this process, the sooner they can come to terms with Infidelity in an honest manner. Enlisting the assistance of a therapist can be helpful during this time, which may be psychologically stressful to one or both partners.
Addressing the Problem Phase: This is when the real work begins. As emotions become more manageable, spouses 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. Couples who persevere through this phase will often be able to address the issues that lie at the core of their discontent – and build the relationship they wanted all along.