Infidelity: Rebuilding After a Betrayal
She makes an appointment to talk about the “what next” since the affair. You assume that her spouse has been unfaithful, but when she turns up to session, she tells you that she was the one who strayed. “It felt so good at the time,” she says. “I felt more alive and sexy than I have at any other time in the last decade. But it all happened so fast.” Is there any hope, she wonders, of re-building her marriage and saving it?
As a therapist, you may have helped many devastated clients navigate through the roiling waters of recovery after they have been betrayed by a spouse or intimate partner. The therapeutic work may look a little different when the client is the cheater. In our preceding article, we highlighted some of the issues, emotions, and dynamics of helping someone recover from the betrayal of infidelity.
In this article, we look at the question from the other angle: that of the partner who strayed, and what they can do if they wish to recover their marriage/partnership (in this article, as in the last one, we refer to “marriage” and “partnership” interchangeably, as we do “spouse” and “partner”. Our discussion excludes those in “open” marriages, whose dynamics are different). We uncover some of the reasons why partners cheat, and examine what needs to happen if the cheater is to re-build the marriage; sadly, this isn’t always possible. Even when both partners want the union to continue, the road back to a healthy, trusting relationship is slow and fraught with obstacles.
First question: Do they want to re-build?
The most basic question you must entertain as therapist for someone who has cheated is that of whether the person wants to re-build their partnership. Some infidelity occurs because the person actually wants to leave the relationship; perhaps the level of unhappiness was so high that the affair developed to fill the void. Maybe the cheater figured that getting caught in the act would trigger the other person to leave them (Stritof, 2019). Thus, you must ascertain early on whether the client does wish to recover the relationship (and eventually, if the spouse is willing as well). Chances are that, if the person has come to you for help, there is some realisation that they made an error, and they now want to know how to make amends.
Why did it happen? Honesty and responsibility needed to rebuild
Probably all parties involved — you, the client, and the partner — want to know why the infidelity occurred. The hurt partner may never know. It’s not easy to face the unvarnished truth, or to heal from it. But it does figure largely. A 2014 study by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture found that, with over 15,000 respondents, the most frequent reason cited for divorce was unfaithfulness by either party, accounting for 37% of divorces in the United States (Austin Institute, 2014).
Reasons that straying partners have cited include unmet needs in the relationship, poor communication, obsolete gender roles, and attachment difficulties (Page, 2019). The betrayed partner, meanwhile, wonders if the partner cheated “because I am too ugly” (too fat, too stupid, too whatever) (Phillips, n.d.).
It may be tempting for the unfaithful spouse to point the finger of blame at the other person (e.g., “She never wanted sex”; “He never had time for me or the kids”), but the reasons are almost always deeper than a particular behaviour or changing attraction. According to Rose Richardson, Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the base of infidelity is the lack of emotional connection. Typically, she notes, the partner who had the affair has work to do to improve the capacity to connect or to communicate: “Most of the time they’ve had some need that hasn’t been met by their partner, and when we dig deeper, that’s usually because they haven’t felt secure enough or known how to express that need” (Phillips, n.d.).
While acknowledging the complexity of infidelity, it’s nevertheless important to go for insight, so that if the client is faced with a similar situation in the future, they can handle it differently (Page, 2019). The client — eventually with partner — can ask: “What was it in me or in the relationship that ultimately caused us to have an ‘open door’ for someone else to walk through?”
Hopefully the betrayed partner will be healed enough from the hurt at some stage to look at whatever role their actions or non-actions may have contributed to the affair. At the early stages, though, the work is about the straying partner taking full responsibility for the choices they made, the actions they took. Inability to do so precludes any real repair job.
And there is more that the unfaithful partner must be tasked with if the marriage is to survive.
Fixer 101: The least that must happen to rebuild
There’s little controversy in the literature. A cheated-on spouse understandably has lost trust in the cheating partner (and probably also in themselves and in the relationship), so the main first steps are for the partner to rebuild it. We issue you, as the client’s therapist, an alert here: we won’t be mincing words as to what’s needed, and neither should you. In plain talk, here are the minimum basics, without which the relationship assuredly cannot re-invent itself.
Stop cheating. Sounds simple, but this obvious first step may be difficult for some who stray. There needs to be no contact whatsoever with the affair partner: by phone, social media, face-to-face, or in any format. If the client baulks, you can remind them that it is a question of trust and boundaries, both of which have been broken in the affair. Contact information must be deleted, numbers blocked, and social media contacts removed (Page, 2019; Stritof, 2019).
Stop lying; go for rigorous honesty. Dr Robert Weiss, M.S.W., defines infidelity as “the breaking of trust that occurs when you deliberately keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner” (Weiss, 2017). The definition does not focus on specific behaviours, but on what ultimately matters to a betrayed partner: the loss of relationship trust. He states that, after 25 years as a therapist specialising in sex and intimacy issues, it’s unequivocal: healing a relationship damaged by infidelity begins and ends with the restoration of trust. And he defines it broadly; thus, to repair relationship trust, cheaters must not only come clean on what they have done, but also they must be rigorously honest about all other aspects of their life, both in the moment and going forward (Weiss, 2017). Stritof (2019) includes excuse-making, justifications, directness, and openness in that injunction. Weiss’ (2017) list may be broader. He notes that even highly motivated people fall prey to some of the following pitfalls:
Passive truth-telling. This tactic forces the betrayed partner to do the work. If they suspect something is problematic, they ask the person who cheated, and the cheater then tells the truth to answer the question, but may fail to furnish additional relevant information. Some cheaters don’t count this as lying because they told the truth, but they can be reminded that failure to disclose pertinent information — that is, keeping something secret — is still a form of lying.
Partial disclosure. Related to passive truth-telling, this sees a cheater revealing a bit today, a bit more tomorrow, and perhaps yet more in a few weeks. It is a nightmare scenario for the betrayed spouse, and wreaks havoc with the rebuilding of trust.
Minimising. Some cheaters are honest, but try to de-escalate their betrayed partner’s strong emotional reactions, perhaps from guilt, or in some cases from not wanting to see the partner suffer. But letting in the pain of the betrayal and working through the emotions of that is part of the healing, and the cheater needs to allow it to happen.
Defensiveness/attack. Along with minimising, some cheaters, when confronted with a partner’s understandable anger, get very defensive, or even attack the partner. Ask your straying client to remember that “yes, but” takes the repair train off the tracks and is highly counterproductive.
Expecting instant forgiveness. After behaving in a rigorously honest manner, some former cheaters expect to be rewarded by immediate forgiveness by the offended partner. Those partners resent this, and again, it makes ultimate restoration of the relationship even harder. The betrayed partner needs to be able to heal in their own time (adapted from Weiss, (2017).
Be open and transparent; keep promises. A major point outlined by all experts on the subject of after-affair restoration, this task asks former cheaters to be much more transparent than would normally be expected in an intimate relationship simply because the trust level is low. Thus, the cheater can (some say “should”) voluntarily offer up their calendar, so that the betrayed partner can see where the person will be, and with whom, at any given time. Tracking and monitoring software can be installed on the straying partner’s phone and computer for the betrayed partner to access at any time, and full access can be provided to bank accounts and other financial information that they may have kept secret in the past.
One woman whose husband had an affair with a work colleague remarked that the high level of transparency was key to her healing process. “My husband gave up anything that made me uncomfortable (like going out with the boys after work). I had access to any/all electronics/emails, passwords etc. He told me where he was going and who he’d be with. Seems humiliating in the short term, but he understood that that was how he was going to rebuild trust,” she said (Page, 2019).
It goes without saying that if the unfaithful client says they’ll call or be somewhere at a given time, it is imperative during the trust re-building to do what they say they will.
Do the dance of togetherness: patiently. Ask your client to understand how their betrayed partner is going through a massive transition, which brings with it a lot of rapid-fire changes in mood and need. Thus, the partner is likely to need alternate times alone (to help process the betrayal intrapersonally) and quality times with your client (to re-build trust and a loving sense of happiness at being together). Both needs are valid. The partner is likely to be conciliatory and keen to re-unite at one moment and wildly angry the next (Stritof, 2019). As difficult as it can be (particularly because the straying client does not know how long the healing will go on for), the only advice is: keep on keeping on, patiently.
Practice the three A’s every day. Marriage and family therapist Sheri Meyers adds that re-building clients must daily offer their hurt spouses the three A’s of attention, affection, and appreciation. It’s easy to forget. It’s easy to think, “Haven’t they heard this enough? Why don’t they just get over the hurt?” But, no, this practice must continue for as long as it takes (Meyers, 2013).
To recap, your client’s job through this time is simple (although not easy): being honest, dependable, reliable, open, loving, and unfailingly patient, patient, patient. The re-building of trust takes time: a long time!
What the offending client can ask the hurt partner
Along with the above obligations, there are some questions that the unfaithful partner can ask instead of getting defensive or angry or withdrawing (all of which are tempting, because people don’t like to be reminded of their own bad behaviour, and in the face of intense emotion on their partner’s part, they feel helpless about fixing it). You can note to clients that, if the straying partner gives into the temptation to be defensive or to withdraw, they risk reinjuring their already-wounded partner because the partner feels abandoned. So here’s what they can ask instead:
- Can you tell me more about how hurt you are? (This admittedly seems counterintuitive. Someone who may be uncomfortable with emotion could wonder why they should “stir the pot”, but think about it: if it seems that the client really wants to know how much they were hurt, the spouse is more likely to trust that the client understands enough that they — the hurt spouse — can start trusting again).
- What do you think I might still not understand about how you feel?
- What can I do in this moment — I wasn’t there for you then — I am here now, so what can I do right now?
- Even though I don’t know what to do with all the emotion, I want to fix it — does it help for me to be here listening to you now?
- Is there anything else you need to know (Schade, 2017)
What the client can expect
Finally, let us note, mostly as a summary, what a formerly unfaithful client can expect if they make (along with their partner) the courageous decision to re-build the relationship after an affair. We reiterate: the old relationship is dead, and it is a long, rough, and bumpy road to a new relationship! So here are the main signposts, again.
- The partner’s roller-coaster emotions are perfectly normal.
- Only through your client’s rigorous honesty, openness, and dependability will the partner be able to start trusting again, if ever.
- Supreme patience is required because the client will be totally tired of talking about it WAY before the partner is done processing and talking about the cheating; one year is not a long time.
- The partner will need to ask your client many questions — some, over and over again — ad nauseum. Your client must continue to answer them — and in the same way — again and again because hearing the same thing repeatedly builds reliability, which builds trust.
- Trying to heal can be disorienting for the client’s partner, because they are trying to heal with the person who caused the pain. Yet doing this, as trust is built, is the only way forward.
- If the partner is to heal, they must make sense of how this could have happened, and also feel some kind of shift in the relationship. Otherwise, there is no reassurance that the cheating won’t happen again. To heal, things must feel better and more secure than before the betrayal (Schade, 2017).
We try to strike a hopeful note in this series because we genuinely do hold out the hope that human beings have infinite potential for healing and transformation within them. In this article, too, we retain an optimistic hopefulness for the rebuilding of relationships devastated by an extra-marital affair. Yet that sense of optimism is tempered by a sober realisation of just how long and hard your cheating clients may have to work to restore their relationship. Probably we shouldn’t even say “restore”. In fact, if they succeed, they will be building a new relationship which is stronger, closer, and better than what they had before.