You’ve just discovered that your partner has been cheating on you and now you’re quarantined together. The devastation of discovering your spouse’s infidelity is painful enough, but trying to understand it, process it, and get through it without privacy exacerbates the dilemma. What do you do first? Which direction do you head, and where can you go? How do you protect the children?
Before anything, calmly discuss the idea that this needs to stay just between you and your partner. Seeking counsel with a neutral non-bias professional is the next step. Both partners need to express and explore their thoughts and feelings regarding this break of trust.
There are many reasons why a spouse goes outside the marriage and with a marriage counselor facilitating the session, there is an opportunity for questions to be asked in a safe place and both partners can feel they are being listened to, rather than solely reaction and threats of divorce. A marriage counselor also works to prevent the cheating spouse from being able to avoid the discomfort of this conversation. It is often the case that the cheating spouse can express anger towards their partner, causing their partner to shut down and not wanting to be comforted, which lets the cheating partner off the hook. However, the marriage counselor will not let that happen and will allow the betrayed partner’s pain to be felt by the cheating partner. Helping the cheating partner to be empathetic towards their partner will help the pain heal sooner; the cheating partner cannot expect their spouse to just “get over it”. A common misconception is that withholding information about the affair will prevent more pain, but often this is not the case. It is important for the cheating partner to be honest about what they have done. Not easy, and very much a challenge, but not impossible.
The reasons men cheat can vary, and the most common ones are lack of intimacy, emotional distance, not being able to share his feelings, not feeling heard, and not being considered an important part of the household. Men have also stated they cheated because they were no longer as attracted to their partner as they used to be; they may have a sex addiction and not be aware, and could be driven to get their dopamine rush no matter where or how. Some men begin an affair because they are looking to leave the marriage and may need to know there’s a plan B for security available. In marriages, men can lose their confidence over time if they don’t get enough affirmations and praise, and it’s possible they are criticized a lot and therefore the affair is ego and self-esteem driven. Affairs have also been the result of immaturity, meaning that he just doesn’t want to behave in a committed relationship and adhere to the sanctity of marriage and trust, or that he is seeking revenge for a transgression done to him in the past.
Women’s reasons for cheating are somewhat similar but are more due to her need for variety and sexual compatibility, which may not be getting met in her current relationship, even if she is happy and satisfied with being a wife and mother at home. Women turn towards affairs as a way to remain in her primary relationship to prevent divorce and breaking up the family but may feel trapped and frustrated with their spouse when they refuse to improve their relationship with counseling or other resources. Women may also secretly wish they get caught to have an exit out of the relationship. Other reasons for cheating can be due to a feeling of oppression and a desire to exercise a form of freedom or self-realization, as well as trying to feel appreciated and validated, even if the person doing so for them is not their spouse.
In marriage counseling and individual counseling, the causes for infidelity can be explored and uncovered. Couples can explore the reasons together or the cheating partner may want to seek counsel on their own to then be able to share their thoughts around the affair with his spouse once it’s clear what the driving force was, and what they need now in the marriage. As for the spouse who feels the pain and the betrayal, it’s beneficial to seek individual counseling at first and then bring these feelings to the couple’s counseling once these feelings can be put into words to be heard and felt by the one who cheated and betrayed them.
One of the most important questions that is asked is if the couple believes that they can come back from this? For some it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back and the marriage is over, as the betrayed partner feels they cannot come back from this. Even so, sometimes the end of a marriage may be a relief and now one or both partners can plan their future away from this person that has caused such misery and disappointment. In some cases, the betrayed manages to use this anger as a means of power and control. Should the marriage end in divorce, the betrayed may want to use this as a means to gain full custody of the children, establish sole decision making when it comes to the children, or even get even in the marital asset and keep beyond what is legally their right to keep. When parent plans are being arranged, some courts can find reasons for supervised visitation on the other parent’s time with the children. However, it is important to realize that infidelity does not necessarily mean poor parenting, but means poor marital relations.
If both partners have committed to doing the work to save the relationship, the reparations can begin once they begin meeting with a counselor. It’s essential to detect if both spouses are willing to give 100% to restoring the trust and the marriage and building it up better than it was, or one of them just appeasing the other and isn’t really convinced this marriage is salvageable, but just shows up to go through the motions. If one spouse is only in counseling to be forgiven or one is in session to torture and berate the cheater, then everyone’s time is wasted.
The good news is that marriages can survive infidelity with the right skilled professional that allows both spouses to feel heard and listened to and promote a deeper intimacy and understanding, which helps strengthen the marriage. Committing to the work can place the marriage on a trajectory of strength, openness, compassion, empathy, understanding, and deepening of the love, thereby structuring the marriage from the interior to the exterior, making it impenetrable to any outside influence. When the marriage is lacking this depth, its very easy to have the metaphorical window open up and let danger and destruction fly in.
Many couples shy away from counseling as many don’t believe it can save a marriage. Some feel that it will only yield disappointment. The belief to the betrayed is the fear, “once a cheater, always a cheater” and if that is how one feels, it is hard for counseling to prove otherwise. The one who stepped out fears being shamed, ridiculed, alienated, and ostracized by the children, family, friends. They fear being forced to forever wear the Scarlett Letter A on their chest and ultimately being asked for a divorce once all the humiliation has been satisfied.
If the couple faces their fears and anxieties, and engages in counseling they can see both partners are vulnerable, hurting, and broken. Sorting through the debris of marital sludge, such as the sadness and the loneliness, it becomes apparent that there was a myriad of factors that led to the fracture of the marriage. It is important that all of these are addressed and explored carefully. Family history, belief systems, cultures, values, the ability to forgive, and emotional intelligence regarding coping mechanisms, adversity and resiliency, and self-awareness are all on the table as well.
If one only shows up and wants to just blame the other or if one shows up without the courage to take ownership and accountability, the counseling is futile.
Marriage counseling is one of the most difficult and excruciating painstaking dives into yourself and your marriage. You are exposed and completely vulnerable to another human who you will live with for the rest of your life. However, it is key to remember that true vulnerability comes from courage as well as knowing that the definition of Intimacy is being able to be so vulnerable with your partner that they can hurt you so deeply, but trusting that they won’t. Is your marriage fool proof? No, we are all flawed. We all need to close our eyes, lean back, and fall, and know that our partner will catch us, no conditional prerequisites included.