Infidelity is a common issue brought into my clinical office. I feel enormous compassion for a couple's struggle. The success of the intensive weekend is often predicated on the ability of both individuals to face this struggle courageously. Each of them has to find the strength to look inward at themselves and outward toward each other.
The weekend is structured in a stepwise fashion to complete a series of necessary tasks: 1) to allow each to tell their stories in a controlled environment, 2) for each to gain a greater understanding of the impact of the affair on their marriage, and 3) to clarify new boundaries.
Language and the healing process
I am careful about the language I use. I encourage my couples to adopt more neutral terms for each other such as the "Involved Partner" rather than more colorful alternatives such as "cheater," "philanderer," or "adulterer."
Getting involved, emotionally or physically, describes the matter at hand and allows us a clear a path forward. The goal for the Involved Partner, from a clinical perspective, is to figure out why they got involved, as well as how they became disengaged from their marriage. Then to become re-involved with their spouse.
Each step along this path is taken with care and consideration. This is a story that will allow for vulnerability and openness that will be painful for both.
I use the term "hurt partner" instead of "victim" or "survivor." These spouses have already been hurt enough and do not need the negative implications of being either victims or survivors.
You have been hurt, perhaps profoundly so. "Hurt" means to cause emotional pain or distress to someone, and this definition seems fitting, allowing your path forward, healing and forgiveness, to be clearly put in front of you.
How you heal the hurt is the path forward. Healing opens the potential for forgiveness. It is, however, a process, not a destination.
The Story of Infidelity
The healing process begins as each partner puts into words their current understanding of what happened and why. The first story requires the Involved Partner describing the process of emotionally or physically opening up to someone else.
The affair might have been a night or a decade long. It may have been emotional, physical, or both. But the importance of this retelling is not to share facts or details. It is to understand the context of their marriage, before, during, and after this involvement.
Either partner may object to this retelling. The Involved Partner may have repeated the details over and over again and believe they have nothing more to offer. The Hurt Partner may also want to forgive and move on to rebuild trust. It might have been months or even years since the affair was disclosed, and they want closure. That's understandable.
However, the trauma of infidelity is in the interactional details, and so is the process of forgiveness. Each thought and each decision made by the Involved Partner reveals their inner workings. And the more willing the Involved Partner is to rewalk that path, the greater the potential for mutual understanding.
Forgiveness relies on an acceptance of our humanness, our frailty, our capacity to deceive, and our propensity for cruelty or blinding self-preoccupation. This can't happen without deeper understanding.
I was deeply impacted by researcher John Gottman describing some spouses as "inconsolable." The term means "not able to be comforted or consoled." That word describes many hurt partners when they initially learn about the affair. The depth of their pain, the words, and even their partner's sincerest regrets don't seem to reach them.
They have lost something irreplaceable; that precious treasure of carefree belief in their partner's loyalty and trustworthiness. And regardless of how deeply religious, devoted, or in love they are with their spouse, they've also seen the depth of the commitment shaken.
They are no longer the fully trusting bride or groom. Life has become more serious, more threatening, and more complicated for them. The person who they may never have had to think twice about, they now are focused on and examine intently. Do they want a marriage to this person?
This is not a process to rush through, despite its enormous pain. And yet sometimes these men and women, in despair, ask: "How can I trust you!?" as if to challenge their mate to provide them reassurance.
The answer, of course, is: "You can't. And you shouldn't. Not now. Perhaps never." And this is something to grieve deeply.
The man (or woman) in the mirror
As their partner is struggling with some degree of inconsolability early on, the involved partner's job is self-examination. Most involved partners have lied directly to their spouse, omitted the truth, misled, redirected, or even gaslit and distorted reality to hide their behavior.
Those with the greatest strength have come clean, either voluntarily admitting to the affair (the most hopeful path), or once the infidelity was revealed. These men and women have had to take a deep breath and allow the truth to be revealed as they know it, regardless of the consequences. While they might not fully understand the impact their behavior has had on their marriage, they are now open to learning how to weather the burden of their actions.
Others are not so forthcoming, and their prognosis isn't as hopeful.
The manipulative involved partner
This type of person is often assumed to be all involved partners, but it's not so. I've seen great strength and honor in taking responsibility for what harm they've caused. But the manipulative involved partner is a particular character style that I will tease out here.
These folks increase their deception by praying on their partner's insecurities and vulnerabilities. Throughout the affair, they may vocalize their undying love and commitment. Once the affair is revealed, they take on the position of the friend in Shaggy's song: "It Wasn't Me."
They will get indignant and show contempt or disgust at your facts. They will distort the facts and intensify your confusion, leaving the hurt partner questioning reality and feeling crazy. They may turn the tables and accuse you of infidelity, call you paranoid. The manipulative involved partner will say you misheard them, stay calm or get angry.
When and only when the manipulative partner is forced to admit it, he will minimize the meaning of the involvement or its impact on you. They may redirect blame to you and your actions. They ask you to be reasonable and calm down; they may play the victim or look for sympathy because they feel guilty or ashamed.
This is typically indicative of a very poor prognosis.
The Hurt Partner's Story
If the Involved Partner had been forthcoming, this might have been the first time the entire story has been presented, start to finish, without interruption, and in a calm manner. The Hurt Partner has been able to ask questions and learn more about their partner's inner workings, not just the facts of the situation.
Now it is their turn to tell their story from the first moment that they felt something was off, to consider the possibility that an extramarital affair was happening. They'll talk about how the reveal impacted them emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
I pay close attention to the Involved Partner's capacity to listen intently to this story, without interrupting or intruding. On a biochemical level, mirror neurons fire when we see others experiencing an emotion. When we see someone grieving, for example, our mirror neurons fire, and that allows us to experience the same grief and feel empathy.
- Is the Involved Partner able to stay focused on the Hurt Partner's story?
- Is he or she finding ways to draw attention away from their spouse to gain sympathy for themselves?
- Do they look to me to intervene when the Hurt Partner is expressing appropriate anger or outrage?
All of these things point to a smooth or bumpy affair recovery road. Without true empathetic engagement, the Hurt Partner remains vigilant, wary, and suspicious. When they feel as if they both have truly heard and understood their partner transparently, they begin to relax.
When they feel as if they have been heard, seen, and respected, they can begin to allow their partner to console and comfort them. Forgiveness follows understanding. The Hurt Partner needs to recreate a new version of their marriage, replacing the earlier, fully trusting one. Their ability to do so may be marred by sentimentality and shattered assumptions about their partner.
As if to ask: "Who are you?" the Hurt Partner needs to familiarize themselves with an updated version of who they believed their spouse to be. When the before and after version is too stark, the task is much harder.
Getting to forgiveness after an affair
For some Involved Partners, the need to be forgiven is a looming issue...almost a childish demand. This delays the very process they were hoping to speed up. I tell them: "This is your spouse's time to set the timeline and clarify their needs. This is your time to accept this timeline and be responsive to those needs."
Staying with this process can be challenging and demand a lot from both people. Many Hurt Spouses assume tasks of setting up new boundaries and expectations. They might need concrete changes like a change of jobs if the affair partner was a coworker, an agreement to verify rather than trust their partner, or even disposing of items large and small that create painful memories.
Each of these requests has a reaction that allows the couple to move closer to or farther away from the healing process of forgiveness.