In my last column, I discussed the prevalence of marital infidelity as estimated over the years by a variety of psychological studies, the most famous of which was the Kinsey Report in the 1950s. Those estimates have risen dramatically over the last 60 years for women (from 26 percent to about 60 percent), but have remained about the same (approximately 70 percent) for men. I also addressed the cultural changes — women working outside the home, and the social acceptance of the double standard for sexual behavior (“boys will be boys”) for example — that have resulted in the rise of these percentages.
This week, I think it important to address the devastating and destructive impact of marital infidelity on the marriage partnership. The treasured expectation in our culture is that your spouse is the one person you can deeply trust not to hurt you physically or emotionally. Your husband or wife is expected not only to love and honor you, but to be your best friend, lover, co-parent, and soulmate. The emotional bond with your marriage partner is one of the most major and powerful relationships you will have, along with emotional bonds to parents, siblings and children. Sexual intimacy especially has deep psychological and emotional power to create, nurture and sustain the marriage bond.
All these elemental expectations, reinforced by the marriage vows, contribute to the reasons that infidelity is experienced by the faithful partner as both the death of a dream and the death of the relationship, and some degree of painful mourning is felt even if the marriage ultimately continues. Because it shatters the deep trust and emotional safety between spouses, infidelity shakes the very foundation of marriage.
The fai thful spouse will experience a complete crashing down of faith and trust in the unfaithful partner, and the sense that their whole world has been destroyed. Faithful partners go through all the painful phases of the grieving process because of the enormous sense of loss they experience. It is a process that may continue for many years, particularly if the infidelity results in divorce.
It takes tremendous commitment from both spouses to work together to rebuild this trust and faith, and to be successful, most often requires the help of marital counseling. The rebuilding process, however, even after marital counseling ends, can take many years. Even in the most ideal circumstances, it is not possible to completely recapture the pure, innocent trust that once existed.
Spouses in these situations have to sort through what was, and is, really going on in the relationship. Perhaps communication has broken down because they lack the emotional tools and skills to resolve conflicts resulting in all discussions ending in frustrating arguments. Or, perhaps, over time one partner’s needs have changed, and he or she requires something independent of their partner, for example, intellectual stimulation. The two may have developed totally different needs and feelings. The unfaithful partner may be trying to recapture a sense of youth or trying to “punish” the faithful partner for unmet emotional needs.
Regardless of the reasons behind the infidelity, the marriage will have to be worked on intensely if it is to survive. There are no guarantees. An unfaithful spouse arriving home late 10 years after an affair has ended may still be suspected of cheating.
Sometimes the faithful spouse’s feelings about the third party will often be more intense than what is felt toward the cheating spouse. Faithful spouses will feel outraged (“how dare you!”) that their closest relationship has been stolen away from them. The presence of the other person makes the faithful partner question why the attraction existed: “Was he or she more exciting, fun, attractive, intelligent, than me?”
The seriousness of the betrayal and the enormity of the anger and hurt involved can have many severe consequences. Children will sense, feel and be much affected by it even if they don’t know exactly what has happened. The deep blow to the psyche of the faithful spouse has, in some cases, led him or her to commit physical violence against the cheating spouse and, or the extramarital lover.
The actions of the unfaithful partner can also severely damage ongoing relationships with their children and other family members because they feel cheated on as well. Who is this person they felt they knew and respected, and why would he or she betray the family trust this way? The children, no matter what age, often feel that they share in the blame for the cheater’s behavior. Didn’t he or she love them enough, were they not lovable enough? Why would she or he destroy the trust and stability of the family they counted on so much. Is the faithful spouse to blame? Who is responsible for this terrible loss?
Obviously, the costs of marital infidelity are extremely high, and many marriages and family structures simply will not survive. However, it has been my own professional experience that if couples are determined and deeply committed to healing the inflicted emotional wounds, and each is willing to look at how their own psychological states have contributed both positively and negatively to the development of the marriage, especially the unfaithful partner, it is possible to save, and in some cases, even strengthen the marriage bond.
Based in Rockport, life coach and psychotherapist Susan Britt, M.Ed., teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978-546-9431.