When Marriage Counseling Will or Won’t Work for Infidelity [2020]

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Table of contents

1. What is Infidelity?

2. How Does Infidelity Damage Relationships?

3. Rebuilding Trust

4. Learning to Forgive

5. Creating a New Future Together

“You come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.” ~Sam Keen

What is Infidelity?

Couples come to counseling for a variety of reasons: they’re fighting too much, parenting issues, or maybe they are wondering if they should even stay together. 

However, one of the most popular reasons that couples come to therapy is because some kind of infidelity has happened in their relationship, and they are wondering if they can get past the infidelity. 

If you find yourself in this position, you may be asking, “Will marriage counseling work for infidelity?” 

The short answer is sometimes. 

I wish I could give you more hope than that, but the success of marriage counseling depends on a lot of factors outside of the infidelity. 

However, most often, marriage counseling can work to repair a relationship that has been broken by infidelity, but be warned, it’s no walk in the park. 

The thing that I wish more people understood about their partner before they got married is what infidelity means to their partner, and what it means to themselves.

As a therapist, one of the things that I have learned with working with couples is that everyone has a different idea about what infidelity is. 

For some people, anything less than physical contact of a sexual nature is not infidelity. For others, they believe their partner has been unfaithful to them for even having sexual thoughts about another person.

Everyone can agree that there is a world of difference between those two things.

I am not saying that one is cheating while the other is not, or that one is more detrimental to a marriage than another. It’s all about what infidelity means to you.

For some people, their partner having an emotional affair where there is love and a relationship, but no sex is much more damaging than if their partner had a one night stand with a stranger. 

This is why, one of the most important conversations you can have with your partner is to talk about what infidelity means to the both of you. 

Unfortunately, most people don’t do this until some type of infidelity has already happened. 

That being said, there are several relationship boundaries that people most often believe to be cheating. These include:  

  • Any type of sexual activity with someone who is not your partner (kissing, fondling, or any type of penetrative sex)
  • Any type of sexual talk (in real life or over the internet or phone)
  • Masturbation (including using pornography or fantasizing about someone who is not your partner)
  • Having a non-sexual intimate relationship with someone 
  • Going on a “date” with someone who is not your partner

This leaves out a lot of activities that some people might consider cheating, that others would not.

For instance, is meeting up with your ex cheating? How about sexy dancing in the club with a stranger? Is buying gifts or paying bills for someone other than your partner cheating?

Will your partner see flirting with the waiter/waitress at Twin Peaks or Hooters as cheating?

Some people feel it’s often better to ask forgiveness than permission, but this leads to frustration and eroded trust, which can be extremely damaging to a relationship.

Maybe going with the expert’s definition is best. In a recent study, infidelity was defined as “involvement in romantic relationships outside of one’s active committed relationship which result in a sense of relational betrayal.”

The important part of that sentence is not the involvement in a romantic relationship, it’s the sense of betrayal that we need to focus on.

Basically, infidelity is characterized not by the action, but by your partner’s feelings of betrayal… by the meaning your partner places on the act.

This could mean that even if you are in an open relationship, or practice polyamory, or consensual non-monogamy, that your partner could feel betrayed if you cross a boundary, like not wearing a condom when you are with a different partner. 

This is why setting those boundaries in a relationship is important. If your partner doesn’t know that you think watching porn is cheating, then they have no idea that they are betraying you.

After the infidelity is exposed, counseling can help the betrayed partner better express those feelings of hurt and anger to their partner in a healthy way.

The role of therapy is not to shame the partner who strayed, but to help them understand how their actions affected their partner. 

It can help the unfaithful partner come to terms with the damage they have done to the relationship, and learn how to begin to repair that broken bond.

Therapy can also help the couple define those boundaries in a much more explicit manner so that both partners can be sure that they understand what’s expected of them, and how to honor their partner and relationship.

How Does Infidelity Damage Relationships?

“Pleasure of love lasts but a moment. Pain of love lasts a lifetime.” -Bette Davis

Infidelity in a relationship can be extremely damaging.

 In addition to obliterating the trust that a person needs to have in their partner that is so vital to a healthy relationship, infidelity can leave the partner who has been cheated on struggling with a host of feelings including: 

  • Hurt
  • Anger at the unfaithful partner for hurting you and damaging the relationship 
  • Fear that your partner has not ended the affair 
  • Anxiety about your marriage and if your partner will cheat again 
  • Shame that this happened to you
  • Lowered self-esteem  
  • Sadness that all of this happened at all

Not easy feelings to overcome even in the healthiest of relationships.

I’ve heard often from betrayed spouses that once they found out about the affair, it felt like they were in two marriages: the marriage you two had before the affair and the one they find themselves in now that the affair is out in the open.

Betrayed partners often talk about the many questions that ping around their brain in the moments when they least expect it.

Questions like:

“Where did things go wrong?

“Is there something wrong with me?”

“Does my partner still love me?”

“Should I stay?”

“How do we get past this?”

These are all difficult questions to not only answer, but to even wonder about the most important person and relationship in your life. 

So many betrayed partners report feeling “crazy” in the weeks and months after an infidelity is uncovered. 

People have reported wanting to strangle their partner one moment, and then wanting them as close as possible the next. 

Therapy can help you begin to make sense of all of those conflicting emotions. 

It can help you begin to let go of the anger and move towards forgiveness. 

With your therapist, you and your partner can begin to talk about the behaviors that the betrayed spouse will need in order to feel safe in your relationship again. 

Rebuilding Trust

“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.” – Maya Angelou

One of the most important aspects of your relationship that you will work on with your therapist is rebuilding trust.

After an infidelity, it can be difficult to trust your partner with little things, let alone big ones.

If the affair had been going on for a long period of time causing the unfaithful partner to lie frequently, rebuilding trust can feel like an insurmountable task.  

The betrayed partner can be overwhelmed with doubts about everything their partner has ever said to them about where they are and what they are doing. 

The betrayed partner may wonder if it was really traffic keeping their partner out late, or if they were talking to the other person again. 

In the beginning, it may seem like the betrayed partner will want to keep the unfaithful partner in their eyesight all of the time. 

This can be frustrating for the unfaithful person as they often feel that their partner is not giving them the chance to prove that they are where they say they are going to be, and doing what they said they were going to do. 

You may want to have your partner share all of their passwords and accounts. 

While it may make you feel better in the beginning, after a while, the betrayed partner begins to feel like the police of their partner, and then the resentments begin to build.

A therapist can help you with understanding all the ways trust has been damaged in your relationship, and how it can be fixed.

A therapist will help you build on the trust that still remains in your relationship, and talk about the behaviors and changes to behaviors that will make your relationship stronger, not ones that will make one partner the keeper of the other partner’s word.

One of the major things a couple will work on in therapy is communication. 

Even if communication was not a problem before the infidelity, that may have changed and you may need to learn new ways to talk to each other without the hurt and anger seeping into every conversation. 

Working with a therapist can teach you new ways to approach conversations and ask for what you want and need from your partner. 

Therapy can also be useful for gaining a deeper understanding of what led the unfaithful partner to cheat. Armed with this knowledge, the partner can craft a true apology, and provide their reasons for their actions so that rebuilding trust can begin.

Learning to Forgive

“I think the first step is to understand that forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim. It’s a gift you give yourself.” -TD Jakes

Learning to forgive is probably the most difficult aspect of moving past an affair that a couple will face. 

It’s hard to know where to even begin when the person who is supposed to love you the most, hurts you so deeply.

As human beings, our brain’s number 1 job is to protect us. Your brain wants nothing more than for you to survive and be happy and healthy.

Another factoid about the human brain is that it processes emotional pain and physical pain exactly the same. Pain is pain to your brain, whether it comes from a bullet or the mean words or cruel actions of someone you care about.

Since it’s your brain’s job to protect you, it doesn’t want you to feel pain, so it will try to do whatever it can to get away from pain. This is where the stress response system comes in.

We also call this fight or flight.

When your brain perceives that someone or something is dangerous, it does what it can to protect you from feeling pain again.

Your brain only has four ways to deal with things it perceives to be a threat: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

You can understand what these things might mean if, say, you were being mugged. You could fight back, run away, freeze in place, or try to please your mugger by handing over your money so you don’t get hurt. 

It’s a bit more difficult to try and understand how you do these things when the thing your brain is trying to protect you from is your partner who you love very much.

In these situations, fight can look like being sarcastic and angry with your partner. 

Flight can look like closing yourself off, and becoming distant. 

Freeze can look like the person who wants to leave the relationship, but can’t make the decision to stay or go.

Fawn can be pretending to forgive your partner so you can move past this and not hurt anymore. Fawn is most frequently seen in abusive relationships where the person is scared of being abused again.

None of these perfectly reasonable responses to pain will help the betrayed partner to forgive or help the relationship repair itself.

Working with a therapist can help you to reach genuine forgiveness.

What is genuine forgiveness, you ask?

According to Janis Abrams in her book How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not to, genuine forgiveness is “not a pardon granted unilaterally by the hurt party. It’s a shared venture, an exchange between two people bound together by an interpersonal violation.”

This means that forgiveness is not just an action that has to be performed by the betrayed spouse, it’s a dance that the couple does together.

It starts with the unfaithful partner working hard to earn that forgiveness, and the betrayed partner being willing to give it.

It’s just as important to a successful dance that the hurt party work hard to let go of their resentment and anger as it is for the cheater to be truly repentant and show it, not just say it.

A therapist can help the two of you go through the steps of this dance, and to help you when problems arise as you navigate through this tricky dance.

The hurt person may not even know where to start to begin the forgiveness process, and that is where a therapist can help guide you as a couple. 

Creating a New Future Together

“Let your hopes, not you hurts, shape your future” – Robert H. Schuller

The part that I love the most when a new couple comes to see me is when we all craft a vision of what their new relationship will be like. 

After you have found out that your partner has been unfaithful to you, it can be so difficult for the hurt person to see past the pain of the moment they are living in, let alone have the ability to think about the future.

The unfaithful spouse may be in a great hurry to move past it, and get back to normal.

It’s going to take some time for them both to realize that there is no going back, now is about creating a new relationship.

People are frequently surprised that after an infidelity, your marriage can be even stronger than it was before because not only have you addressed the things that lead one partner to be unfaithful, many times, we work on things that were going wrong in the relationship that the couple just swept under the rug.

In this new relationship, the hurt partner can feel comfortable with letting go of the pain, because their partner has done the hard of work of really understanding their pain. 

Oftentimes, when we have any kind of trauma, and make no mistake about it, infidelity is definitely a trauma, we become hypervigilant, and always on the lookout for things that might bring up the hurt (there’s your brain trying to protect you again by showing you things that might be related to the trauma so you can watch out for them and not be hurt).

However, this can quickly spiral out of control. I have heard of former clients who walked out of movies that had prom scenes because her then college sweetheart, who eventually became her husband, unfaithfulness was exposed at a winter formal dance. So any kind of formal dance became a trigger for her. 

After this was explored in therapy, she was able to let it go when her partner became the one who was hypervigilant about her not seeing anything that reminded her about dances, and checking in with her when she did. It went a long way towards helping her to defuse that trigger.

I hope I have helped you to see all the ways that therapy can help repair your relationship after an infidelity. It won’t be easy, but the joy of having a stronger, more healthy relationship that is meeting both parties’ needs is worth the sacrifice.

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