Unfaithful behavior in an intimate relationship can take MANY forms. Typically, we think of “cheating” as sex outside the relationship. But what about an emotional relationship, prolonged emotional involvement with another, flirtations with one or several others, or merely joining a dating/hookup website? Might these behaviors also be considered outside the limits of an exclusive relationship? The wake of the Ashley Madison scandal has left many people hurt, where sexual affairs may or may not have occurred outside committed relationships. Unfaithful behavior can be considered a much wider range of actions than sex, and it’s important not to limit our definition of unfaithfulness when it’s so much more than sex that damages the relationship. This post examines some of the questions you may be asking yourself after you or your partner has acted unfaithfully, and explores some of the impacts and hopes subsequent to unfaithful behavior. For those interested in further reading/resources, see below for references I’ve found useful in my work on this topic.
“Affairs” are often stigmatized, reflected in the language used to describe them: cheating, sleeping around, slutting, philandering. This kind of language can compromise constructive reflection on what engendered the unfaithful behavior. I prefer to use the terms I first read in Abrahms-Spring’s book (After the Affair): “Unfaithful Partner” and “Hurt Partner.” These terms help describe how the agreement couples entered into has been compromised, and the suffering experienced by the betrayed partner. This isn’t to say, however, that unfaithful partners don’t hurt too, as they often do, or that betrayed partners don’t have responsibility for dynamics in the relationship from which unfaithful behaviors emerged. However, I mean to emphasize responsibility of the unfaithful partner for choosing to act outside the relationship.
The impact of affairs is widely varied, for both unfaithful and hurt partners. However, a few common themes exist. For instance, the kind of threat that unfaithful behavior represents to an intimate relationship usually results in broken trust. This may be the case both for unfaithful partners (trusting themselves, or trusting that their partner is trying to open up to them again), and hurt partners. Common painful aspects of an affair for the hurt partner include the secrecy and betrayal by their partner, and/or the embarrassment or mistrust of themselves for having missed the signs. All these necessitate the rebuilding of trust, an investment couples must choose whether or not to commit to.
I often see couples struggling to move past an affair, even once they’ve chosen to commit to the journey. Some unfaithful partners expect the other to “get over it” much sooner than the hurt partner can. Talking about hurt feelings may feel like having your nose rubbed into the mistake, or as if it’s being used as a power card. However, the decision to go outside the intimate relationship can’t be taken lightly. The unfaithful partner likely has some personal qualms with their decision. Having stepped over their own boundaries, feelings of confusion, bewilderment, shame, and remorse may only be scratching the surface. No wonder it’s easier left untouched. The hurt partner may want to move past their hurt, but without examining it, they may not be able to. They may also find other feelings blocking their ability to open themselves back up to their partner. Being able to see behavior changes from the unfaithful partner, recognizing their remorse, and understanding the role they themselves play in establishing relationship security, may all be part of the journey.
Healing happens both internally (e.g., resolving hurt, opening to trust again, feeling respectful and respected again), and interpersonally, between the two of you (e.g., demonstrating trust, communicating affirmations, showing love, rebuilding security in your bond). Facing the mistake, talking and building shared understanding and meaning out of the circumstances is a way forward. Sometimes to be heard, to feel understood and validated in the experience (even of pain), can be healing. The experience of respect from an intimate other can affirm the security once held in the relationship. These results can only result from conversations, spread over time, which couples can often find daunting. Nevertheless, the conversations themselves represent a commitment to each other that fundamentally combats the circumstances of unfaithfulness.
Confronting the aftermath of unfaithful behaviors in a relationship can be an overwhelming feat. We may just want to put it behind us and pretend it never happened, for shame and embarrassment, or anger, or feelings of failure. But recovering the relationship is not impossible. If you and your partner have chosen to rebuild your relationship after unfaithfulness, keep the lines of communication open. Read recovery material together. Schedule time together, both for challenging conversations as well as time to play together. Face the problem and turn towards one another.
Abrahms-Spring (2014). After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner has Been Unfaithful (2nd ed.). New York: William Morrow.
Reading for building strength in your relationship:
Chapman (1995). The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Chicago: Northfield.
J.M. Gottman & N. Silver (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.
Johnson (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Petras Gagilas (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gagilas/with/3317010299/)