We’ve all heard (or lived) some variation of this experience: The phone rings. It’s my friend, Cynthia. Cynthia of “the perfect couple with the perfect marriage.” She and her husband hold hands in public. They show up together at all the kids’ soccer games. They’re clearly in love.
She’s crying. A frantic tone scrambles her words. Her usual, cheery SuperMom voice is gone. She mentions Larry, her husband. Her hysteria makes me afraid he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Then I hear the words that send chills down everyone’s spine: “He cheated on me.”
This shockwave is followed by heavy sobbing. I fear she might collapse.
You may have lived some variation of this scene in your lifetime, either as the victim of betrayal, or as the betrayer. If so, you’re a member of a very large club.
We’ve heard about the pain of infidelity from friends, family members, and acquaintances. Our children’s classrooms are riddled with broken marriages. Affairs are front-page news in women’s magazines, celebrity pages, and on TV dramas.
Your first experience of this trauma may have been with a lover in high school or college. Youthful dalliances are often chocked up to innocence or ignorance. When it happens in adult couples “who should know better,” it is considered socially unacceptable and morally wrong. Yet it happens in many relationships.
When a covert affair is discovered, and regardless of who initiated the act, long-standing trust is shattered. Feelings of anguish and upheaval take over, and the impact deeply affects many people.
How is it that some couples survive this shattering discovery, and others fall headlong into the downward spiral toward divorce, and the dissolution of a once- loving relationship?
Betrayal is humiliating to endure, and it threatens the entire family’s stability – especially for the children, who suffer the most.
As relationship counselors, we have studied – and lived – the impacts of infidelity and betrayal. We have experienced its suffering, and recognized that healing is possible when it’s used as an opportunity for deep self-awakening and transformation.
Can the complex feelings of despair and humiliation be ended? Can love be restored? Can infidelity be healed?
The answer is: “Possibly.” The outcome is dependent on many factors, with the most important being the approach that each partner takes to the process of getting through, and over, the experience.
Healing From Betrayal
Every individual has his or her own moral code which defines and judges infidelity. Most of it is based on the religious and moral education we received in childhood. It can also be based on the person’s previous experiences and their childhood wounds.
If one or both partners have moral beliefs that are fixed and resolute, there is little chance for restoring the relationship. What often drives sexual transgressions are childhood wounds and patterns. It is difficult to heal when the act of infidelity (which is hurtful) is also judged as evil or irreconcilable. It takes courage to consider the possibility that a break in trust is actually a cry for a hidden need for help – often driven by subconscious patterns to be revealed. It is possible to use the opportunity as a time for each partner to examine and question their core needs, values, and commitments. This provides an opportunity to mend what has been torn open.
Trust takes a long time to build, and it is easily broken. Repairing trust requires hard work and dedication. An affair carries the possibility of strengthening and deepening a marriage. It doesn’t sound likely, but consider nature’s examples: A bone that has healed is stronger than it was prior to the break. Scar tissue around an injury is tougher than the original. What if we could replicate the body’s healing wisdom?
An affair is often the result of pressures that have been built up over time. Hidden or unexpressed disappointments and resentments act like a pressure cooker. If the heat isn’t released slowly, it can explode. An affair can be a slow release – or a messy explosion.
How common is cheating? In an excellent survey of the literature, John Grohol, Psy.D., summarized his findings: “Not nearly as common as you would be led to believe.” Over the course of married, heterosexual relationships in the U.S., extramarital sex occurs in less than 25% of committed relationships (less than 6% in any year). He identifies many risk factors, including: significant, ongoing unresolved problems in the marriage; a significant difference in sex drive between partners; great differences in personality; and early childhood sexual abuse. In a 2008 study of infidelity in married couples in Family Process Journal, Elizabeth Allen, et al identified these factors that had a strong influence on affairs by both men and women: sexual dissatisfaction, invalidation by their spouse, low positive communication, and high levels of negative communication.
Regardless of the reason, infidelity can tarnish or permanently erode the sanctity of the relationship.
What’s required for true reconciliation and healing is a safe environment for both parties, and an objective intermediary or counselor who can act as a guide through the storm of emotions and thoughts that arise from the break in trust. If both partners are willing to commit to honest communication, and confront their co-created history, an opportunity can open to establish new criteria for mutual trust and love to unfold.
Where can you start? Both partners can begin to consider responsibility for their role in the estrangement that led up to the affair. It may include the uncomfortable realization that one or both partners have histories of choosing partners that can’t commit, or who stray, or stay silent when they should be communicating. Another place for self-examination is lessons learned from your parent’s behavior regarding their expressions of love, communication, and fidelity.
What the Research Shows
During the past two decades, research on the neuroscience of attachment has offered a fresh perspective on what drives lovers to betray each other, and whether a relationship can survive the trauma of an affair. To repair and restore the bond, both partners must make a commitment to create a state of secure attachment.
Infants who bond to their caring, attentive mother know that their needs will be cared for. An adult has made their safety and care the highest priority. This allows the infant to relax, learn, and grow. Children who have securely bonded with one or both parents can grow into an adult who can bond securely with their romantic partner.
We never outgrow this need to feel safe and secure in our relationships. We are neurologically designed to be deeply connected to someone we trust. We all want our needs cared for, and feelings heard, by someone who makes us a priority.
If an infant’s mother is absent, busy, or insecure, the baby can’t form a secure bond with her. This makes the child anxious, and creates insecure attachment. Our early childhood attachment pattern affects our adult relationships, so we use the term LoveStyles to describe these patterns. How you relate to your partner is, in large part, a result of your unique LoveStyle.
Couples are subject to many forces at once: upsets, dissatisfaction, attractions to others, and a broad range of temptations. Unless there is a mutual commitment to create a secure bond with each other, and the ability to be vulnerable and truthful when feeling disconnected, there is a higher likelihood of temptation winning out.
The basis of a sustainable, happy relationship is to intentionally co-create an enduring bond based on mutual security and trust. This takes productive communication and a strong commitment by both partners – far beyond the marriage expectations we grow up with.
Our free, 5-minute quiz, the LoveStyle Profile, is an excellent way to learn about your unique attachment style. You’ll receive a customized ten-page report to help you understand the dynamics of your LoveStyle within your relationship. Visit www.ConfusedAboutLove.com, and click on the LoveStyle Profile tab. We recommend that you ask your partner (or potential partner) to take it, as well.
Betray-Proof Your Relationship
The thought of infidelity threatens us. The act can destroy us. What can a couple do to betray-proof their marriage or relationship?
Most people assume that their partner shares their beliefs about commitment and fidelity. The vast majority of couples have never discussed it openly, because the topic itself is so threatening. The more conscious planning you do, the less havoc you suffer. It’s similar to recognizing that a disaster might happen, and purchasing an earthquake preparedness kit as insurance.
We recommend to our clients that they spend a couple of hours discussing the difficult topic of infidelity. Doing so adds a layer of protection to the security of the relationship. Ask each other these difficult questions, and hold each other in loving compassion while you do so (even if you get triggered by their answers):
- What will we each do when we feel dissatisfied in our relationship?
- What will we each do when we feel an attraction to another person?
- What specific behaviors are okay to engage in with another person of the opposite sex? Being alone with them? Touching? Having a drink? Feeling turned on?
- What is the specific expectation you each have about the use of pornography, romance literature, and fantasies? Is it okay to think about another person if you don’t act on it?
- What truths will you tell each other, and what truths will you withhold to protect the other’s feelings? Will you feel resentment later if you weren’t told about something because your partner wanted to protect your feelings?
- How can you ensure that your partner feels safe and secure during “dangerous” situations, such as parties, meetings with attractive colleagues, traveling on business trips, etc.?
- What are the specific rules you both agree to abide by?
Write your answers into a “Commitment Love Agreement” that you can refer to and expand over time. You may find obvious differences in values, beliefs, and perspectives when you engage in this uncomfortable conversation. If you find that the topic is too charged, or you can’t navigate the difficult terrain by yourselves, seek professional help from a marriage counselor. If you are willing to do the hard work, and clarify your mutual agreements, you will help betray-proof your relationship.
Every relationship gets tested for fidelity. Some couples – those with the Secure LoveStyle – are more apt to pass the test with hardly a disturbance in the field. Couples who have an Insecure LoveStyle are more likely to be vulnerable to temptation (it may just be fantasies of straying, it does not mean they will act it out). Once trust is broken, it CAN be restored, but only if both partners re-focus their efforts on creating safe and secure conditions for each other. When you commit to the Secure Lovestyle Practices, you’re much more likely to avoid the heartache of betrayal.
The first step is to take our free, 5-minute quiz, the LoveStyle Profile. You’ll receive a customized ten-page report to help you understand the dynamics of your LoveStyle within your relationship. Visit www.ConfusedAboutLove.com, and click on the LoveStyle Profile tab.
[First published on YourTango.com: http://www.yourtango.com/experts/carista-luminare-ph-d-lion-goodman/can-infidelity-be-healed]