We all have those moments that some call “suddenly’s”. Moments that forever change the path of our lives.
-Mona Shriver, from the book “Unfaithful — Rebuilding Trust After Infidelity
Do you ever wonder why people stay together through adversity? I’ll be honest, I’m often amazed and puzzled at the intricacies of relationships. When I look around and see the devastating effects of infidelity, abuse, neglect and even indifference in a marriage or in a pre-marital relationship, I can’t help but become overprotective of my own relationship with my husband. Marriage is not easy. I think anyone who is married or engaged to be married can attest to that. Like my dad once told me; “The wedding is the easy part, the marriage is the real beast!”
About 4 years ago, I was sponsored to attend a spiritual retreat up in the mountains of Dahlonega, GA. It was an interesting experience to say the least. There I met a good number of wonderful woman from all walks of life; professionals, homemakers, ministers, recovering addicts, new moms, among others. On the last day of the retreat, some of the ladies began to share about their personal lives and how the weekend retreat had helped in several areas were they struggled. I listen carefully and felt compassion for the stories I was hearing but there was one story that left me dumbfounded and confused.
One of the attendees began to share about an affair she had a couple of years ago. She talked about how she had struggled to feel worthy of her husband’s forgiveness even to that day. Here’s the deal, the affair had taken place a little more than two years ago and she had already been forgiven by her husband, and by her family and friends. She had even been restored to work as a leader at her church and her testimony was helping many others in situations similar to hers, yet she still struggled with the guilt of her indiscretion to the point of depression. I remember thinking to myself; “Why in the world do you stay?” I can’t imagine this marriage being a happy marriage if until that weekend she still had not been able to move on emotionally.
As I was loading my bags into the car, I caught a beautiful exchange between this lady and her husband. He had come to pick her up and the moment he saw her, he ran to her and they embraced for a long time. They cried and kissed like lovers reuniting after a long separation. It was a beautiful moment and even though I felt somewhat like the nosey neighbor for staring at their private exchange, I couldn’t help myself. I believe I was witnessing what graceful healing looks like.
Because I am not an expert but find this subject most fascinating, I have ask my good friend and professional marriage therapist, Kelli Willard, to help us out with some thoughts on the subject of infidelity from a professional point of view.
Beba: Why do you think the afflicted partner chooses to stay? And if we flip the coin, why do you think the afflicting partner chooses to stay as well?
K. Willard: The decision to remain married after infidelity is complex, on both sides of the equation. In my experience, the most common reason an afflicted partner states he or she desires to stay with the offending spouse is high level of commitment to their family unit, to God, or the marriage vow itself. Other reasons may be compassion for the spouse or a true desire for marital restoration and growth. Sometimes practical considerations take precedence, especially if the afflicted partner perceives an economic or social disadvantage to divorce. An entirely different set of reasons for staying may be a factor for the afflicted spouse if the marriage is particularly unhealthy: codependency, insecurity, repetition compulsion (the tendency to reenact patterns we observed in childhood), etc. The most common reason for an afflicting partner to stay is generally stated as a strong desire for forgiveness.
Beba: Would it be fair to say that when there is infidelity in a relationship, it is usually brought on by the one committing the infidelity alone?
K. Willard: The old saying “it takes two to tango” certainly applies here, although the intense pain of the discovery of an affair often blinds the afflicted party to his or her role in the marital dynamics that helped set the stage for the offense. Let me be perfectly clear, however, that the decision to commit adultery falls solely on the shoulder of the offending party. Nothing the afflicted party said or did directly caused the affair to occur, and this cannot be used as an excuse by the infidel to justify his or her behavior.
It is important to note that the relational dynamics leading up to the affair were created by both the husband and the wife and it is part of the healing process to identify these dynamics and change them. Common toxic dynamics that can be red flags for a potential affair include: high levels of criticism or resentment, conflict avoidance, lack of communication, lack of emotional and physical intimacy, low levels of commitment, low self esteem, and poor boundaries with members of the opposite sex (this includes Facebook, co-workers, etc.)
Beba: From your experience dealing with couples going through difficulties, what is the main reason people in a committed relationship (engagement, marriage) cheat?
K. Willard: This differs by gender. Women often cite lack of an emotional connection with their husband, and state their affair began after forming a special bond with a man who gives them something her husband cannot give: time spent in deep conversation, compliments, expensive gifts, etc. The fantasy of being “beautiful” to this partner can become intoxicating, pumping up low self-esteem and making her feel like a woman once again instead of an overburdened mom or wife. Less frequently, sexual addiction may be a factor.
Men often cite a lack of adventure, a high amount of perceived pressure, or an excessive amount of criticism in their marriage. Often for men the fantasy of the sexually available and always positive “other woman” is reinforced by pornography addiction. The fantasy of an affair lies in the allure of being (sexually) competent without true intimacy, thus reducing the risk of interpersonal failure. More frequently than for women, sexual addiction may be a factor.
These are by no means the only reasons, and roles can be reversed. Other less common reasons include having an affair for revenge or to sabotage a relationship due to fear of commitment or abandonment. Hyper-sexual behavior may also be symptomatic of mental illness, such as during the manic stage of bipolar disorder.
Beba: If a man or a woman had committed adultery, but the relationship has been broken and the other spouse is unaware of the infidelity, should the adulterer confess?
K. Willard: Although not revealing an affair to one’s spouse may be a fine short term solution, this type of secret is generally not sustainable and is likely to promote future dysfunction. Additionally, it is my professional opinion that in order for a married couple to attain true intimacy they should strive for authenticity — which includes maintaining a high level of personal and interpersonal integrity. To me, disclosure of an affair is a necessary component of this level of authenticity.
Beba: Is it possible to restore the marriage?
K. Willard: Yes! I have personally seen couples restored after infidelity. The road to recovery after an affair can be carefully navigated with the thoughtful collaboration of several key resources often readily at a couple’s disposal: pastors, counselors, friends, family, books, etc. Although the pain and shame of reaching out for help can seem overwhelming at first, there is certainly hope for a positive outcome. Please bear in mind that healing from an affair is cyclical and is likely to occur in overlapping stages (shock, grief, repair, growth) over a period of approximately 3 years. It is not uncommon for gains to be made only to have old fears resurface, requiring third-party support through the ups and downs of recovery.
Beba: Do you have any advice or tips for couples who are dealing with adultery and reconciliation?
K. Willard: First and foremost I would offer hope. Secondly, I would implore these couples to mobilize their resources. You do not have to process the shame and pain in isolation! There are competent counselors willing and able to help sort through the confusion. There are also many books on the subject. Here are some good ones:
1. A Celebration of Sex, by Dr. Douglas Rosenau (read the chapter on extramarital affairs)
2. Shattered Vows, by Debra Laaser
3. Torn Asunder: Recovering from an Extramarital Affair (there is a book and a workbook), by Dave Carder
Beba: Any closing remarks?
K. Willard: Marriages that eventually heal from acute instances of abuse, neglect, or other interpersonal wounds (ex: a one night stand, domestic violence, etc.) often present to my office quite quickly, when the wound is still fresh. The couple may or may not be on the verge of divorce, and sometimes have already separated in the name of emotional or physical safety. I applaud the courage it takes to seek counseling soon after tough problems surface. This proactive stance is a good sign that the couple is, 1) aware that change is necessary, 2) believes it can be attainable with help, and 3) is motivated to work towards growth. The most common reasons for seeking counseling at this stage include a deep commitment to their marriage vow, compassion for their spouse, and dedication to their children. I cannot state enough how greatly influential a third party’s wisdom can be at this point – counseling has the potential to become a lifeline of healing, both personally and inter-personally, as a collaborative treatment plan is formed to sort through deep hurts and meet specific marriage goals. These goals are sometimes difficult to articulate at first (due to initial feelings of shock, anger, or betrayal) but generally include something along the lines of, “we just want to be happy again.” Together we can work on regaining a foundation of trust and security, nurturing emotional and physical intimacy, improving conflict resolution and communication skills, stress management, and setting healthy boundaries.
It is unfortunate that marriages plagued by longstanding issues (ex: multiple affairs, active addictions to alcohol or pornography, etc.) tend to not seek counseling until one or both spouses reach a sort of breaking point. I generally see couples in my office for longstanding issues after many, many years of pain and suffering in which walls of resentment have been built. The decision to attend counseling cannot be called proactive at this point, but rather is “reactive” to the accumulation of stress. Clients in this stage often treat counseling as an ultimatum or “last ditch effort” to save their relationship. This type of couple is often motivated by either a nostalgic desire to return to earlier levels of happiness, or a more pragmatic desire to sort through whether or not staying together is “worth it.” These couples tend to be less proactive in several key areas, having favored the coping mechanisms of conflict avoidance and denial over the years versus communicating openly and mobilizing resources (ex: counseling, social support). The day to day stress of their marriage has often been held inside, resulting in depression and anxiety that tends to fuel cycles of codependency and/or toxic communication patterns.
An unhappy spouse is likely to stay in a cycle of negativity if, 1) it mirrors the experiences they had growing up in their own family, 2) they do not have an identity apart from their spouse, 3) self-esteem is low, 4) self-efficacy (the ability to see yourself as powerful) is low, and 6) economic reasons. Counseling is one of the only way to become aware of these dynamics begin to change them.
The good news is that there are counselors dedicated to helping you sort through all these dynamics! And the sooner the better — wouldn’t you rather be proactive than “reactive” in your life and your marriage?
It is never too late to begin a fresh start towards healing, no matter how hopeless the issues seem.
I thank my dear friend and professional Marriage Therapist, Kelli Willard for her contribution today and hope you will find this information helpful. If you or someone you know is struggling with the devastating effects of infidelity, remember; there is always someone you can talk to. You are not alone!
Kelli Willard can be contacted at:
Kelli Willard, M.A., LAPC, LAMFT
Building Intimate Marriages, Inc.