Infidelity is more common than most people realize. In fact, it is estimated that roughly 50% of men and 40% of women today will have an extramarital affair during their marriage. Infidelity causes intense emotional pain, anger, disbelief, fear, guilt, and shame. But an affair doesn't have to mean the end of your marriage.
While not every relationship can or should recover from an affair, understanding how a relationship can be rebuilt after an affair is essential. Counseling is a key component to recovering from an affair.
Forms of Infidelity
Infidelity takes many forms. Some people have sequential affairs—a series of short affairs that can last for one night to a few months. These affairs involve very little emotional investment and may be rationalized as “harmless.”
Some affairs last longer and become more serious. These long-term affairs may be quite romantic and sexual. Sometimes they grow into more serious relationships and may last for years.
Other affairs are emotional affairs. Emotional affairs exclude physical intimacy and often these types of relationships are more devastating to a committed relationship than a “one night stand.”
Five common relationship mistakes that can lead to emotional infidelity:
1. Couples spend too much emotional energy on people outside their marriage: friends, siblings, parents, and even children. 2. Couples keep an emotional distance (fear of intimacy may exist) because they don't want to need their partners too much. 3. Couples don't consider how their past affects their current relationship. 4. Couples don't make time for the marriage. 5. Couples no longer focus on their partnership after children are born.
Why Affairs Happen
Infidelity happens for many reasons. Here are a few of the common explanations:
- An affair may be a response to a crisis such as the death of someone important, moving to a new city, a job change, or some other kind of life transition.
- Sometimes people become bored with their partners and seek sexual or emotional excitement with someone new. The new person seems to supply the excitement that has been missing.
- Stressful times in the family life cycle lead some to seek escape in an affair. This includes things like taking care of aging parents, raising teenagers, and becoming new parents.
- People sometimes look for outside relationships because their expectations of marriage have not been satisfied.
- Some people seek outside relationships when their partners are emotionally unavailable.
- Other people begin affairs because they seek more affection than their partner can provide.
- Factors exist in our society that lead many of us to expect a fantasy version of marriage that could never really exist. When marriage doesn’t live up to this expectation, some of us keep looking for it outside of marriage.
Signs of Infidelity
The following signs indicate that your partner may be unfaithful. None of the items by themselves mean that infidelity is about to happen, but they may be cause for concern if they are part of a larger pattern that is causing concern. All of the following may apply to either men or women.
- He has recently lost weight.
- She pays more attention to her clothing and appearance than she did in the past.
- He stops wearing his wedding ring.
- She keeps computer off limits.
- One number is repeated on the cell phone bill.
- She doesn’t answer her cell phone anymore.
- He gives vague answers about where he will be.
- She has sudden work obligations that keep her from attending family events.
- He has more business dinners than he used to.
- She often makes excuses to go out alone.
- He goes for more workouts at the gym.
- She seems emotionally distant or preoccupied.
- He seems less interested in family activities.
- She changes her sexual behavior, wanting either more or less.
- You have a gut feeling that something is wrong.
Common Reactions to Infidelity
People who are involved in relationships in which their partner has been unfaithful say they have a wide range of reactions. These are a few of the common ones:
- A physical reaction, such as feeling like you have been punched in the stomach.
- Denying that anything is wrong.
- Blaming yourself (I didn’t pay enough attention to her; I wasn’t sexy enough for him; I let myself get too fat, etc.).
- Blaming your partner (I can’t believe anything she says)
- Blaming the relationship (We were too young; we were wrong for each other; we had different values, etc.).
- Blaming the lover (It’s his entire fault; if it weren’t for him...); transferring anger from one’s spouse to one’s lover.
There are three stages couples go through while healing from an affair: 1. Stablizing and working through your feelings, 2. Deciding whether to recommit or quit, and 3. Rebuilding your relationship. Even though infidelity has a devastating impact on marriages, many do survive. Let’s look at what it takes for a relationship to recover.
If You Were Unfaithful
If you had the affair and want to save your marriage:
- Stop the affair, this includes any and all interaction and communication with the other person.
- Determine your shared goal. If you both decide on the goal of reconciliation, it is critical to understand that recovering the marriage will take time, energy and commitment.
- If your partner has discovered the affair, understand your partner’s need to ask questions and understand what happened.
- Spend plenty of time with your family.
- See a couple’s counselor.
- Act transparently. Expect to reassure your partner of your commitment to the marriage through words and actions.
- Listen carefully to your partner and accept his or her feelings and thoughts.
- Take responsibility for your choice to have an affair.
If Your Partner Was Unfaithful
If your partner had the affair and you want to save your marriage:
- Acknowledge your anger and express it productively.
- Be aware of distorted thoughts that may fuel your anger.
- Watch out for negative beliefs that may make it harder for you to heal your relationship.
- Find a way to explore and express your feelings, such as writing in a journal or working with a professional therapist.
- Explore the advantages and disadvantages of saving your marriage.
Finally, here are some practices you can use to protect your marriage and keep it from running head on into a divorce.
1. Pay attention to your partner. Be aware of his or her needs and do your best to meet them. 2. Think about how you behaved when you were trying to win your partner over. Do the same things now. 3. Enter into counseling. Look for opportunities to talk and listen. 4. Be thoughtful and romantic. Send cards, flowers, and gifts. 5. Avoid high-risk situations. Discuss these with your partner and ask him or her to do the same. 6. Be polite to your partner. Say nice things about your partner, in public and in private. 7. Spend regular private time together. 8. Greet your partner when he or she comes home. Show that you are glad to see your partner. Be energized and pleasant. 9. Recommit to your values. Make the decision to live in keeping with what you believe is right. 10. Accept that you are responsible for your own well being.
While recovering from the affair--give it time, allow each other time to heal and understand. Practice forgiveness, it isn’t likely to come quickly or easily...it usually is a lifelong process. Recommit to your future, what you are going through is emotionally devastating, often this is an opportunity to rebuild a stronger and healthier relationship.