“My husband is having an affair. What do I do? I feel like I could die. Everything has changed. I can’t go on, let alone go to work. How will it affect my kids? I feel paralyzed. What am I going to do?”
Affairs in marriage are extremely common. According to statistics, 45 or 55 percent of married women and 50 to 60 percent of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their relationship. An affair is one of the most difficult challenges a couple can face, and nothing has the potential to destroy a marriage faster than infidelity. An extreme symptom of a relationship that has been in trouble for some time, affairs do not happen out of the blue - and rarely happen because someone is a bad person. It's a powerful catalyst that can either end a relationship or take it to a greater level of intimacy.
What Constitutes Cheating?
There are different types of cheating, all of which damage the relationship. Cheating can be viewed as a spectrum of a variety of actions that don’t necessarily include sex, but can. That spectrum includes energetic, emotional, and sexual actions, all of which put a wedge between a couple because of time and energy spent with someone else. Simply put, the cheater is doing something he/she knows he/she is not supposed to be doing, but does it anyway.
Three Reasons Why Men and Women Cheat:
- Extreme unhappiness in a deteriorating relationship where something was lacking in the relationship (loneliness, not appreciated, little help with the kids) and the needs of the unhappy partner were not getting met (lack of companionship, sexual frustration, feeling unheard).
- Poor communication skills between the couple, which include the inability to express one’s unhappiness to the other and that something needed to change. So instead, the betrayer acted out by cheating.
- Or, if unhappiness was expressed to their partner, nothing changed in the relationship.
The reasons women cheat are not really that much different from why men cheat, though loneliness and feelings of abandonment drive women to cheat more than sexual issues (although sex is a part of it, too).
Why is Infidelity so Traumatizing?
Because the world can sometimes be a scary place, we count on our loved ones to be trustworthy and have our back. When trust is broken, it's as if we've been beaten up, and we really don't know who we can trust anymore...especially ourselves, because we are usually blindsided by infidelity. When the very foundation of our beliefs is put into question, we are traumatized.
Should You Stay or Go?
Some marriages not only survive, but they actually grow in the wake of an affair. How to survive an affair? With the help of a qualified therapist, couples who make it through are determined to look at themselves and not just to cast blame on their partner. They recognize that the affair arose as a symptom of long-standing problems between the two of them. They have a strong desire to make their relationship work and understand that the work will not be quick and easy. Deep down, they know they have a genuine love for one another. When couples don’t stay together, it has less to do with the particular circumstances of the affair than with the couple’s long-term history and their willingness and ability to explore it. Sometimes it seems the reservoir of resentment and hostility is just too overwhelming, and that so much damage has been done that there is little left to salvage.
When one partner cannot or will not do anything to change damaging behavior, then the only solution may be for the other partner to leave. To stay in a relationship in which one continues to be hurt reflects a belief that one deserves no better. It’s not a failure or a sign of weakness to leave a destructive relationship. Rather, it’s a sign of success and strength in oneself and heightened self-esteem.
Trust Your Gut and Take Action Quickly
If you’re suspicious of your partner and have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, check it out immediately. How? Start investigating or just ask. When it comes to infidelity, the betrayer has lost all rights to privacy. It’s most likely that your confrontation will be met with denial and a lot of minimizing of the situation or somehow shaming and blaming you. But DON’T back down from what you know to be true. Because this type of situation is extremely difficult to work out alone, a qualified therapist is essential to help the couple uncover the underlying issues that led to the betrayal, so that resolution can happen, with tools to deal effectively with the situation.
How to Avoid the Act of Cheating
NO relationship is immune from an affair. However, there is a very low likelihood that it would ever happen if the relationship is strong, the couple has good self-esteem and is mature, communication is open, there is respect, good impulse control, and high morals are present. If your relationship is lacking in any of these areas, start taking measures now by getting help BEFORE your relationship is affected by one of the most damaging acts that any relationship can suffer from. Remember, the sooner you catch it, the better chance for recovery. Every affair has two victims who have created unresolved issues. When the issues come out in the open, the couple has a chance to stop the victim cycle, and each person can begin to take responsibility for their own wounds.
There are more opportunities to stray because of the internet, Facebook, texting, etc. If a couple can't communicate with one another, now more than ever, it’s easier to look elsewhere for connection and intimacy.
Sharon is a licensed marriage family therapist in Santa Rosa, California and has written books on arguing and affairs in marriage.
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