Living Well: Life after Adultery
One of the biggest reasons people seek counseling is to help them let go and forgive past hurts and offenses caused by the loved ones in their life. I often see people who have gone through adultery in their marriage, and while they want to heal the relationship and move forward, they find it hard to forgive their partner for going outside of the relationship.
The anger, betrayal, hurt, and confusion take over, and while their partner may be remorseful and ready to heal the relationship, the person who was cheated on can’t let the offense go.
The fact is, when someone cheats in the relationship it has very little to do with their partner and everything to do with their character. It takes courage and vulnerability to let your partner know that you are no longer invested in the relationship. To face this fact can seem overwhelming and terrifying, and most people seek an escape through a fling or affair rather than confront the root of the problem.
Cheating is not the root of the problem, rather it is a symptom of a bigger problem that speaks to the disconnect in the relationship, and more importantly, the disconnect to yourself and your conviction.
The only way you can truly heal and move forward is to recognize that the crisis taking place is a crisis in character, not the relationship.
I hear the phrase “I hate confrontation” often in my work. Many people who look outside the relationship have massive difficulty confronting problems in their life. Rarely is this difficulty limited to relationships, but it also seeps over into other areas of their life such as disappointment about their career, stress over finances, or deep hurts rooted in a dysfunctional childhood.
Escape can come in many forms such as alcohol, drugs, porn, Facebook, or another relationship. All of these things provide a numbing and escape from facing our problems. This escape provides us relief from the nagging feeling that something is very wrong in our lives. Rather than confront the problem, people seek ways to escape and numb the hurt. Adultery is one of the most common ways people seek to avoid the problems in their life.
Many people who have been the victim of adultery blame themselves for the situation. “I should have listened more, I knew we were disconnected, I didn’t try hard enough.”
While all of these things may be true, you cannot be responsible for the actions of another person. You can only own your actions and your contribution to the disconnect of the relationship. When someone goes outside the relationship, that is their choice and action — do not make the mistake of blending the two together. This will lead only to self-loathing and confusion. Each party in the relationship must own their actions separately without blurring the act of adultery as equal blame.
It is possible to move beyond adultery, but only when both parties are willing to take the steps necessary to heal the relationship and change the dysfunctional patterns that led to the demise of the relationship.
The first step is honesty. You have to search your heart and spirit and ask yourself if you want the relationship to work. If you are certain you want out, have the courage to honor that certainty with yourself and your partner. I see way too many couples who panic after an affair, and both immediately enter a honeymoon phase to make things work. This action is almost always based out of fear, not love. Decisions made from the basis of fear are always poor decisions. Have the courage to be honest with your partner about where you stand in committing to make things work. You hurt your spouse much more by pretending to make things work than if you let them know you cannot continue the relationship. You also hold your spouse back from finding a partner who loves them and wants to share a committed partnership. When people say, “I don’t want to hurt my spouse by leaving,” what they really mean is, “I’m afraid to be honest with myself and my spouse.”
This fear of confrontation leads to more hurt and great pain for you and your family. Before you make any decisions about your relationship, be honest about where your heart is. Even if you feel confused and are not sure if you can make it work, be honest about that confusion and take the space you need to be certain about what you want. Once you are clear about where you stand, make a plan. Many couples go through the crisis of adultery, enter a honeymoon period to make things work, and go back to the normal routine. This is a recipe for disaster. The only way you can get through this process is to work with a trained professional to help you both deal with your feelings and help you get to higher ground. Making promises that you will never hurt your partner again are unrealistic and immature. Take a step back and formulate a specific plan of how you will move through the healing process.
It is possible to heal and move forward, but only when both partners are equally invested in continuing the relationship.
I often see couples who decide to stay together for the sake of the children. The fact is your children will be screwed up if you stay and screwed up if you leave. Take the path that makes you the best person you can be. Being miserable in a marriage and staying for your children only models dysfunction, anger, and misery. Even if you are “faking it,” children intuitively know what the state of the marriage is.
You are not helping your kids by modeling disrespect and a lack of warmth, love, and affection in your relationship.
I have worked with many couples who have survived adultery. The model for their success is the same in each success story. The person who was cheated on refused to take responsibility for the act itself. They admitted their fault in the relationship but did not blame themselves for their spouse’s actions. The spouse who cheated admitted wrongdoing, remorse, and clarity in wanting to move forward and heal the relationship. Both chose to forgive and made a pact to move forward without dwelling on the past hurts and grievances.
I have worked with couples who fell in love again and moved forward stronger than they ever were. It is possible.
I also have worked with couples who sought help after adultery and were unable to reconcile. This is usually because one partner is certain they don’t want to continue the relationship and fail to be honest about this decision.
You can’t help two people move forward when they are not on the same page. Do not make the mistake of forcing things to work if they are beyond repair. Make a mutual decision that you are not on the same page and make a plan for an amicable split. No matter what you decide to do, know that we are all worthy of love, acceptance, honesty, and commitment. Choose the path that will honor and value this basic human need. Know that you are resilient and capable of forgiveness and healing. Recognize that you are stronger and more courageous than you know. Even on your darkest day, the sun rises every single morning, providing us with a chance to live each day anew.