As a psychotherapist, I’ve worked for over three decades with couples. Inevitably, one thing that is likely to bring a couple (or a member of a couple) into treatment is infidelity. I want to share with you a few thoughts and perspectives on infidelity based on my extensive experience as a marriage therapist and sex-addiction specialist.
Infidelity is to some degree defined by the “eyes of the beholder (the offended).” One woman, I worked with called the divorce lawyer the very morning she caught her husband looking at pornography. On the other hand, I worked with another couple who had an “open marriage,” and the only time there was a problem was when the wife started to see one of the men for coffee.
Here are a few of the types of situations that might be experienced as “infidelity” by the offended party (please note: you can have blends of any of these situations):
1. Jealousy over “anybody or anything else but me”
This is the situation with the wife who caught her husband looking at porn or the husband who “goes crazy” with jealousy when his wife flirts with the waiter.
2. The “I never had sex with that woman” situation
Also known as the emotional affair. In this case, there is no physical or sexual contact but there’s a deep and abiding affection and reliance on another person.
3. The unrestrained alpha-male
These are (typically but not always) men who have a “need” for a harem. Because of their self-appointed sense of power, prestige, and entitlement, they have any number of women going “on the side.” Most of the time these do not become love affairs but, rather, supplies to satisfy his vast sexual appetite and his need to be desired. These men almost always have a narcissistic personality disorder.
4. The mid-life crisis infidelity
I’ve worked with several people (or their spouses) who got married early and never had a chance to “play the field” or “sow their wild oats” who, when they hit mid-life, want to go back and relive their early twenties again. The only problem is that they have a spouse and 3 children back home.
5. The sex addict
These are people who use sex and love like a drug. They use sex (porn, prostitutes, erotic massages, strip clubs, pick-ups) to mood alter. The brain becomes dependent on the relief it brings (to what is often a sad or depressed mind) and they become “addicted” to the behavior.
6. The full-fledged affair
This is when a person in the couple meets someone and they “fall in love” with that particular person. This is often the most difficult type of infidelity.
The most important thing that I can say (shout from a mountain top if possible) is this: Couples not only can survive, they can thrive, even after infidelity. However, there are a few things that are necessary for this to happen.
The offender has to stop
The members of the couple have to commit to a long, honest and transparent process. The offender is often ready to “move on” soon after he or she “repents.” They don’t realize that for the offended it will take months, years, or even decades to work through the pain and insecurity of betrayal and deception. It some ways the effect of the infidelity will be with them for the rest of their life.
The offender has to deal with resentment
The offender has to learn to take the punches from the hate and hurt of the offended without becoming defensive.
The offender has to feel true repentance
The offender will have to find and then communicate (often) deep and true remorse. This goes beyond the “I am sorry this hurt you” to a true sense of empathy for how this affected and affected their beloved.
The offended has to start trusting again
The offended will have to, at some time, let go of the fear, hate, and distrust to start to trust and open up again.
The offended has to acknowledge the relationship dynamic
The offended will have to at some time be open to their part in the relationship—not the infidelity itself—but to the relational dynamics that are necessary to have a better marriage then they had before. It takes one imperfect person to have an affair; it takes two humble imperfect people to have a relationship.
If the marriage was originally based on a good original match, a couple can—if they choose to do the work—rebuild an even better relationship. In my first book, I explain that, just as for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, life will sometimes bring a tornado (such as infidelity) into our lives. But if we can stay on the Yellow Brick Road, we can find an even better Kansas—in this case, a stronger marriage—on the other side.