Infidelity in marriage comes in varying forms. No two situations are the same, though many are similar. Many couples come to therapy to work through the infidelity and recover and reclaim their marriage. But for some, a person comes alone to figure things out, as they question if they should stay or leave.
Being married to a serial cheater
Susan, 51 has been married for over 20 years. She and her husband have three children together (17, 15, 11). She is a very religious person and came from a home where her parents divorced due to her father having multiple affairs. However, despite the numerous affairs, her mother didn’t want the marriage to end and continued to stay until her father left.
She didn’t grow up with much but what she did grow up with was a mother – who for her own religious reasons – never considered divorce. This was reinforced throughout her life.
Her mother spoke of staying with the husband regardless of what was happening – with the exception of physical abuse. They struggled after her parents divorced. It wasn’t a good time for her and her siblings.
Susan was heartbroken especially as she had to have visitation with her father and at the same time watch her mother suffer. From those life experiences, she decided that she wouldn’t do that to her children, should she marry and have kids – meaning she would stay in the marriage, regardless.
The irony is that she too is married to a serial cheater. But because she is a devout Christian and is not being physically abused, she will not leave the marriage.
Susan’s husband has had multiple affairs. He has not stopped. She would constantly look for information, any information, that would validate her gut feeling that something was off, that he was cheating. It was always on her mind. It consumed much of her day. Much of her energy.
She discovered several extra phones and would call the women. Confront them. Suffice to say, it was maddening for her. With each discovery, she couldn’t believe that this was her life (but it was!) She was financially taken care of. They had sex. She confronted her husband but to no avail.
Despite being caught, he wouldn’t confess. He started therapy. She attended with him once, but his therapy had a short shelf life. They all do.
Unless someone is willing to peel back the layers, be exposed, and confront their demons as to why they cheat, there is no hope.
And any hope someone has that their spouse will, at last, change, is unfortunately short-lived.
We all need a voice and a safe place
As a clinician this type of scenario, initially can be challenging, I will not lie. I think about how a person must feel about themselves when they choose to stay in a reckless marriage, wrought with constant lying, betrayal, and mistrust.
But I put the brakes on those thoughts immediately, as that felt biased, ‘judgy’, and unfair. That’s not who I am as a clinician.
I quickly remind myself that it’s critical to meet the person where they are and not where I think they should be. After all, it’s not my agenda, it’s theirs.
So, why did Susan come to therapy if she already knew she wasn’t going to leave the marriage?
For one, we all need a voice and a safe place. She couldn’t talk to her friends because she knew what they would say. She knew she would be judged.
She couldn’t bring herself to share her husband’s ongoing indiscretions with her mother because she really liked her son-in-law and didn’t want to expose him in a way and have to answer for her choices – even though her mother made the same one.
She simply felt trapped, stuck, and alone.
How therapy helped Susan
Susan knows that she has no plans on leaving her husband – despite him knowing she knows.
For her it’s about accepting the choice she has made and when things get bad (and they do) or she finds out about yet another affair, she reminds herself that she is choosing each day to stay in the marriage for her own reasons – religion and a stronger desire not to break up her family.
2. Limitations on looking
Susan had to learn how to walk away at times from a continuous desire to scan her environment and look for clues.
This was not an easy thing to do because even though she knew she wasn’t going to leave, this validated her gut feelings, so she felt less ‘crazy’ as she would say.
3. Returning to her faith
We used her faith as a strength during difficult times. This helped her stay focused and gave her inner peace. For Susan, that meant going to the church several times a week. It helped her feel grounded and safe, so she could remember why she is choosing to stay.
4. Outside hobbies
Because of a recent job loss, she had more time to figure things out for herself.
Instead of quickly returning to work (and because financially she doesn’t have to) she decided to take some time for herself, spend time with friends, and consider a hobby outside of the home and raising her children. This has provided a sense of freedom and instilled confidence in her.
When Susan finds out about yet another affair, she continues to confront her husband, but nothing really changes. And it will not. She knows this now. He continues to deny the affairs and will not take responsibility.
But for her, having someone to talk and vent to without being judged and coming up with a plan to maintain her sanity as she continues to stay in the marriage, has helped her emotionally and psychologically.
Meeting someone where they are and not where one believes they should be and helping them with more effective strategies, often provides the relief and solace that many people, like Susan, are seeking.