People call me all the time to ask me: “My husband/wife has been unfaithful. How can I stay in the relationship after such a betrayal? I can never trust my partner again.”
There is definitely a life after infidelity. According to Dr. Frank Pittman (with whom I worked closely for twenty eight years), “Men cheat when they don’t feel man enough.” He goes on to say in both Private Lies and Man Enough, that a man’s infidelity is between himself and his father.” How so, one might say. It is the fault of the marriage.
Frank Pittman is credited as the first professional to point out that infidelity is not the fault of the marriage. Rather, men get their sense of being good enough from their fathers. If the father does not anoint the son with his approval, the son may well travel through all of his life feeling deficient. In this case, he may use another woman, or women to make himself feel good enough. Of course, this is not a solution. It doesn’t have lasting effects. Many a man has married a woman who is stunningly beautiful but lacks the qualities to be a good wife and mother. In the end he pays dearly for his choices. She may wind up cheating on him in anger for his not living up to her ideals as a knight in shining armor or he may cheat when he begins to feel imperfect in her eyes.
There are many kinds of infidelity. Some are not premeditated. They are bolts from the blue for men who may be foolish and have not thought ahead of the consequences..
The precipitator for women is different. Women who cheat are angry–either with their partner or in their history with the opposite sex. The anger may go back to their father and may be learned from how HE treated women. In any case, as we women are emotionally connected more so than men, it is impossible for a woman not to think about what she is doing BEFORE she does it. That makes the infidelity intentional and not accidental. For this reason female infidelity is more difficult to remediate than male.
I receive many calls about treating infidelity. The first step is that the infidelity must stop. The marriage cannot go on successfully as long as the cheating continues. At least, the lying has to stop. If the unfaithful partner continues the relationship, he or she must at least be truthful when there is a meeting. It is the lying in the relationship that is crazy making. So the unfaithful partner must at least be truthful when being unfaithful.
If the cheating has stopped, the partner doing the cheating must truly come to realize the hurt that has been caused. This evolves with time. For men, it is often very difficult for them to acknowledge how much pain they have caused. However, it is this realization that enables the REAL heartfelt apology–multiple times–that is so integral to the healing process. The offended partner must really see the pain that the cheating partner experiences with the understanding of how much hurt has occurred. And, the partner who is the victim of such hurt, needs to internalize that the cheating is NOT about the marriage, but about whatever the male partner was going through. These are difficult understandings to reach. The victim has usually a hard time not seeing herself as the culprit.
Female infidelity is different. In female infidelity, the partner must come to terms with why she is angry–with men and or with him. Even though he has been hurt, he must change to deal with her anger. He isn’t “part of the problem” according to Jay Haley (one of the originators of the field of family therapy) but part of the solution.” Either way, in therapy about infidelity, the partner must change. This is a difficult prescription to make. In male infidelity, the partner must come to understand what HE has been going through. It is not about HER but about how deficient HE feels as a man.
Trust must be earned. In infidelity, the trust has been severely broken. Often, in my office, when the cheating partner is questioned, what follows is defensiveness. How come you don’t trust me?
I explain that the answer is obvious. To be trusted, one must be trustworthy. So I explain that if we feel someone is lying, the obvious thing to do is to verify what was said. We check up to see if the truth is out.
The best way that I know to build trust is to keep getting caught in the truth. I welcome anyone who wants to see if I am telling the truth to check up on me. To not want that to happen looks suspicious.
So in treating infidelity, I encourage the victim to do all the checking that is desired. I encourage the unfaithful partner to welcome it. This is the path out. Eventually, with enough genuine remorse, clearly demonstrated, and enough getting caught in the truth, trust can be rebuilt. Of course, this does not happen overnight. Trust is like a garden. It takes a long time to grow. It grows slowly. If it is checked daily, it appears that nothing is happening. However, if the parties start the process and go off to do other things, when they check back after some time has passed, and check again, those sprouts of trust can become big beautiful blooms.
Last, the partner who has been betrayed must come to understand the life experience of the unfaithful partner. This means that the unfaithful partner must be vulnerable enough to explain what has been going on for him OR for her and the hurt partner is called upon to both her and understand it. This also takes time to accomplish.
If there are no children in the marriage, couples can declare a “fender bender.” and exit the marriage. However, if there are children, the marriage must be repaired for the sake of not breaking the family of the children. Again, according to Frank Pittman, 98% of all marriages that end do so because of infidelity. Marriages that end this way end with a great deal of blaming and anger. This blame and anger damages children even MORE than a marriage that parted ways without so much anger. The children take sides and make life decisions about marriage based on what they see their parents do. The idea is not to live in misery, but to repair the damage so that the family can go one. That makes genuine remorse and total transparency key to moving on.