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Weinergate and the Issue of Infidelity in a New Marriage

06/07/2011 02:45 pm ET | Updated Aug 07, 2011

In July of 2010, Congressman Anthony Weiner married Huma Abedin, close friend and aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In May of 2011, Weiner accidentally tweeted a picture of his crotch--rather than sending it privately to a woman as a direct message--sparking Weinergate, a scandal that Weiner finally came clean about on Monday.

Yes, he stated, that was his crotch and yes, he did intend to send it to a woman. In fact, he admitted to carrying on flirtatious online relationships with six women over the last three years. He stated that he'd never met any of these women in person and that his wife knew about his habits before they wed last year, but she didn't know they were still happening. And yes, she was extremely upset with him.

Embarrassing shenanigans and the sad pattern of political marriages aside, Weinergate left us wondering: what's a newlywed couple to do when cheating occurs before you've even finished writing thank you cards, and why does it happen in the first place?

Conventional knowledge would suggest that newlyweds should be as enamored with each other as they're ever going to be, making cheating much less likely, but this is not necessarily the case. The justifications are plentiful. Sometimes new spouses don't fully process the commitment they've made until after the deal is done, and then they panic. I once worked with a couple in which the husband confessed that he cheated three months into marriage because he wanted to know now, before kids and mortgages came along, if he really wanted to be with only his wife. In some cases, newlyweds want so badly for things to be perfect that they ignore warning signs, both in themselves and each other. Some couples cohabitate for years before deciding to get married, so by the time wedding bells ring, that shiny new feeling that keeps couples happy together may have left long ago. None of these reasons, by the way, justify newlywed cheating, and none of these necessarily apply to Anthony Weiner, as he was e-flirting well before his wedding day. If you've experienced cheating in a new marriage, the real work is not obsessively combing through all the details of what happened, but rather figuring out if your relationship is worth saving.

Cheating is very rarely about the actual act of being with another person. Just as alcoholism is a bandaid that masks an underlying emotional issue in an individual, cheating is almost always a symptom of something amiss within a relationship. People hate when I say this because they believe it makes the cheatee responsible for the cheater's behavior, and this is absolutely not the case. It is always a cheater's responsibility to catch him/herself before acting on any urges and making changes, but once cheating has occurred, it's up to both parties to figure out that underlying issue and work on it together.

The most important step after infidelity is revealed is for both parties to take an honest inventory of what they want, especially in a new marriage, where there may not be a lot of history to color your emotions. The person who cheated may just desperately want forgiveness, but have you thought about why? Something in you or in your relationship led you to seek comfort outside of the marriage--is marriage what you want? If so, are you willing to walk the long slow road of rebuilding trust? Because if you've cheated and you insist that your partner should just drop it because you're never going to do it again, I swear, you may need to walk away. You may be embarrassed about your behavior, but part of forgiveness is owning up to your behavior until it no longer hurts you to talk about it.

The person who was cheated on has just as important of a role, because he/she has to look past the anger, the betrayal, and the hurt to decide if loving you easily is ever possible again. In short, if forgiveness is possible. Can you see a day where the two of you are back to feeling comfortable and silly around each other? If you make a decision to forgive (and by the way, forgiveness is a decision you make regardless of the other person's actions) then you have to allow your spouse to rebuild trust with you.

I worked with very troubled teenagers for a few years, and as their therapy at the facility progressed, we talked constantly about how much trust they'd earned. Instead of being an ethereal, lofty concept, trust was broken down into behaviors like "can be left alone for 15 minutes without running away", or "consistently does chores without being nagged." I liked that this facility had come up with an actual system of measuring trust, and I think that marriages could use that too. This is best done with the help of a good therapist, but if infidelity has occurred in your marriage, the spouse who was betrayed needs to come up with concrete behaviors that will indicate trustworthiness. Not locking your cell phone; being communicative when you're feeling angry and unloved; talking about attractions to other people as to not scandalize them; putting effort into surprising your spouse--these are just a few examples of behaviors that people in healthy relationships are generally comfortable with.

Once these behaviors are laid out, it's the responsibility of the cheater to perform these behaviors--even if they're not spontaneous, they are done to get comfortable with a changing relationship dynamic, and to show your spouse you are willing to work. It's the responsibility of the cheatee to accept these behaviors and allow your spouse to slowly and carefully rebuild trust with you. Give yourself time and keep your eyes on the goal of feeling comfortable with your spouse again. It should be a slow road, and it will be painful, but if you keep your communication open and your heart set on smart, self-respecting forgiveness, your and your spouse can make it through infidelity and come out of it a stronger unit.

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