There is perhaps no greater threat to a marriage than infidelity. Years or even decades of hard-earned trust can be shattered when one partner, for any of a thousand reasons, violates the vow of sexual faithfulness. It's hard to understand how we can engage in such potentially destructive behaviors when the risks are as high as they are, and yet, vast numbers of us (some say the percentage of couples that have experienced some form of sexual infidelity is as high as 90%) are in marriages in which one partner or/and the other has had one or more affairs.
Yet, despite the odds, whatever they may actually be, as even the most pessimistic among us would have to admit, some marriages do survive affairs. In fact, of those that do, a significant number of individuals report that the quality of the relationship, is in fact greater than it was prior to the affair.
So how do those marriages that manage to survive affairs defy the odds? And how is it that they are able to actually deepen the level of intimacy and trust after such a violation? In interviewing couples for our book, Secrets of Great Marriages, a number of whom admitted to having to deal with sexual infidelity, we learned a lot about the healing process that promotes recovery from affairs and other forms of betrayal. Here are a few of the practices and insights that these couples shared with us that are valuable guidelines to couples who experience or have experienced betrayal or a violation of marital vows:
- Identify the roots of the breakdown. A willingness on both partners' parts to identify the underlying factors that may have contributed to the existence of conditions that gave rise to the affair makes a successful repair attempt much more likely. This doesn't mean that both partners acknowledge equal responsibility for any sexual misconduct that may have occurred, but simply that there is a willingness to recognize the factors that predisposed the behavior, an awareness of how those factors came into being, and an understanding of how such circumstances can be avoided in the future.
- Be prepared to hang in there longer than you think you should have to. Once trust is broken it can be repaired, but this process often takes longer and requires more patience than one or both partners are prepared for. You will probably have to hear the same feelings expressed a number of times in order to achieve some degree of completion. Telling your partner to "Just get over it" is probably the worst thing that you can say, no matter how many times you've heard him say, "I can't believe you did what you did. I don't know if I'll ever be able to trust you again."
- Move out of the "victim/perpetrator" consciousness. Identifying oneself as the victim of a partner's affair has the unfortunate effect of not only deepening resentment, but, perhaps more importantly, is disempowering to the identified "victim." Consequently he or she continues to feel a diminished capacity to effectively impact upon the conditions that may have contributed to the affair. Taking responsibility for one's actions does not condone the hurtful actions of another, but rather acknowledges each partner's part in the situation as well as their power to influence things in the future.
- Forgiveness is a process, not an event. Like grief, forgiveness has several stages that must be experienced in order for it to heal the tear in the fabric of the relationship. Even after forgiveness has been felt and expressed, feelings of resentment and anger can become activated and may arise unexpectedly as more subtle layers of pain are revealed. These feelings are sometimes, but not always, related to other previously experienced emotional wounds.
- "I'm sorry" is a good start, but it's not enough. Apologizing for a transgression not only expresses remorse and empathy towards one's partner, but acknowledges that one has acted improperly and is accepting responsibility for his actions. In order for an apology to be effective, several conditions must be met: It must be sincere, there must be an acknowledgment of the specific ways in which one's actions were harmful, there must be a willingness to receive the other person's feelings non-defensively, there must be an acknowledgment of the lessons learned from the experience, as well as a recognition of the needs that one was trying to meet in the process, and finally, an understanding of what actions will be taken in the future when the desire to fill similar needs again arises.
Pain is often the cost of learning some of life's most powerful and lasting lessons. While betrayal is unquestionably one of the most difficult and painful experiences a couple may go through, it is possible, in many cases to not only recover from it, but to come through the process with a more trusting, committed, and fulfilling partnership. Affairs can illuminate deficiencies in the marriage that may have needed attention for a long time or they may be a function of decisions that have been impulsively acted out without regard to future consequences. Whatever the case, the sooner the situation is acknowledged and addressed, the better the prognosis for recovery. Many couples report that the on-going concealment of an affair and the lies that accompanied it were even more damaging to the level of trust in the relationship than the affair itself.
The consequences of an affair may have more to do with how each partner responds to it than the affair itself. As many couples have discovered, even in the midst of the most painful circumstances, when there is a shared intention to heal, repair and take responsibility, what may have previously seemed impossible can become a reality.