Things We Don’t Talk About: Infidelity

This is part of a continuing series of “Things we don’t talk about,” also known as “Why people are in therapy” and “the elephant in the room.” Today, I want to talk about surviving infidelity in a relationship. The Institute for Family Studies has completed multiple surveys of cheating in intimate relationships and found that 20% of men and 13% of women have had sex with someone other than their spouse while married. (The research does not currently control for people who are in open relationships/engaged in consensual non-monogamy, which is a topic for another time.)

An important caveat: Infidelity is defined by the couple together.

It’s important to have these conversations before there is a problem. For some people, texting or flirting with others isn’t cheating. While for others, any close friendships or relationships that take the place of connecting with the partner is defined as cheating.

Infidelity is often the impetus to start couples therapy, but it’s rarely the first sign that something is wrong. Or, to put it another way: Infidelity is usually the symptom of a greater problem within the relationship. Perhaps surprisingly, 60% of married couples who have dealt with infidelity stay married.

Couples who stay together tend to follow these guidelines:

  • The extramarital relationship must end completely. (This usually means that you cannot “stay friends” with the person with whom you engaged in an affair.)
  • The timeline of trust and reconciliation is set by the “wronged” partner. The fantastic book, How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To, by Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD, provides guidance on how to accomplish this.
  • Both parties fully participate in couples therapy and individual therapy.
  • Both parties need to be able to critically examine their roles in the relationship, as well as the problems in the relationship.
  • Trust is earned back gradually, based on the timeline set by the wronged partner. In order to do this, the unfaithful partner must take their cues from the wronged partner. However, the wronged partner must also provide opportunities for their partner to demonstrate trustworthiness. Some couples do this by having an “open technology policy.” This means partners are able to go through one another’s phones, social media, and/or email at any time.
  • Grand gestures (whether it’s buying the wronged partner an expensive gift, or pulling a “Waiting to Exhale”) rarely result in positive reconciliation. While both may seem like good ideas at the time, financially recovering from either adds an additional burden in moving toward the relationship you want with your partner.

Couples who put in the hard work of recovering from infidelity often find that their marital relationship is even stronger than before. Healing takes time and is not linear, but it can be facilitated by a great couples therapist. When considering whether you want to repair your relationship, make sure you ask a potential therapist about their experience in working with couples who have experienced infidelity.