By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Infidelity is all too common and when it occurs it raises many questions. Should you stay? Can trust be rebuilt? Of all of the real-life stories of women interviewed for my research, Penny’s story best illustrates the searing pain of infidelity and how it can be toxic to all family members. Penny, in her late thirties, says with passion in her voice, “My dad is a musician and his pattern was to marry (three times) and be happy at first. Then he went out to play the guitar, and he didn’t come home for several weeks. As I said earlier, he wasn’t a family man and should never have gotten married.” As a young adult, Penny reenacted patterns from her past when she married Steven, who had several flings during their ten-year marriage. Penny was attracted to a partner who bore a strong resemblance to her father – who was emotionally unavailable and unfaithful to her mother.
In order to better understand infidelity and to find out if a marriage can be saved after adultery takes place, I decided to look to the experts. What I learned may surprise you. The truth is that while infidelity can be devastating to a marriage, some specialists believe that it is important to try to resolve the crisis and rebuild trust if possible. According to therapists Rona B. Subotnik, L.M.F.T and Gloria Harris, Ph.D., getting to the root of infidelity is crucial. In their popular book Surviving Infidelity they write, “Because extramarital sex still plays a role in the dissolution of many marriages, and because the divorce rate continues to be so high, it is important to know more about it.” Subotnik and Harris’s goal is to keep most marriages together – even after they’ve been crushed by the wounds of infidelity.
Surprisingly, there are many ways to assess the seriousness of the threat that infidelity has on your marriage. But first let’s look at some basic definitions of adultery, infidelity, and affairs. Adultery is either a legal or religious term defined as sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse. On the other hand, infidelity means unfaithfulness or disloyalty. Finally, an affair is defined as an illicit amorous relationship. In any case, our current culture tends to minimize or ignore the serious consequences of infidelity and to cover up the pain it causes.
The four types of affairs as described by Subotnik and Harris also include on-line affairs. They are: serial, flings, romantic, and long-term. At this point, you might wonder – what difference does it make? Don’t all affairs have a severe impact on the integrity of a marriage? Actually, serial affairs are not always serious in terms of the threat they pose to a marriage but they put a partner at great risk for exposure to AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. Serial affairs, which can be described as a series of one-night stands and/or a series of many affairs, indicate an attempt to avoid emotional intimacy. However, flings – which can be a one-night stand or can go on for months— don’t involve any emotional investment and are the least serious type of affair.
Romantic love affairs- think the movie “Casablanca”- and long-term affairs pose the greatest threat to a marriage. The romantic love affair involves a high degree of emotional investment and can be quite serious if it goes on for awhile. Just as the name implies, the long-term affair lasts for many years and poses the most threat to the integrity of the marriage because it involves a high level of emotional investment and can go on for decades.
How is it that a couple can rebuild trust after infidelity? Certainly the loss of the marriage you envisioned for yourself can cause intense rage, jealousy, and sadness. For the most part, if you survived infidelity you went through the stages of grief and loss including: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In many cases, coping with infidelity can be so painful that survivors can benefit from individual, couple, and group therapy. Being able to express your feelings in a safe environment can facilitate healing and reduce stress.
Examining your beliefs about love, marriage, and commitment are important as you try to rebuild trust with your partner after adultery takes place. It takes time to rebuild trust and it happens in degrees. Over time, an unfaithful partner may be able to restore trust and love in a marriage if they show trustworthiness through their words and actions.
If you have survived infidelity, you may decide that divorce is the only option. Even if you suspected that your partner was cheating, knowing for certain is intensely disturbing. In many cases, the decision to terminate a marriage is made by your partner. Regardless, divorce is typically a painful process for all involved. Knowing the type of affair your spouse is involved in can help you determine the seriousness of it but does not take away the pain associated with it. Nonetheless, assessing the degree of severity and the threats that it poses to your marriage, can help you to make a decision about continuing in the relationship.
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).
Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be ordered here.