Therapist Michele Weiner-Davis, author of Divorce Busting and The Sex-Starved Marriage and founder of divorcebusting.com, has long counseled couples on how to overcome infidelity. Here, she discusses common responses to infidelity and how to get on track to a healthier relationship.
Q: What are some of the common reactions people have when they find out a partner has been unfaithful?
A: I don’t think enough people know the incredible devastation people feel with the discovery of infidelity. It is so disarming and disabling, and a lot of people actually lose their mind. They can’t eat, sleep, think or function. There’s something fundamentally crushing in finding out that your partner has been either emotionally or physically involved with another person. When someone’s going through it, they often think there’s something wrong with them because they can’t understand the intensity of the reaction they’re having. It’s important to get the message out that temporary insanity is the only sane reaction to the discovery of infidelity.
Q: What larger issues subsequently arise when you find out that your partner’s been unfaithful?
A: There are all sorts of issues. There’s a complete betrayal of the trust that’s been the foundation of the relationship. There are issues of self-esteem. Most people whose spouses stray wonder what’s wrong with them and why this happened in their relationship. There are also issues of whether you’ll be able to trust this person again and even stay in the relationship. What does it mean for their marriage and family? Initially, when people aren’t thinking too clearly, there’s often the tendency to protect oneself and pull away. And there’s anger and rage and disappointment and fear.
On the other side of things, there might be fear or anger based on how the infidelity had been discovered – like through snooping or private investigation. Very often, instead of wanting to face the issue, they tend to focus on how the information got there. There might be genuine remorse, and even real ambivalence because they might not be ready to give up the affair. Each situation’s different. Sometimes people are quite willing to give up the affair and other times they’re not.
Q: What role does self-blame play in a partner’s infidelity? Do people often feel ownership over their partner’s choices?
A: Sometimes that happens. The research tells us that affairs happen even in marriages that are considered satisfactory or happy, so it isn’t always the case that when there’s been infidelity there’s been major marital issues. Regardless of how it happened, now they’re in crisis because it happened. And I think crises in people’s lives often lead to opportunity because there’s an openness and willingness and readiness to look at what can be improved. Some betrayed spouses are very open right away to saying, you know what, I hate that this happened, but I can really understand why he turned to someone else because I’ve been so busy with the kids or I’ve been nagging or I haven’t been interested in sex, so I while I hate it and wish he’s considered other alternatives, I can see my part in this. And then there are other people who, while they might be in the same situation, really feel blamed when asked to look at what could be better in the marriage that might help affair-proof it in the future. I say, look, no one held a gun to his head or twisted his arm; ultimately the decision to have an affair was his and his alone. He gave himself permission to go outside the marriage. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t things happening in this marriage that made him feel unhappy and perhaps weakened his resolve. That’s his responsibility, but let’s look at what needs to change here so that this marriage is a safer, stronger place to be.
Q: What are some of the barriers to recovery from infidelity?
A: The biggest and most obvious is whether the person who’s having the affair is willing to give up the affair. It’s difficult to repair the marriage with an ongoing affair. But having said that, I do work with people who are at the moment unwilling to give up the affair, and I work with them to help them identify what’s missing in their relationship and what needs are being satisfied with the affair partner, and assign ways to have those same needs satisfied with their marital partners. I’ve had great success with not assigning ultimatums to people. Gradually, over time, I’ve had lots of success with people losing interest in their affair partner.
It’s always preferable for the affair partner to disappear, and for the person who’s been unfaithful to really recognize that contact with that person is too tempting. Changing jobs, firing people, moving locations – if any of those things are possible, it does make things easier.
The other part is when the unfaithful spouse thinks that the only way to get through this is to stop talking about it, to not rehash it and to keep moving forward. If the person who’s been betrayed needs to talk about what happened, the unfaithful partner needs to be willing to do that regardless of whether they feel that they’re rehashing or feel ashamed or feel frustrated.
The other thing that gets in the way is if either of the spouses thinks the road to recovery happens quickly or happens in a straight line. It takes a long, long time. Recovery doesn’t mean that you forget or condone; it simply means there is a time in the future when you think about what happened and it isn’t connected to intense pain and discomfort and instead people can begin to see that some good things have come out of it. I’ve helped thousands of couples go through this process, and the one thing I can say with great certainty is that is that it’s three steps forward and four steps back, then five steps forward and two steps back, and it goes on like that for a really long time. Many people get really frustrated and assume the marriage is doomed.
Q: So how do you start rebuilding?
A: I initially put the lion’s share of the work on the shoulders of the person who decided to stray. Often, the betrayed spouse will say that she feels better when he’s there because she has his presence. But as soon as he goes off to work or moves on with his day, she starts feeling incredibly insecure and has panic attacks or gets depressed. One of the things that’s been pretty consistent in my work with couples is to make sure that the person who has been unfaithful is willing to take full responsibility to keep in close contact with their partner – whether that means carrying a cell phone all of the time or laying out their schedule for the next few days, and really being where they say they’re going to be.
Another thing is that for the person who’s been betrayed, if their spouse comes home 15 minutes late from work, in those 15 minutes the world has been turned upside down. By the time the spouse walks through the door, there’s a barrage of questions – Where were you? Were you with her? Did you call her? – and what tends to happen, when accused, the response is defensiveness. And that’s the last thing that the betrayed partner really wants. So what I do is coach betrayed spouses and tell them how to try something that’s more likely to be met with a loving response.
Q: Are there any conditions that, if already in place, can help a relationship recover?
A: One, if there has been a friendship – that they like each other. One of the reasons affairs happen is because a couple is not spending enough time together and they’re really not prioritizing the relationship. So couples who have in place a way to connect and spend time together will have an easier time.
Two, if couples have fairly good communication skills or are willing to learn communication skills so they can deal with the tough emotions happening as they go through this. The willingness to talk this out is really important.
Three, if the betrayal was due to a void in the sexual relationship, that’s another really important piece that needs to be addressed. When couples get together there’s a long list of mutual decisions that have to be addressed – from where they’re going to live to whether to have kids – but I always say that conspicuously missing from the mix is what is their sexual relationship going to be like. It seems politically incorrect to think about sex as a couples decision as opposed to an individual’s decision. But that way of thinking really quickly reaches marital dead ends. What tends to happen in sex-starved marriages is that the person with the lowest sex drive controls the sexual relationship – not out of maliciousness, or often even consciously or intentionally, but when that person doesn’t want to have sex, sex doesn’t happen. The person who doesn’t want sex expects their partner not to complain about it and to be monogamous, which ultimately is an unfair and unworkable agreement.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Infidelity is by no means a marital deal breaker. People have said to me on numerous occasions that the infidelity was a blessing in disguise because they lived for so many years where they really weren’t connected. It wasn’t until this crisis that they really delved in and discovered what could be changed and improved so that now they’re actually feeling closer. Having said that, I don’t recommend it as a way of getting closer. There are many easier ways to do it.