By: Cristina Trette
When looking at relationships, I view struggle as part of the relational process that can lead to immense growth. Staying together, and working through the hard times when you really want to leave, is part of what can make a beautiful and lasting love.
As a general philosophy, this is an optimistic view, and one that holds both partners in a positive light regardless of what difficulties they are facing. It also contains three important premises:
Despite my optimism, there are deal breakers. In some situations, leaving the relationship will be the healthiest choice a person can make. I would not suggest those who are experiencing physical and emotional abuse, for example, to stay for the sake of love and growth. If you are in this situation, seek professional help immediately.
Other situations, however, are not as black and white. Those who have experienced infidelity, will likely grapple in deciding whether to stay or go.
Infidelity is a complex subject. And the decision about whether or not to stay in a marriage is even more complex. When considering vows, children, finances, extended family, religion, community involvement, social status and all the other factors involved in a decision like this, we can quickly see why this is a decision that can only be made by those going through it.
People who have been cheated on will say they feel a combination of hurt, anger, betrayal, and jealousy. The intensity can range from being moderately painful to becoming full blown despair, rage, and grief. Some have symptoms that we usually see in individuals suffering with depression or trauma. The latter is more likely to be true if the one being cheated on has a history of being cheated on, or had a parent stray from the marriage.
Infidelity chips away at, or breaks apart entirely, the foundation of commitment, trust, respect, and life long partnership. It tests the ability to feel safe and secure within self and the relationship.
The circumstances surrounding the infidelity matter. A partner caught with no intention of ending the affair is an entirely different situation than a partner ending the affair and wanting to work hard to save the marriage. A single one night stand, that is an isolated incident, is likely to land differently than affairs that lasted months or years. Other details are important too. Multiple hidden affairs tend to be devastating to the relationship. And if the stepping out spouse still has contact with his/her lover, repair will be excruciatingly difficult (if not impossible).
Healing after infidelity is a slow and challenging process best done with the guidance of a couple therapist who specializes in couple therapy.
Yet there is hope.
As painful as it is, infidelity can draw both partners into a space that begs them to dive deep into the discovery of what they both need and want, as individuals and as partners.
As easy as it is to point the finger and blame at the person who had the affair, it will be important to explore,
What led the person to step out?
Boredom? Sexual desire? Lack of self-discipline? Low moral compass?
Perhaps there are all sorts of reasons why people have affairs. But, I am going to focus on one possible reason:
Bonding and connection are missing from from the relationship.
We are wired to partner up and create a secure bond with another person. The bond itself becomes a safe haven and a foundation from which to venture through life. Many have never learned how to create a secure bond in their relationship. They long for it, but fumble in their attempts to get it.
We need connection as much as we need food, water, and shelter. But connection can easily be trumped by stressful careers, financial responsibilities, multiple children, demanding schedules, and all the activities and aspects of modern family life.
Years can go by in a marriage without much laughter, touch, attention, presence, eye contact, deep conversation, vulnerable expression, intimacy, or sex. These moves tend to happen with frequency in the beginning of a relationship but sometimes fade away.
If the need for connection is not met within the love relationship, or in another healthy way that respects the relationship, many find connection through food, alcohol, video games, porn, or masturbation.
For others, connection happens through an affair.
Am I excusing infidelity?
Personal responsibility, ideally, will guide one to take action and do what it takes to get his or her needs met in a way that is healthy and honoring of their relationship. Yet, I know this is not as easy as it sounds. All sorts of people are yearning for more connection but do not know how to get it.
In situations in which affairs have already occurred, it is normal and appropriate to be consumed with analyzing, “do I stay in this relationship or is infidelity a dealbreaker?”.
For those who want to stay together after infidelity there is immense hope.
For those who decide to walk away from each other after infidelity there is immense hope.
Yet, I will end with offering a third option. This decision does not need to be made right away. Do the work first, within yourself and with your spouse. Learn what it means to create a secure bond and deep connection. Then decide. No matter how dark it gets, positive transformation within the relationship can occur. Many couples never get to experience a deeply fulfilling relationship because they leave each other when it gets really hard.
Adversity creates the perfect opportunity to connect, come together, expand awareness, open hearts, and slow down. To learn more about how to create secure bonding and connection within your marriage, read the books “Hold me Tight” or “Love Sense” written by Dr. Sue Johnson.
Hello! I am Cristina Trette. I am a Couples Therapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Certified in Perinatal Mental Health. I write on all things related to relationships, parenthood, and connection.