When I did the research for my Secrets of Happy Couples book, I learned that 87% of the respondents had answered that they had never had an intimate relationship outside their primary committed relationship with their partners. These were couples who had been together at least ten years, with both identifying that they were happy within the context of their relationships. Only 39% of respondents said that infidelity would be a deal-breaker.
These numbers paint a sunny picture for people in happy relationships, but I know through my own experiences working with couples, that working through an affair can be extremely painful and challenging.
In addition to my research, I also interviewed some relationship experts and the most shocking thing I heard came from Harville Hendrix, who said in all his work with couples, he had never encountered a couple where only one partner was having an affair. He said that if you look below the surface you will find that the “victims” were having “affairs” of their own, but their “affairs” were more socially acceptable. Partners can have “affairs” with their children, their work, their extended family, their friends, their pets, and other things. Any area of a person’s life that takes precedence over their intimate, committed relationship could be considered an affair. However in most cultures, an intimate, sexual affair with another person is considered far more despicable than devoting too much time to one’s children or work. Society approves more of these distractions, thus vilifying the partner who has an intimate affair with another person.
Dr. Hendrix said, “Infidelity is a co-creation designed to regulate intimacy by acting out their anxiety in ways that involved them with other people… There are always two affairs. They are always co-created.” This is not to place blame on you. It is merely to distribute the responsibility more evenly for what happened and equalize the efforts for repairing the damage. If you want your relationship to survive this affair and even grow stronger, then sharing the responsibility for what happened in your relationship is a healthy first step.
Should you find yourself in a situation with a loved one where you are trying to work through an affair, when you are calm enough for a rational discussion, here are the steps I recommend:
Step One: Do You Want to Save Your Relationship?
So often, when your trust is shattered, you tend to ask yourself: What’s wrong with me? Why did someone I love betray me? Why didn’t I see it coming? Instead of thinking that there is something innately wrong with you, your energy is best spent examining what part you might have had in the breakdown of the relationship and taking responsibility for your part. Both of you allowed something else to assume greater importance than your relationship. Some people make mistakes, learn from them, and never repeat them. While it is possible to regain trust, it is a challenge and may require some time. Many people don’t have the patience and commitment to work through their issues, but it certainly is possible.
Trust is actually a verb. It’s not something your partner earns or loses. It’s a decision you make that can be seen in your thoughts and behavior. It really comes down to which is most important to you: trust or self-protection? The most important thing not to lose is your self-respect. You are a worthy person. Spend some time engaging in some self-nurturing behavior. Learn to love yourself again. Do not allow your self-respect to be based on the whims and fantasies of another person.
If you have learned of your partner’s affair and he or she isn’t likely to stop this behavior, do you want to stay in relationship with your partner even if he or she doesn’t change? If not, then you need to seriously consider ending your relationship. There is no point torturing yourself. However, if you are willing to stay because there are so many other benefits and you can change your perception of your partner’s infidelity so that it doesn’t hurt you, then you can make this work.
Step Two: Correct the Behavior
When you have accepted responsibility for your part in the affair, whether you were the “perpetrator” or the “victim,” the next step is about corrective action. If you are committed to your relationship, you will do your part to correct whatever behavior you engaged in that created the problem. In other words, you will consciously and consistently make your commitment to your significant other and your relationship a priority, regardless of what your partner does.
If you were the one involved in the affair, end it with no thoughts of maintaining contact with the other person. If your partner is having difficulty trusting you, then be open about everything with them to do your part to allay the fear. Allow your life to become an open book. Aim for transparency in the relationship.
If you were the partner engaged in a socially acceptable affair, then you must reprioritize your life so that your partner and your relationship become paramount.
Step Three: Forgiveness
If you have fully committed to the repair of your relationship, then you must forgive each other for the problems you both created. How do you forgive? You realize that what happened was a mistake and not meant to hurt you intentionally. You begin to trust again. It will become easier to trust again once you have both performed the committed actions from Step 2.
Trust that your partner intends to do the right thing. What you don’t do is constantly grill your partner about where and with whom they’ve been. When you are secure in yourself and know that you are worthy to receive love, it is natural to trust, even if that trust has been violated. Deciding to trust again means you must stop punishing your partner. We punish in several ways. Often, we punish with our emotions: We are angry, hurt, jealous, and insecure. These emotions are all designed to send a clear message of guilt to our partner. “Look what you did to me.” This is the worst form of punishment. Create the self-talk necessary to get through the rough spots.
If you want more trust in your life, you must be more trusting and more worthy of trust. You can’t get from others what you don’t possess yourself. Ask yourself: Am I a trustworthy person? Does my partner realize that I have integrity and can be trusted? Do I extend trust to him or her? Change begins with you. Remember the quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Of course, it’s always possible that you will recommit yourself to your partner and they will violate your trust again. It can happen. If it does, don’t allow that to shake your self-confidence. You are right to trust the person with whom you are involved. If your partner doesn’t deserve your trust, in time this will be revealed to you and then you can forgive— whether or not you choose to stay with the person. But if your choice is to forgive and stay, then make “trust” into an action verb once more.
Let go of the wrong that was done. Trust in yourself again. And ultimately trust in the Universal Spirit to always and forever provide you what you need when you need it. You will discover a sense of peace and calm that will sustain you through the challenging times.