It’s the age old story: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, they marry, they live happily ever after. But almost as old is the variation: boy meets girl, they fall in love, the marry, they hit hard times, and a third party enters the picture – cheating, an affair, infidelity. Whatever you want to call it, it’s one of the worst things that can happen in a relationship. And even worse, it’s common.
How big is the problem?
As many as 23% of men have been sexually unfaithful in a relationship (not necessarily marriage). The most common reasons are important influences on male cheating are simply having access to other willing sexual partners and how frequently he is aroused (basically, how likely he is to be around someone who will have sex with him and how often he may be looking for sex). It’s a pretty disheartening statistic and can fuel anti-male anger.
However, the number isn’t much different for women. According to the same source, 19% of women have cheated (in other words, about the same 1 in 5 as for men). The influences tend to be different (women more often cheat because of relationship incompatibility and dissatisfaction) but the effect is likely the same. Infidelity damages relationships.
So how do you respond if you’ve uncovered infidelity in your marriage?
The quick answer is, no one can really answer that for someone else. But psychologists, counselors, and other researchers have put a lot of time and effort into questions like this and there are some facts that can help with the decision. These are a strange mix of troubling, encouraging, and challenging.
1. The end of an affair probably does not mean the end of the problems
The leading causes of divorce are not infidelity but rather problems with communication, incompatibility, and money. As mentioned above, the causes of infidelity can vary and affairs can happen even with otherwise “happy” marriages. Nonetheless, in most cases there will probably be continued fallout from the affair like distrust and anger and possibly unresolved problems that predated the affair like disconnection and differing values.
2. Change will require both honesty and forgiveness
One of the fundamental attributes of an affair is secrecy Infidelity cannot exist without secrecy and a strong marriage cannot exist without honesty. It is important for both partners to be open and honest about their feelings, beliefs, hurt, and needs. This can be helped by participating in couple’s therapy in which a neutral third party can help each partner express themselves in respectful and healthy ways.
However, honesty alone is not enough. True change and reconciliation requires forgiveness. This can be incredibly difficult and is not a one time event but rather a process. It will likely also take time even to decide whether reconciliation of the relationship is desired.
3. It is possible for marriage to recover
While sexual or emotional infidelity can be devastating to both parties and the marriage, marriages can also be repaired. While statistics are hard to come by and experts disagree, there is consensus that an affair is not a guarantee of divorce. Recovery is likely to be a hard process and may even take years, but it is by no means out of the question.
4. In many cases, divorce can lead to increased happiness
This is not something that is often discussed but in some cases divorce can be a better step for ones mental health than continued marriage. As with most conclusions based on a large group of people, it is impossible to determine whether a particular person will be happier after divorce. The important message is that divorce is not necessarily the end of the road to happiness.
As in so many problems in life, there are no easy answers when it comes to how to respond to cheating. There are too many details that, from the outside, can never be completely accounted for. But if you keep in mind these four points it may help you to feel the freedom to pursue the path that is right for you.
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- Managing Hurt and Disappointment: Improving Communication of Reproach and Apology. By: Miller, A. J.; Worthington Jr., E.; Hook, J.; Davis, D.; Gartner, A.; Frohne, N. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. Apr2013, Vol. 35 Issue 2, p108-123
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