By: Gregory Popcak
Infidelity is a fairly common problem. Various studies show that infidelity affects between 20%-25% of all marriages. Although presumably less frequent with couples who practice Natural Family Planning, affairs still happen. It can feel like a double failure when one has double burden of putting the pieces back together and the burden of wondering, “Why didn’t what was ‘supposed to happen’ happen for us?”
What Causes It?
Whether an affair is purely emotional or becomes sexual, it can have a devastating effect on a marriage. Most people think that marital dissatisfaction causes affairs, but not all struggling couples experience infidelity. Other variables must come into play. A recent study found that when a spouse is both unhappy in a marriage and exhibits either low self-esteem and/or a tendency to be easily given to feelings of anger and despair, that spouse is at significantly higher risk for having an affair. Pregnancy also adds to the risk.
Relationship as Self-Medication
The cheating spouse, generally speaking, is someone who is not very good at (a) making needs known in relationship, (b) following-through on advocating for those needs even if they do manage to articulate them, and (c) usually avoids interpersonal conflict. Such a spouse may say to his or her mate, “I would really like X.” But if the mate doesn’t immediately jump up and down and say, “Oh, yes! That sounds like a wonderful idea!” the spouse who made the request will usually give up and assume that the mate doesn’t care to meet his or her needs. Multiply this interaction by thousands of times over the course of several years, and the spouse who consistently gives up much and too easily begins getting depressed because he or she feels powerless to get any of his or her needs met in the marital relationship. Over time, the depression and frustration builds and the spouse, who blames his or her mate for being “insensitive” feels almost driven to seek someone else who can make him or her feel better. The affair, then, is primarily an attempt to self-medicate for an underlying depression.
When infidelity is discovered, the couple often thinks that simply calling off the extramarital relationship, being generally nicer to each other, and going out on more regular dates will solve all their problems. But if this is all the couple does to address their issues, the couple runs an extraordinarily high of dooming the marriage either to another affair down the line, or divorce, as the wounded mate’s unresolved and squelched pain festers. Couples can resolve the problems related to infidelity and go on to have an outstanding relationship. According to research, upwards of 20% of couples who presently report high levels of marital happiness have at one time in their past weathered infidelity, but it takes real work. Assuming the extramarital relationship is over, successfully recovering from an affair involves the following steps that usually require the support of a competent therapist to negotiate effectively.
I do, of course, mean the Sacrament of Confession, but I also mean confession to the wounded spouse. The wounded spouse has a right to all the information about the affair that he or she wishes to have. The wounded spouse should never be put in the position of pulling information out of the cheater. The offending spouse must willingly offer all the details and information the wounded spouse wishes to hear. While forgiveness is absolutely essential to recovery, the wounded spouse cannot forgive what he or she does not know. Full confession is not only good for the soul, it is essential for reconciliation of the marriage.
2. Rebuilding the Marriage
In this step, the couple must work to create a marriage that is far better than they
have ever experienced before. They will need to spend more time on the marriage than they are used to. They will need to spend time each evening reviewing what they have done to attend to each other’s spiritual and emotional needs. They will need to be honest with each other about their needs and learn ways to keep arguments productive. Returning to the way things were before is not an option because the wounded spouse believed everything was fine then. If things just go back to the way things were, the wounded spouse will always wonder if what he or she missed the first time is still happening. In order to overcome the suspicion, the marriage cannot be just like it was. It must become better than it has ever been.
3. The Offending Spouse Must Address His or Her Personal Problems
This is the hardest step. The offending spouse, being conflict-avoidant and fearing vulnerability, just wants to have a superficially happy relationship and leave his or hatred of conflict and difficulties being emotionally vulnerable out of it. But remember, these are the problems that actually caused the affair in the first place. If the couple only had marital problems but not these other issues in the offending spouse’s personality, then the couple would simply have worked out their problems directly. But because the offending spouse didn’t know how to address disappointment and frustrations directly–and still doesn’t–the couple remains at high risk for repeating the cycle in the future, regardless of what the offending spouse might say today.
4. Overcome Irrational Fears, Doubts and Guilt that Remain.
Even after the marriage is better than ever and the offending spouse is more open and competent at conflict management and vulnerable than ever, lingering doubts may still remain in the wounded spouse and persistent feelings of unworthiness and guilt may afflict the offending spouse. The couple may need the benefit of cognitive therapy strategies to help them learn how to evaluate and resolve these irrational and undesirable emotional roadblocks to full recovery.
Healing Is Possible
As I mentioned at the outset, making a full recovery from infidelity is certainly possible, but it is never a do-it-yourself project. Infidelity is marital cancer that requires competent, multi-stage, multi-modal treatment by a marriage-friendly therapist. Additionally, organizations such as Retrouvaille can offer peer support as an adjunct (though NEVER a replacement) to competent marital counseling. Regardless of where you turn for help, know that there is healing for your injured heart and troubled marriage. Faithfully work at the recovery tasks in front of you, and trust that the Lord will guide you to the peace and wholeness that is your right to expect from your marriage.
If your marriage has been wounded by infidelity, don’t wait, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and let us provide the support you need in your struggles. Call us to get the skills you need to succeed in your marriage.