Infidelity

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COPING WITH INFIDELITY IN MARRIAGE

Greg Swenson, Ph.D.

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  Infidelity has been considered wrong since antiquity.  

Robert Harper stated, “All known cultures have some limits on extramarital sex relations and some means of enforcing such designated taboos.”  In an article in American Sociological Review, Julia Brown found that 89% of societies punished people involved in extramarital relationships.  Surprisingly, even a more recent survey in as unlikely a place as Playboy magazine found in 1974 that an “overwhelming majority” was opposed to extramarital sex. (Peterson, 1983)  In spite of this apparent universal disapproval, the frequency of infidelity has been high for some time.  Although I have no recent data, a survey sited in 1983 found that 66% of men and 50% of women acknowledged sexual relations with someone other than their spouse.  (Peterson, 1983)  A survey of Christianity Today readers in 1989 revealed that 28% had sexual contact outside of marriage.  Why the discrepancy between stated values and actual behavior?  For most people, infidelity is the result of disillusionment or disappointment with their marriage, and lack of understanding regarding what to do about it.

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  Infidelity is a pattern of behavior that seeks self-satisfaction.

Infidelity is a pattern of behavior that seeks self-satisfaction at the expense of commitment to another.  It strikes at the core defining characteristics of marriage:   

Two people determine to share themselves with each other in a way that is unique to them and not shared by others.

They agree that the levels of trust and accountability, expected of each other will be greater than found in any other of their relationships.

They share physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual intimacy, not found in other relationship.

Their relationship is permanent and unconditional.

For Christians, marriage also constitutes a commitment to God, to protect the unique relationship given to them.

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  What is infidelity?  

Infidelity occurs whenever a person engages in a relationship with another that violates these characteristics of marriage.  This happens when the new relationship results in a breakdown of trust; develops intimacy with another that belongs in the marriage; when experiences are shared with the new person that become more important than the shared experiences in the marriage.  Infidelity can occur without sex.  Simply stated, marriage is a commitment to seek mutual fulfillment, to make your own satisfaction contingent on your spouse’s.  The first steps taken when infidelity occurs are 1) to decide to seek fulfillment through someone else and, 2) to decide to do this secretly.  In a sense, whatever a person decides to give to a new partner outside the marriage is taken from his or her spouse:  time, money, special experiences, confidences, or intimacies.  A person might experience a similar sense of betrayal if their spouse becomes compulsively involved in alcohol, work, or various activities. In these cases, the element of secrecy is usually not as devastating, and there is not another person alienating the spouse from the marriage.

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  Gender Differences in how Men and Women View Extramarital Relationships

There are some gender differences in how men and women view extramarital relationships, although these are generalizations, not true in every instance.  Women seem to be drawn into adulterous relationships initially through emotional attachments, while men are more likely attracted sexually.  Interestingly, each gender tends to assume that the other is acting out of the same motivation as they are likely to themselves.  Women assume that their husband has become emotionally attached to another woman, when his interest may be primarily physical.  Men make the mistake of thinking that their wife’s relationship with another man is safe if she shows no physical attraction to him. (Psychology Today, Aug.1998)  These issues may need to be addressed in the recovery process in order that both husband and wife can understand the development of the extramarital relationship.

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  Infidelity is always destructive.

Infidelity is always destructive, and often fatal, to a marriage.  It is possible to avoid allowing infidelity to bring a marriage to an end, however.  God is a redemptive God.  If he can redeem people from sin with a capitol S, he can redeem specific behaviors as well.  God is also a healing God.  There is no hurt to great to be healed.  Redemption and healing always begin with a person acknowledging their need, and accepting responsibility for what they have done.  Nowhere is this truer than in the case of infidelity.   

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  Healing from adultery first requires that the betrayed spouse recover from the trauma.  

Discovering the betrayal and anticipating the potential loss of the person most important in your life causes great distress.  Unlike the trauma of death, which has an end and can be compensated for by positive elements in the relationship, infidelity undermines all that is good in the relationship and the pain seems to have no natural end point.  Although not welcomed, death is to be expected at some point in a marriage.  Betrayal is not.  The victim of betrayal questions if the spouse ever loved them, and if so, what they might have done to lose it.  It is as if the adulterous spouse has thrown dirt in the river of their marriage contaminating the water behind them and before them. 

To recover from trauma, a victim has a natural tendency to go back to the traumatic experience, questioning, going over details repetitiously:  “What did you do?  Where? When? How often?”  The traumatized spouse must go over the events until the emotional distress caused by them becomes manageable.  They must reach a point where they feel there are no more surprises.  

Often, the betraying spouse wants to get things over quickly, after admitting to their infidelity.  They must develop empathy for what the betrayed spouse is experiencing, and be willing to live with the pain of guilt, until genuine healing can occur.  In addition, the betraying spouse may learn something about them self in the questioning process.  They may begin to see their own motives, vulnerabilities, and selfishness.  If both spouses can tolerate and control the emotions involved, they may come to a joint understanding of how the infidelity occurred, signaling the beginning of a more substantial level of recovery.

  Trauma recovery requires support.  

Usually the guilty spouse is reluctant to allow others to know, but it is essential that the betrayed spouse have someone to talk to other than the person who has betrayed them.  While the trauma victim needs repetitious questioning and examining in order to master the trauma response, they also need time to turn their focus away from the trauma.  They must realize that there is more to their life than their marriage.  They need to realize God’s ability to enable them to transcend the trauma.  It is important for the victim to develop a determination to survive.  If the offending partner senses that he or she has destroyed their spouse by what they have done, they may lose their will to return their energies to the marriage.  They may even go back to the extramarital partner they have left, thinking that is all they have left.  It is important for both spouses to dwell on sources of genuine hope:  Relationships are not built or destroyed by single events.  God is involved in their marriage because it is his creation and he does not want it to be destroyed.  God has brought good out of the worst forms of evil and catastrophic events (the crucifixion).  False conclusions must be countered with more accurate ones.  For example, a betrayed spouse might believe, “Because my wife has lied, I can never trust her again.” or “I’ve been hurt so badly, I can’t forgive.”  Often, both spouses believe that an extra-marital relationship equals marriage failure.   

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  In order for a marriage to have any hope of survival when an extramarital relationship threatens it, the involved spouse must recognize that the relationship is wrong and be willing to end it.  

There is often a desire to minimize the pain, make a partial separation, or take care of the new object of their affections.  None of these can be done, if the marriage is to be restored.  The involved spouse must sever all contact with his or her extramarital partner, at least to every extent possible.  Sometimes some continued contact is unavoidable (such as when the partner is a coworker).  Depending on the extent of the relationship and how much the marriage is valued, even these situations may require radical action.  I have known of people who have left jobs and moved to different communities to preserve their marriage.  Even if the spouse is willing to sever contact, his or her partner may not be willing.  They must be willing to inform the spouse of any further contact, including its frequency, nature, emotions, and how it was handled.  It is normal for a betrayed spouse to distrust their husband or wife following infidelity.  The spouse who has betrayed cannot demand trust, or suggest that distrust equals a lack of love.  It must be accepted as part of the recovery process.  At the same time, the betrayed spouse cannot realistically expect their husband or wife to suddenly return their affections to them.  While the path they have taken is wrong, it is a long journey back to the point where their emotions are fully invested in each other.  When infidelity occurs, boundaries are inverted:  the offending spouse draws a curtain around the extramarital relationship to keep it private, and begins to share intimacies with his or her partner, while gradually excluding their spouse.  Recovery involves reversing this pattern, opening up the extramarital relationship to the spouse, and redefining the boundaries of the marriage. 

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   Reasons the Couple was Vulnerable to Infidelity

After dealing effectively with the immediate threat to the marriage that an extramarital relationship poses, and getting beyond the trauma of the event, focus can be placed on dealing with the reasons the couple was vulnerable to infidelity. Often the biggest obstacle at this point is emotions.  One spouse is struggling with emotional attachment to two people.  The betrayed spouse is feeling a mixture of anger, hurt, and fear.  Both spouses usually have a tendency to focus on the past or the future, when they must focus on the present.  It is a difficult time for either spouse to be objective, but it is important for them to evaluate themselves and their relationship, and to make changes.  Infidelity is usually a symptom of a weakness in a person or marriage, which can be corrected. 

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  Dissatisfaction Within the Marriage

Infidelity almost always indicates that there is not an effective way to communicate dissatisfaction within the marriage.  Some married couples fight often, but only alienate each other.  Some are disengaged.  There may be an assumption that voicing dissatisfaction is unacceptable, or that it indicates an inadequate marriage.  All social systems, large and small, require a vehicle for change.  Marriage requires that each spouse learn to “speak the truth in love” with each other (Ephesians 4), something that may require a great deal of outside assistance. 

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Accept responsibility.

 In order for evaluation and change to take place, each spouse must move beyond assigning blame, and accept responsibility for what they must contribute to the change process.  What is true of all marriage problems is especially true of infidelity:  blame is a dead-end.  It leads nowhere.  As each spouse becomes involved in the change process, they can begin to evaluate their love (and their spouse’s love) by their efforts, rather than emotions.  This gives hope, at a time when neither spouse feels they can ever feel the same about the other.  An important part of the recovery process is to see the difference between mature love and immature love.  Infidelity can be seen as a regression to the excitement and pleasure of “falling in love”.  This beginning phase of marriage is important, but not sufficient for the progression of marriage through more difficult phases.  Rather than develop the qualities required for mature love, such as found in I Corinthians 13, a person may be tempted to find a new partner, because being in love is less demanding than committed love.  The person involved in an extramarital relationship needs to be frequently reminded of the fallacy of comparing an extramarital relationship to a married relationship.  The marriage experience is much more complex.  It involves the mundane as well as exposure of the most unattractive aspects of our nature.  Extramarital relationships often don’t move from the idealization to reality, something that is inevitable if the relationship is to continue.  It is said that only 10% of people who leave their spouses for another, wind up staying with that person.

It may not immediately feel good to turn away from what the extramarital relationship and all that it offers.  But rebuilding the marriage provides satisfactions that can be obtained no other way:  permanence, a depth of love that comes only through adversity, and the experience of God’s grace in a most tangible way.  Statistics indicate that if a person chooses to abandon the marriage for what appears to be the less difficult route of divorce, he or she is more likely to make the same choice in subsequent marriages.  Deciding to remain married is most effective if viewed as a commitment not only to spouse, but also to God, and to the marriage as a major part of God’s purpose for your life.  This is often followed by realization that satisfaction is not generated so much by what you get out of marriage as by what you can do for your spouse.  Giving really can be more satisfying than getting.  Sometimes the adoption of the role of serving a spouse begins with guilt or fear of losing them, but becomes rewarding in itself. 

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   Infidelity may signal a person’s dissatisfaction with themselves.

Infidelity may signal a person’s dissatisfaction with themselves, rather than their partner.  They may want to feel different or be different.  As we marry and grow older, it is easy to stereotype our self and our spouse.  Another person may see something in you that your spouse has overlooked.  It may appear that the potential to become funnier, more interesting, more attractive, or more important, resides with that person, rather than within yourself.  Change sometimes involves coming to grips with our own feelings of inadequacy, and deciding how to deal with them.  

  Recovery from Infidelity

Recovery from infidelity involves husband and wife restoring each other as the core of their marriage.  While this sounds obvious, we often don’t realize how far we can stray from the value placed on each other at the beginning of marriage.  Besides conflict and selfishness, a spouse can be lost in an array of inherently good things that come into our lives, including children, service, and friends.  While it isn’t realistic to return to the “in love” phase of marriage, each person needs to communicate to the other that they are of primary importance, through action and words. 

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  Forgiveness

Forgiveness is an obvious necessity if recovery from infidelity is to last.  While not desirable, problems less significant than infidelity can go unresolved, or make do with a superficial level of forgiveness.  Infidelity requires the real thing.  Forgiveness is a commitment rather than an emotion.  Forgiveness is not a one-time event.  It is a repeated process that may be mental more often than verbal, forgiving the offender each time the thought of his or her offense occurs.  Although forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting, forgiveness involves a commitment to avoid dwelling on the offense; perhaps replacing painful and anger-inducing thoughts about the infidelity with positive thoughts.  Forgiving infidelity involves some specific things, such as not bringing up the adulterous behavior whenever it is useful, not refusing to ever trust again, and not keeping distance from the offending spouse indefinitely.  Obviously, this kind of forgiveness is not easy.  The best source is the experience of God’s more comprehensive forgiveness through Christ. 

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  Forgiveness is desirable, but reconciliation is unlikely and sometimes not advisable.

Sadly, there are situations in which forgiveness is desirable, but reconciliation is unlikely and sometimes not advisable.  Repetitious infidelity may result of deviant character development, such that a person thrives on dishonesty and taking advantage of others.  Some people derive a perverted satisfaction from having secret relationships, accumulating sexual conquests, or deceiving their spouse.  Infidelity can also be a result of sexual addiction, a condition in which sexual gratification is sought compulsively, in a frequency or manner not available in the marriage.  Unlike the person with deviant character development, the sex addict generally feels remorse at some point, but feels helpless to stop the behavior.  While the prognosis for treatment of sexual addiction is better than for narcissistic and antisocial personalities, these conditions must be diagnosed and treated individually, if there is to be any hope that infidelity will cease. 

Infidelity is every married person’s worst nightmare.  Betrayal may be the worst of human experiences.  It is important to remember that Jesus experienced betrayal himself, and through it he made redemption available to us.  Following his lead, and with the necessary responses, it is possible to find redemption following infidelity as well. 
 

 

Dr. Greg Swenson PhD
Copyright © 1997-2003 
All rights reserved.
Revised: April 19, 2009.