How does one move forward after a spouse has cheated? This is what one reader (we’ll call her Meagan) recently asked me as she attempts to pick of the pieces of her failing marriage. It’s a question I didn’t take lightly and had to sit with for several days. After all, for many, cheating trumps most marital issues.
As we already know, but what psychiatrist Stephen A Diamond reminds us, “The biggest problem with cheating on a spouse or significant other is not necessarily the sexual liaison itself, but rather the betrayal of trust it causes.” As someone who’s experienced a cheating romantic partner and who has also been a shoulder to many who’ve been cheated on, it’s the inability to trust someone we’ve been the most vulnerable and intimate with that guts and paralyzes us. A desire to move forward at all after a lover has cheated is admirable. Doing so requires the work of building a new relationship all over again, with many doubts about why one should invest at all.
The first question I asked Meagan was if staying is something she really wanted. Was staying her decision, or was she feeling pressured to move forward in the relationship because it’s what others wanted for her? She mentioned that she and her husband had two young boys, and I wondered if she was staying in the marriage because she didn’t want to break up her home or feared becoming a single mom.
Those may be valid reasons to stay. A spouse willing to work to save his or her marriage, and a family unit which includes children that can be salvaged, are serious points to consider before walking away. But I wanted Meagan to realize that even if her husband promised never to cheat again, there was a high chance that he might. In fact, some people are possibly actually genetically predisposed to cheating. And although we can’t argue that children aren’t affected by divorce, their being hopelessly negatively affected by it is often grossly exaggerated.
Mediation expert Kathleen O’Connell Corcoran argues:
In the past, we read that children of divorce suffered from depression, failed in school, and got in trouble with the law. Children with depression and conduct disorders showed indications of those problems pre-divorce because there was parental conflict pre-divorce. Researchers now view conflict, rather than the divorce or residential schedule, as the single most critical determining factor in children’s post-divorce adjustment.
I wanted Meagan to understand that saving her marriage had to be primarily her decision, because she’d be the one carrying the heaviest load—rebuilding trust and forgiving a man who had betrayed her in the deepest ways. We hear growing up that if we approach marriages as though leaving is an option, they’ll never last. But we have to remember that staying in an unhappy marriage can further damage everyone involved.
Meagan wanted to move forward. And the first step in doing so after an issue of infidelity is figuring out what was and is broken in the marriage. Although we’re never responsible for someone’s decision to cheat (and we must always acknowledge cheating as a choice), we are responsible for the deterioration of the relationship that might open a spouse to cheating (especially if one’s partner is not a habitual cheater and has been loving and dutiful). This isn’t victim blaming; it’s reality, and an important part of recovering a failing marriage.
We have to be willing to confront ourselves in the same ways we confront our cheating lovers if we really want our marriage to heal and grow after infidelity has entered. Space must be granted for loving and honest conversations about why the cheating happened. As angry, hurt and disappointed as Meagan may feel about her husband’s infidelity, she has to be able to hear what he feels is missing from his marriage and be willing to accommodate his unmet needs if salvaging the marriage is the goal. Of course, a therapist can help couples sort through all of that.
I also reminded Meagan that forgiveness and being willing to stay doesn’t make her weak or mean she has to be silent about her pain. Choosing to stay after a case of infidelity doesn’t give the cheating spouse license to continue that behavior. And although Meagan must be willing to be present in her relationship, especially if her husband is doing the work to change his behavior and fix what he’s broken, that doesn’t mean she has to instantly forgive him or behave as if she hasn’t been betrayed. Our feelings are valid and deserve attention, regardless of what they are. Meagan’s partner has to accommodate her feelings and realize there is no particular timeline of when she should be “over” being cheated on.
Of course there’s even more to be considered—like, for instance, a plan on how trust can be restored in Meagan’s marriage. But I’ve listed what I believe are the foundations of getting past infidelity, if one chooses to at all.
What’s your advice?
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.