Exploring if Rebuilding is Possible After Infidelity

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Can We Rebuild After Infidelity?” To listen to this episode, click here.

Few topics spike our anxiety and judgment like infidelity. If you grew up in a family system in which one of your big people cheated, you felt the massive ripple effects. Perhaps you were asked to carry a secret. Perhaps you felt caught in the middle. Perhaps you felt helpless while people you depended on were overwhelmed with strong emotions like sadness and anger.

If you have dealt with infidelity in a prior relationship, you have scars. You may have guilt that lingers when you know your choices caused pain, or sadness that can continue to echo years later when you’ve been cheated on. If you have been the affair partner (i.e. “the other woman” or “the other man” or “the other person”), you have a set of perspectives and stories informed by that experience– likely a blend of regret, sadness, and confusion. If your life has never been touched firsthand by infidelity, you may carry fears such as: “What if this happens to me in the future?” If your current intimate relationship has been impacted by infidelity, you know firsthand how raw, how confusing, and how upsetting infidelity is.

I am committed to turning toward difficult topics, and if you’re here, that means you are too. So we’re going to discuss infidelity, even if it makes our heart race a bit. If you haven’t listened yet, I hope you will check out the episode of Reimagining Love featuring Kristi Born and Rainier Wylde who shared their story of infidelity and healing. It goes hand in hand with this conversation.

Infidelity is a huge topic, one that we will continue to revisit. I wanted to ensure that those who have been touched by infidelity have the resources they need. I am especially thinking about those whose relationships have just been rocked by infidelity. So this article will focus on the very early days and weeks following the disclosure or discovery of infidelity. We will be exploring how you can assess whether it is possible to repair, rebuild, restore the relationship. Here’s the plan:

  • I will talk a bit about infidelity.
  • I will offer three Relational Self-Awareness questions to the person who has cheated.
  • I will offer three Relational Self-Awareness questions to the person who has been cheated on.

These questions are designed to help you get a sense of whether the necessary ingredients are there to begin to rebuild trust and connection.

Toward the end, I will be telling you about a course my team and I have created called, “Can I Trust You Again? Rebuilding after Betrayal or Deceit” which is designed to support couples who are engaging in a process of healing in the wake of betrayal. You’ll be able to find out more about the course here.

What is Infidelity, Really?

Let’s start with the big picture: one of the realities of loving in the digital age is that it is easier than ever to cheat, and easier than ever to get caught. Infidelity is common. A team at University of Colorado Boulder analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a data set from over 13,000 Americans. They found that 21% of men and 13% of women reported that they had been unfaithful at some point in their lifetime. Just over half (about 54%) reported that the affair partner was someone they knew well, like a close friend. About 30% reported that the affair partner was someone they knew somewhat well, like a neighbor or a co-worker; the rest were casual acquaintances.

I share those numbers to give us context, and also for this reason: because there is so much judgment about infidelity, many people suffer in silence, not sharing their stories because they feel shame. But you are far from alone. This data is U.S.-based, but it’s worth noting that attitudes about infidelity vary widely around the world. For example, in 2013, the Pew Research Center looked cross-culturally and  found that just 47% of French respondents thought extramarital affairs were morally unacceptable, which was the lowest proportion in the world. Contrast that with the United States where a full 84% said that extramarital affairs were morally unacceptable. Other countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain had a relatively low proportion of people stating that extramarital affairs were morally unacceptable. Some countries where well over 90% of people stated that extramarital affairs were morally unacceptable included Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia. 

When I am reading research, I think about which questions researchers ask, and how they are worded. I also think about which questions researchers don’t ask, and how the tools of investigation reflect and perhaps reinforce our collective perspectives. This Pew study focused on moral acceptability or unacceptability, which is worth noting. With that said, we are not going to focus our attention there. We will talk today about the pain of infidelity and the possibilities for rebuilding.

When we are talking about infidelity, we are talking about a violation of a relationship boundary. The American Psychological Association defines infidelity as “the situation in which one partner in a marriage or intimate relationship becomes sexually or emotionally involved with a person other than the partner’s spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend.” This involvement is secret, not disclosed, and not agreed to. Therefore, infidelity is different from what we call disclosed nonmonogamy, ethical nonmonogamy, or consensual nonmonogamy.

When infidelity is discovered or disclosed, it is a relationship crisis. The crisis of infidelity, like all crises, is a turning point. For many couples, the infidelity signals the end of the relationship or marriage. For some couples, the infidelity is swept under the rug. They remain together but unhealed, which is what I call a white-knuckled recovery.

But for some couples, the crisis of infidelity becomes a turning point in the story of their relationship. The relationship they had, or thought they had, ends, but they build something from the wreckage. They create a “2.0 version” of the relationship. I have had the privilege of working with many couples in therapy over the years who have embarked on this journey.

Questions for the One Who Cheated

If you want to embark with your partner on a journey of building a marriage 2.0, here are questions I would want you to ask yourself. 

Question #1: How will you ensure that the boundary around your relationship has been restored?

This is about ending the relationship with the affair partner. It does not need to be cruel, but it does need to be clear. This is also about your mindset and commitment. There might be a part of you that is tempted to say, “I’ll try with my spouse, but if things are hard, I maybe possibly will reach out to my affair partner.” Spoiler alert, things will be hard with your spouse, likely for a while. Rebuilding requires commitment to showing up again and again, for both the moments of progress and the discouraging moments.

This is about creating safety for your partner. But it’s also about gifting yourself the experience of standing in your integrity.

Question #2: How ready are you to be introspective?

To rebuild your relationship, you will need to be willing to look inside of yourself. Certainly some people who cheat do so because they believe down to the marrow of their bones that they are entitled to act any old kind of way. However, for the majority of people, certainly that I have worked with over the years, cheating is an acting out behavior driven from unconscious, unskilled, or unhealed stuff. People cheat in an effort (albeit misguided) to deal with stuff from the past that gets stirred up by the present that they are unable or unwilling to deal with directly.

Putting your relationship on solid ground will require you to learn about yourself. As you begin to make connections between earlier experiences in your life (in your family of origin or in prior intimate relationships), you will need to keep in mind that these are the context for your acting out behavior, not an excuse. Notice how differently these land:

“I cheated on you because my father was an alcoholic.” This sounds like blaming someone else for your choices.

“Growing up in a home with a father who battled addiction to alcohol meant that I felt invisible much of the time. When you got so busy caring for your mother when she was ill, I felt really invisible. And I felt ashamed of how much I missed your attention. I didn’t know how to turn toward you. I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings. I acted out. It was so wrong. I am so sorry.” This sounds like humility and taking responsibility.

What is it about the story of you that made you vulnerable to acting out in this way? As my friend, Esther Perel, says, “When we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from — but the person that we ourselves have become. And it isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self.” Who were you attempting to become in this outside relationship? What part of you were you trying to access? What kept you from bringing that part of yourself to your intimate relationship or marriage? Introspection can be difficult without guidance, and it’s these types of questions we work through together in the Can I Trust You Again? e-course. More on that later!

Question #3: How committed are you to being emotionally available to your partner?

A 2019 study published in the journal Stress & Health found that almost half of a sample of unmarried young adults who had been cheated on reported symptoms suggesting probable infidelity-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and these symptoms were significantly associated with depressive symptoms. Other studies have found that a full 70% of those who have been cheated on meet the criteria for PTSD.

Infidelity is a trauma. Why? Dr. Gabor Mate defines trauma in the following way, “Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.” And what happens inside of someone who has been cheated on is painful and confusing. The person who has been cheated on experiences: 

  • Racing thoughts: They are attempting to align the parallel tracks of life they thought they were living with the life they now realize they were living.
  • Ruminative thoughts: Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, playing scenes over and over. This is why we spend a lot of time in the e-course talking about how to cope with flashbacks and intrusive thoughts.
  • Rapidly-shifting emotions: anger, sadness, shame, fear, jealousy, hurt, sympathy, etc.  
  • Physical symptoms: Grief is embodied, exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, appetite changes, restlessness, flatness.
  • Uncertainty: Who am I? Who are you? What happens next?

How committed are you to staying calm, comforting, and curious while your partner rides waves of grief and anger and shame? Research by Dr. Sue Johnson found that the answer to this question is what differentiates couples who can rebuild from couples who cannot. The couples who are able to rebuild are the couples in which the partner who did harm stays Accessible, Responsive, and Engaged, or A.R.E:

  • Accessible: Can your partner reach you? In the wake of infidelity this often means literally will you stay available to your partner so they know where you are. Accessible means that your partner feels like you are present versus checked out and disengaged
  • Responsive: If your partner is feeling particularly plagued by flashbacks can you offer comfort rather than retreating or rolling your eyes or panicking that “we’re never going to get over this.”
  • Engaged: Can your partner feel that you are invested in this rebuilding process? If you’re reading this article or listening to this episode, that’s a great sign of engagement. 

Questions for the one who was cheated on

I started with questions for the one who cheated because the research has found that what matters most is their willingness to engage in a process of self-reflection, accountability, and relational care. While that may make sense to you, I suspect that also might be difficult for you to sit with. Being cheated on can feel like you are robbed of your agency, of your power. And now here I am saying that it is up to your partner to see whether they can or will do what needs to be done to rebuild their relationship. 

But this is also important for you to hear. Why? Because so often when we are talking about infidelity, people end up saying things that are very victim-blaming, especially if the person who cheated was a man and the person who was cheated on was a woman. The message, explicitly or implicitly, is that if you had done a better job of keeping them happy, they would not have cheated. This is a horrific message, a perversion of responsibility. Therefore, I don’t want you to feel like you bear the responsibility for repair, like you have to be grieving or coping a certain way in order for the relationship to be restored.

I want to be really clear that ending the relationship may be your best and bravest path forward if, for example:

  • Your partner remains unable or unwilling to acknowledge that there has been infidelity.
  • Your partner diminishes your pain, tells you it wasn’t a big deal, tells you that you are overreacting.
  • Your partner is unwilling to end the outside relationship or engage with you in a conversation about the boundary agreements you both need to ensure safety and healing.

If your partner is showing signs of remorse and if they are taking responsibility for their behavior, you may be considering the possibility of remaining in the relationship and imagining a Marriage 2.0 or Relationship 2.0.  I want to offer you three questions to sit with as you consider whether to attempt to rebuild. 

Question #1: Can you begin to view trying to rebuild as an act of courage, not weakness?

One thing I believe with all of my heart, from years of doing this work, is that a partner who has been cheated on and who considers rebuilding after infidelity (because their partner is showing remorse, introspection, etc) is incredibly brave. Period. However, people who have been cheated on who attempt to rebuild often instead feel ashamed of themselves. Why? There’s often a perfect storm here. 

Our culture judges people who stay post-infidelity loudly and unapologetically. We talked earlier about how trauma is about what happens inside of you after what happened to you. One of the very common things that happens inside survivors of trauma is shame. It is common for survivors of trauma to blame themselves for what happened. So shame is often already in the mix. Can you begin to view trying to rebuild as an act of courage, not weakness? You may need to remind yourself of that over and over. I want your partner to remind you of that over and over.

Question #2: Do you have people in your corner who will offer you wise compassion, not idiot compassion?

I want you to have people in your corner as you do the difficult work of rebuilding. But not just any people. People who can offer empathy, not advice. People who can hold space, not tell you what to do. The late Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche coined the term “idiot compassion” and contrasted it with wise compassion. Idiot compassion sounds like this: “Once a cheater always a cheater. I knew you were doomed when you married him. You are better off without her.” Wise compassion, however, sounds like this: “I am sorry you are hurting. I am here. I love you.” You need to be in the driver’s seat. You need to be able to flounder and feel and find your way. You need allies who are patient and who let you drive!

Question #3: Can you try to remember that risk and trust live in a forever tension with each other?

Rachel Botsman defines trust as a “confident relationship with the unknown.” That is what you are trying to figure out. Can you, in this relationship, be able to have the experience of engaging confidently with the unknown? This will take time to figure out, likely months and years, not days and weeks. This will also take lots of little experiences of your partner as trustworthy. Much as you both might want to wave a magic wand and trust again, trust is built in small moments. Small moments that involve you taking risks, even little itty bitty baby risks. In order for you to feel your partner as a person of their word, you will need to make a little ask or surrender a bit of control or create a bit of space. So they can step into it. You will need to take risks even if a part of you wants to remain hypervigilant 24/7. Not all at once. Trust and risk are a two way street. As your partner demonstrates trustworthy behavior, it will be easier for you to take risks. As you take risks, your partner will be able to feel how good it is to feel trusted by you. Back and forth. A dance you will refine over time.

As I said at the beginning, infidelity is a crisis. It puts couples at a fork in the road, needing to figure out whether to end the relationship or begin a journey of rebuilding. In this conversation, we sat together at that fork in the road. I provided questions that the person who cheated can ask themselves and questions that the person who has been cheated on can ask themselves. If you’d like to more deeply explore how trust rebuilds and have support, tools, and insights on that journey, I have another tool for you. One of my e-courses is called Can I Trust You Again? Rebuilding after Betrayal or Deceit. This is a 5 module, self-paced e-course. It is based on research and clinical wisdom, along with my many years of experience working with couples who are attempting to rebuild after betrayal and my many years training marriage and family therapy graduate students to work with couples when there has been infidelity. You can take this course alone or with your partner, though if you and your partner are currently working to rebuild and repair after a breach of trust, I highly recommend working through the modules together. At your own pace. After completing the lessons and activities in this course you will better understand yourself and your partner, and have taken the necessary steps to begin healing the pain and reimagining your relationship in light of this crisis. This course will set you on your path forward, whether you continue as a couple or have a conscious uncoupling. And if you’re currently single, you will have the tools needed to lay a foundation of trust in your next relationship. To learn more and enroll, head to my E-courses hub here.

Infidelity is an immensely complicated topic, one that challenges our hearts and our minds. Perhaps paradoxically, talking courageously and curiously about something we don’t want to have happen or that we wish had not happened, can help us get clearer on what we do want and need to feel healthy, safe, whole, and connected in our intimate relationships.

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