Marriage After Infidelity
You are stunned, disoriented and your whole world has shattered. You can’t believe that your partner cheated on you and lied to you about the affair. You want to throw the cheater into an incinerator together with the disgust, betrayal and rejection. But there is another part of you that wonders if there can be marriage after infidelity.
If you are the cheater who is suddenly faced with the real possibility of losing your wife and family, you are panicked. You keep asking yourself why you were so stupid and how you can prove your trustworthiness while at the same time allowing your partner to be angry and chew you out. You wonder if there can be a marriage after infidelity.
Marriage After Infidelity versus Marriage Before Infidelity
The shock of discovering infidelity in marriage is gut wrenching because you believed the marriage was doing okay and that your partner was on the same page. But the couples that I see after the discovery of an affair rarely speak of their marriage in rosy or even positive terms.
Renee a 36-year-old kindergarten teacher speaking in a deadpan voice described her marriage as lonely, with Miles her 34-year-old husband being emotionally shut off, burdening her with childcare. She resented having worked two jobs to put him through school. Most of all she claimed that she never felt wanted for herself as the person who Miles focused on above all else. In other words, marriage before infidelity had been disappointing, exhausting and unloving. Marriage after infidelity could hardly be any worse.
Miles an elevator technician, worked long hard hours and was often called out for emergencies. He lamented feeling like a mere provider, not interesting in any other way and was not needed for anything else. He too became resentful because Renee no longer made him feel special and “the one,” the way she had when they were dating. Miles didn’t think he had done anything out of line in terms of fulfilling his husband/father expectations. After all, he was just following his father’s traditional male role of leaving the housework and child rearing, to the woman.
While Miles wished he could have communicated his need to feel wanted he couldn’t communicate without appearing critical so he kept silent. Marriage before infidelity was also lonely and soul destroying for Miles – but when he saw Renee come alive with feelings engaging him with her anger and reprobation, there was a connection – a reaction showing that he had an impact on her – making marriage after infidelity worth pursuing.
Marriage After Infidelity Exposes the Insecurities that Existed from the Start
Renee’s mother was only 16-years old when she had her daughter. She couldn’t cope and left Renee to be brought up by maternal grandmother. Renee was a sickly baby, in and out of hospital, disrupting her ability to form secure attachment bonds. Beginning with her mother leaving within 3 months of her life, Renee was repeatedly traumatized by the loss, and the constant hospitalizations that further separated her from her caregivers. These early roots of insecure attachment were ripe for dysfunctional interpersonal intimacy in her marriage.
When Renee was 7 years old, her mother set up home with Renee’s father, and decided to parent her daughter. But Renee’s father was in and out of their lives, untrustworthy, unreliable and a huge disappointment. Often Renee had to tend to her mother’s sadness, hopelessness and neediness, while her emotions were on hold.
When Miles cheated on her all that old stuff came up again. It was as if he were her rotten father doing to her what was done to her mother. But this time she felt those younger feelings together with the current betrayal. She had despised her mother as weak for letting her dad walk in and out of her life for so long before she broke with him – and she didn’t want to be anything like her mother. Should she throw Miles away for good, or was marriage after infidelity possible?
As a young boy Miles was uncomfortable and awkward in social groups. He was ignored by his dad and became the one his mother used for comfort and companionship. His father had a short temper and was ruthless in punishing and depriving his wife and children of things when they crossed him. Miles grew up clinging to his mother for safety. Even as a young adult he rarely dated, until he met Renee at an event and was enthralled that she noticed him. His insecurity was like Renee’s of long standing; built of fear of his father and trading companionship for safety with mother. During his marriage all those old feelings of being insecure came up with force. Renee was always too tired for sex and busy with the kids. He was alone with nothing left to trade to feel safe and wanted.
Out on a service contract for elevators for a large company, he had that same sense of enthrallment – an attractive woman was looking at him, smiling, inviting him. The affair started. But guilt and shame weren’t far behind. Now Miles expected Renee to be as brutal to him as his father had been when he had broken the family rule. But just as things had usually been repaired in his family of origin, Miles hoped that at some point there could be marriage after infidelity.
Marriage After Infidelity Reopens Attachment Problems Triggered in the Relationship
A history of separation, loss and intermittent connection from her birth father created an ambivalent attachment style in Renee. She wanted the good part of the connection when it could be trusted to work, and was fearful of the connection when it couldn’t be trusted and was uncertain. When she found out that Mile, in whom she had put her fragile trust (despite her misgivings that she wasn’t his number one) was having an affair with another woman – the wounds opened up. This is what went on inside her head:
‘My mother didn’t want me because she gave me to my grandma. My dad never wanted me because he was never around and only pretended to care. Is it because I was sickly? Am I unattractive? Is there something about me that makes me less desirable than other women? Does this woman give Miles something I can’t give him? Can I trust that there can be marriage after infidelity?’
Before his affair Miles was in limbo within the marriage. He was disconnected from his wife and loosely engaged with his children. His insecurities about family stirred him into a desperate need for being seen, and wanted. He felt rejected by his wife who didn’t have the time or energy to be with him and show him tenderness. His internal alarm went off big time – not only was he being dismissed by his wife the way his father had done to him; but not he no longer had the mother figure adoring and comforting him. The woman he cheated with fitted that dire need, until he came to couples counseling and opened up about his wounds to his wife as they attempted to create a marriage after infidelity.
Marriage After Infidelity Offers Opportunities to Repair and Remake Secure Attachment Bonds
The shock of the affair on both sides shattered the pretense and unvoiced hopes in both partners. Each had been putting on a false face, living with pain, disappointment, rejection and deep longings for affection, attention and secure, reliable bonds with each other.
It was the wish that their partner could still bring them the comfort and security that they craved that enabled them to work in individual and couples therapy; creating a new more honest foundation for themselves.
Marriage After Infidelity Promotes an Explicit Exchange of Needs
In affair recovery therapy the partner who has been cheated on usually wants the therapist to take their side and be complicit in punishing the cheater. They want the perpetrator to own the betrayal, take the punishment over and over again, atone and vow to be an obedient slave with no privacy left – all access to personal electronic devices are turned over to the wronged partner. It’s understandable that they want to protect themselves, be vigilant so as never to be vulnerable again. It’s also understandable that the one who had the affair would capitulate in the hope of appeasement, calm and reconstruction. But these immediate agreements are made out of fear and a need for control, and can’t last.
If there is to be marriage after infidelity the partners eventually become curious about how they came to the point of endangering their marriage. And yes, that’s something that happened to them both, not one doing to the other – since they both kept silent, not wanting to rock the boat, until the boat got rocked by a huge tsunami.
When both partners feel seen, heard and not judged or partisan in their own individual counseling they make room for curiosity about each other.
- They begin to listen and recognize missed opportunities. In time they can empathize with one another rather than give the wronged partner bragging and flogging rights. A secure marriage after infidelity begins to take shape.
- The couple make time for one another. They get babysitters and spend a day enjoying a weekend trip to their favorite getaway.
- Renee feels so good with Miles. She isn’t disgusted but appreciative of getting the affection and attention she thought she was never good enough for.
- Miles talks about his thoughts and feelings in the moment, reassuring Renee that his mind is on her and their kids, not some other woman.
Marriage After Infidelity Creates the Relationship You Wanted but Never Really Had
Renee never had a family where she was truly safe, secure and wanted. That was her one basic longing. As Miles shared his genuine need to be with her and share their lives, she experienced that basic longing being fulfilled.
As Miles felt less scared of Renee’s ‘parental’ judgment and criticism he felt safer speaking openly about his needs without embarrassment or fear of being dismissed. That was his basic longing.
Marriage after infidelity wasn’t just possible, it was eminently better.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.2020
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