edited by Dr. Nedra Voorhies, LPC
I have lost count of the number of couples who have come into my office struggling with the aftermath of infidelity. But I can count on one hand the number of couples who have recovered - and gone on to strengthen their marriage - from the wound inflicted by one spouse upon this shared covenant. More than five of the couples have stayed married, a tribute to human endurance. But only five of the couples have been able to build a new marriage from the wreckage caused by adultery.
This is encouraging. This underscores the seriousness of marriage. This recasts God's unequivocal prohibition against adultery as an act of care rather than as an act of Cosmic Prudishness intent only upon limiting humanity's freedom and enjoyment. It is encouraging even to know that neither station in life nor degree of education, neither wealth nor poverty, neither religious sentiment nor unbridled agnosticism, not even whether the perpetrator is male or female, are sure predictors of who will be able to build anew upon such spiritual, emotional, financial and relational devastation.
To live through the fire of infidelity, coming out on the other side with a new marriage is to know the reality of grace - from self, spouse, children, knowing friends and from God. In my own experience, when a marriage ends because of infidelity there is still an experience of grace. The grace bearing us through the roiling waters of divorce is just as profound as what bears us through the fires that purify a marriage of infidelity. Grace transforms us because God is good. Yet St. Paul's counsel is truly wise: "do not sin so that grace abounds."
I define infidelity the same way I define alcoholism: if my relationship with someone else or some thing else creates problems in my marriage, that relationship is a problem. Secrecy is inherent in the act of infidelity. This secrecy, while meeting a psychological need for excitement, nevertheless fuels a fire of guilt and shame within the soul of the one who is unfaithful. The secrecy corrodes the trust and loyalty that any marriage must have in order to survive. The betrayal inherent in adultery cripples even the objective truth one has come to believe about self and spouse. If I have an Other One I Cannot Live Without in my marriage besides my marital partner the chances are very good that my spouse feels competitive with, resentful of, and ultimately abandoned for this Other One.
Put dynamically, the Wounded Spouse is the one with the power to define 'infidelity.' This is positive insofar as it moves us away from the hair-splitting of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (penetration, however slight) and the Clintonesque quibbling of the definition of "is." This moves us into the arena where we must therefore consider whether my spouse is truly the "love of my life" or whether there is another whom I truly cannot live (and therefore love) without. This dynamic can become negative if a partner brings into marriage a self so wounded by past betrayals that jealousy is a core dynamic in their soul or they are so dependent that anything short of symbiosis is viewed as betrayal.
Infidelity begins when one becomes attracted to someone who meets our emotional needs better than our spouse. Dr. Willard Hurley (Marriage Builders) has identified these basic emotional needs as essential for a healthy marriage: affection, sexual fulfillment, conversation, relational companionship, honesty and openness, physical attractiveness, financial support, domestic support, family commitment and admiration. He describes these ten basic needs as forming the wells that feed each person's Love Bank. None of us meet these needs in our spouse's life in a perfect way. But if each of them is not met at least 51% of the time, then we start to draw down the capital in that bank account. If too many withdrawals are made from too many accounts we are then vulnerable for an affair.
Here is bit about each one of these basic emotional needs:
- Sexual fulfillment
- Relational companionship
- Honesty and openness
- Physical attractiveness
- Financial support
- Domestic support
- Family commitment
Practically speaking, infidelity ends in through a three-step process. There are three parts to the way affairs should end. The first part is revealing the affair to one's spouse. The second part is never seeing or communicating with the lover again. The third part is getting through symptoms of withdrawal after a permanent separation takes place. These steps imply a policy of radical honesty with one's spouse. These steps further require actively doing things that please one's spouse and actively avoid doing things that displease one's spouse. Finally for these steps to succeed one must account for time in a rigorous non-defensive manner.
"Easier said than done," you may be saying. Exactly! Getting beyond the wounds of infidelity will take at least as much work as a person puts into an affair. But the alternatives are no less difficult: divorce or living in a marriage that is permanently crippled. These steps focus on the actions the unfaithful spouse must begin taking in order to rebuild the marriage. You might be asking, "but what about the other person? Aren't there some things they have to do too?"
Of course there are! They must do these same three steps, for they will lead to the doorway called "Forgiveness." Genuine forgiveness that promotes healing and not the "We-Will-Not-Speak-Of-This-Again" denial that passes for forgiveness. These practices, when instituted over the course of one year, generally bring the couple to the place where there is a mutual recognition of how troubled the marriage was at the time the affair was discovered. The wounding spouse has a new and more adequate ability to recognize the depth of their betrayal and the wounded spouse now has a more mature recognition of their role in the marriage's dysfunction to forgive with genuine compassion.
After roughly one year the marriage may be ready for the second doorway in the recovery process from infidelity: Reconciliation. Reconciliation becomes possible once it becomes clear to the couple that the marriage is going to survive. Restoration is also the consequence of instituting healthy ways of meeting needs. These healthy practices will only occur if each party in the marriage makes an unequivocal commitment to place the task of meeting the partner's emotional needs as the number one priority. This stance enables each party in the marriage to be secure. Reconciliation happens when one is willing to give a spouse undivided attention. Harley recommends fifteen hours a week! This may seem like a great deal - it certainly is at least as much as anyone pours into an affair.
The final stage of recovery is restoration. This stage is where a new marriage is discovered. At the two-year post-confession stage, if both partners have instituted the steps briefly outlined, the couple has the beginnings of a new marriage. They have progressed to the point where they have lost their nostalgic longing for both the "old marriage" and the "old lover." They have hopefully rediscovered a level of romantic love and affection along with a capacity to meet one another's true needs in a way that was absolutely absent from the marriage they had in place. Naturally this process is not carried out in a vacuum. It has been done while also raising children, keeping focused on work (sometimes both places of employment), and doing all of the other things an active couple does in today's world.