Just recently, infidelity in marriages has been a big topic with some of my clients. It has happened and they are struggling with the aftermath of it. Some have separated, some have separated to try to see if there can be a basis for renewal of the relationship and plan to work on the issues at hand. Why people cheat on their partners is a question we are open, as therapists, confronted with.The reasons are varied and individual to the couple but always has a devastating effect on the marriage especially for the one cheated on. Many separate after such a event but some do attempt to stay together.
Some years ago, as part of a survey, I asked for questions on this very subject. The overwhelming response was that it is extremely difficult to build something new after infidelity and in some cases, impossible to steer the marriage through infidelity intact. Not many couples are able to see through the event to working on the underlying problems in the marriage that may have led to infidelity in the first place. The majority who do stay together often live in marriage of convenience without really dealing with the issue at all. One commenter wrote :
When you have been married a long time that person becomes your family its more than who slept with whom and when. I heard a saying recently ‘A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers’~Ruth Bell Graham. This is so true and not just about an affair.
This was countered by our next commenter who said :
I believe a marriage can last for many years after infidelity, but one or both spouses will be unhappy. There will most likely be more affairs after the first one, by one or both parties. Once that trust and bond is broken, I don’t think it can ever be repaired.
But just why does an affair cause the marriage to irreversibly break down? There are of course, some cultures this is not seen as a problem and in others, the taking of more than one wife is actively encouraged. There was a feeling amongst our commenters, and posed as a question that we are “sold” the whole marriage package in the western world. Pushed by the media, religion and society in general, we are conditioned to believe the “till death us do part” concept wrapped up in white dresses and doves being released. There is no room for infidelity in this sugary world. This idea was consolidated by taking an evolutionary line, like one of our other commenters :
Perhaps the dilemma is indeed rooted in humans not being designed for sexual monogamy – it sure does seem to be a problem for a great many people. There is no societal rule that says you have to get married or agree to a sexually monogamous relationship. It may be a common practice, but it’s not a requirement. You have a choice. I still see the “cheating” issue as a behavioral problem wherein one exercises poor judgement.
The role of expectations played a big part in our discussion, ranging from the traditional :
Although I was once idealistic enough to believe that the strength of a relationship could survive affairs, this is not realistic, and I’ve never personally seen any marriage survive it.
to the more radical :
My view is that boundaries should be set which both partners accept. Normally this needs to be the strictest set (ie. if you want to have an open relationship and your partner refuses then you must accept this). However, if the boundaries are too tight, it can lead to frustration. So, don’t expect men to stop admiring the bikini babes, but do expect them to not touch without prior consent of their partner.
This brought us finally to the idea that parameters set before a marriage were important to manage expectations. If both partners agree to a very open relationship with no accusations, questioning or ramifications, then the expectation beforehand is far different to those expecting strict adherence to infinite faithfulness. But I ask, is that really marriage? Not sure but we came to the conclusion that :
the solutions to problems in marriages, including how partners deal with infidelity is as individual as the people themselves. There is no right or wrong way in most normal cases and no-one should be judged on taking a different view to the one generally promoted by religion, media and many therapists.
Perhaps the most insightful comment made and one that many will agree with was made by a lady who joined the conversation later. She wrote:
I don’t personally believe in a marriage contract; I believe in a commitment to build and share my life with someone in an open and honest relationship. Sex is the treat, not the reason for being together.