Infidelity: Should I Stay, or Should I Go?
Most people believe infidelity is a deal-breaker.
I’ve heard it from couples so many times, “We've always said if that if anyone ever cheats, it's over!” But faced with the prospect of dissolving a once-good relationship that may include co-mingled finances, beloved children, and shared memories and dreams, many couples find themselves deciding to try to heal their hearts and rebuild their marriage.
Infidelity can be the wake-up call nobody wanted, and surprisingly, it can be the catalyst for a better marriage.
We go into marriage thinking we know what potential pitfalls to avoid. But life has a way of sneaking up on us and sometimes we can’t see the mistakes we make until it’s too late. Infidelity can force a couple to re-examine their decisions and see their mistakes with more clarity. It’s an opportunity to expose and dismantle what is broken in your relationship, and rebuild it - stronger, better, and more resilient than it was.
However, when faced with the enormous task of rebuilding a relationship after an affair, it’s normal for both partners to have doubts. Here are some common doubts and my perspective as a couples’ therapist who has watched many partners succeed in healing their marriage.
The Hurt Partner
“I’m a fool if I stay. Staying makes me weak.”
This is a common sentiment: Staying in a marriage after you have been cheated on must mean you have low self-esteem. In my experience, the opposite is true. Leaving is easy – staying and doing the hard work takes guts. Willingness to commit to your partner and your marriage through the worst possible blow takes strength and bravery.
Also, working through the most difficult time in your marriage can create a positive role model for your children. Kids don’t need to know that there has been an affair to see that Mom and Dad are dealing with some difficult things in their marriage and are working to make it stronger. This can teach kids that when things get hard, we don’t automatically throw in the towel – we buckle down and do the hard work!
“Once a cheater, Always a cheater.”
This may be true in some cases, but I encourage you to examine your spouse’s history. Is their behavior out of character, or is it par for the course?
The hard truth of adulthood is that good people sometimes do horrible things to the people they love. It is my belief that the measure of a person is not the mistakes they make, but how they clean up their mess. Is your spouse remorseful and willing to do the hard work to clean up the mess they made? Are they willing to examine the reasons for their affair? Are they willing to do what’s necessary to rebuild trust?
Side note: Sometimes it takes an unfaithful spouse time to commit to rebuilding the marriage. (We’ll look at some of the reasons in the next section.) But if you are patient, your partner may find the strength and clarity to join in the hard work.
“I’ll never be able to trust my spouse – or myself – again.”
Once broken, trust is a difficult thing to rebuild. Betrayed spouses not only distrust their partner for lying about so many painful things for so long, but they also distrust their own judgment and intuition. Plagued by thoughts of “How did I not know?” or “How stupid was I to not see what was happening?” - a betrayed spouse wonders if they can ever trust themselves again, let alone their wayward spouse.
Rebuilding trust takes active participation from both partners. The unfaithful spouse must be honest and transparent – participating in trust building behaviors to help the betrayed spouse feel safe from further harm. The betrayed spouse must be willing at times to give the unfaithful spouse the benefit of the doubt. Over time, trust grows.
Ultimately, trust becomes a CHOICE.
What I mean is this: There is no guarantee your spouse will never cheat again. However, if you and your spouse have done everything to examine what went wrong, worked hard to build a more fulfilling marriage, and continue to bring your best selves to the relationship every day – then if your spouse strays again, it’s their loss. This can be a very empowering stance.
The Unfaithful Partner
“My partner will never forgive me and will hold this over my head for the rest of my life.”
When infidelity is discovered, the hurt partner can be extremely angry, demeaning, and vengeful – lashing out from a place of shock, pain, and rage. This can overwhelm the unfaithful spouse, and often he or she wonders if they can ever repair the damage they have caused. Sometimes it feels easier to leave the marriage than to stay and face the music.
But I’ve seen a positive outcome time and again: When two people are willing to do the hard work to rebuild trust, learn to communicate and listen to each other, and grow to see each other as flawed but worthy individuals, then mutual respect returns, a renewed partnership can develop, and forgiveness blossoms.
“My spouse can never make lasting changes that I need to be happy in our marriage.”
Infidelity has a way of bringing to light all the resentments that have been insidiously building in a relationship. As an unfaithful spouse, you may have felt neglected, unappreciated, or disrespected for a long time. An affair heightens these feelings. You may believe that you have aired your complaints in the past, yet they have gone unheeded by your partner. You think maybe they are only making changes now to lure you back, and then they will return to their old ways.
However, I encourage you not to underestimate your partner’s ability to make positive changes. It is human nature to not understand or recognize your own faults until you are hit with such a devastating blow like infidelity. I’ve heard betrayed spouses say, “I didn’t realize that I wasn’t seeing my spouse as an individual with needs and valid opinions until I found out they were having an affair – it’s like a veil was lifted!”
Infidelity can be a catalyst for deep personal awareness and positive change – for both partners!
“I must not love my spouse because I had an affair.”
It’s common for an unfaithful spouse to question everything about their marriage, their partner, and themselves when they become involved with another. “I must not love my spouse,” “I must be in love with my affair partner,” “I must not be satisfied sexually with my spouse,” “I must not be happy,” “Maybe I’m not meant to be monogamous?”
Keep in mind that an affair has a way of skewing your viewpoint. An affair takes place in secrecy and can be exciting and enlivening – and it can feel very real. But it’s unfair to compare your relationship with your affair partner to your relationship with your spouse. An affair is devoid of the reality of kids, bills, dirty dishes, and other drudgery of a committed partnership. Be conscious of the possibility that you may be rewriting the history of your marriage with an exaggerated negative slant.
Affairs can take place in happy marriages. Make sure you are seeing yours clearly before you throw it away.
Recovery is a Risk for Both of You
One thing is the same for both partners: If you decide to stay, you are both taking a risk on your spouse. You are risking that the other will remain committed to working on the hard stuff, that you will both bring your best selves to the job of healing yourselves and your marriage, and that your ultimate goal is a stronger, happier, more fulfilling relationship than you once thought possible.
But leaving is a huge risk, too. One that doesn’t always turn out for the better.
The Tapestry of Life
If you look at the big picture, marriage is like a tapestry that you are weaving together. Infidelity is like a large tear in the tapestry. But if you both work to repair the damage, diligently sewing and mending the tear while you continue to weave your story together, someday when you look back you may see where the fabric was mended and know that the repair and reinforcement has made the fabric stronger and more resilient.
And perhaps the tapestry will be more beautiful - because it was a team effort.
-Valerie Allen, MEd, LPCC
If you are trying to decide whether to stay or leave your marriage,
I can help you sort through your doubts and fears and find clarity.
Please contact me at email@example.com or 513-317-8113.