Each can have multiple complications.
Much has been explored and written about infidelity and its deleterious effect on relationships. Committed partners who indulge in clandestine relationships behind their partners’ backs rarely can win back the trust of the partners they have betrayed.
To be an "infidel" simply means to betray one’s faith. Committed partners have promised a mutual faith to one another, a set of rules they have chosen to keep the relationship sacred. The foundation of all successful relationships depends on the keeping of those vows. Infidelity, then, by definition and action, happens when one partner silently breaks that agreement without the knowledge of the other partner. Thus, the common term “unfaithful” is often used to describe a partner who commits adultery.
The fallout from infidelity for both the betrayer and the betrayed is most often disastrous to a relationship. Even though many couples choose to stay together after one is unfaithful, most never return to the level of trust and security they once shared. In my four-plus decades of working with couples struggling with infidelities, I have seen only a small percentage of couples rebuild successfully. For the majority of them, it takes two-plus years of hard work, often with the help of a qualified professional at their side. The chances of these emotional rebirths can be greatly increased if the partner who has betrayed the other responds in the following ways when their infidelity is exposed:
They immediately and fully confess their actions.
They take full accountability for their choices without blaming the other partner.
They recognize and sincerely feel that they have also betrayed their integrity by what they’ve done.
Sadly, those responses are not typical. It is much more common for the partner who has committed the betrayal to continue wounding the other in the following five areas:
The response to the initial outing of the betrayal and the excuses presented, which often include blaming the other partner to “justify” the action.
The cover-up. The confronted partner denies the affair even in the presence of facts.
How long the affair has been going on.
Who the relationship was with.
The affair was just a convenient way out for the betrayer to leave the relationship.
Each of these five wounds can have multiple complications and are unique to each individual relationship. But the more of them that happen, the more likely the relationship will fold under their combined weight.
Also, the quality of the relationship at the time the infidelity occurs is a major factor. If the relationship has severely deteriorated, and the couple has not dealt with their indifference, infidelity may be more likely. But it is important to stress that not all discontented partners choose that option, even when the relationship is in trouble. There are many partners who would either choose to work on the partnership or who opt out before choosing to be unfaithful.
Though the situation may be different for every couple, it often helps them to explore the five types of wounds together and decide if they feel that they can heal them.
1. Why the Betrayal?
This question can only be answered adequately by the betraying partner when the infidelity is fully exposed. Most partners caught in the act of infidelity are initially not willing to disclose what their true reasons were, and may not even be able to articulate them at that time.
Here are some examples of those initial defensive responses:
“I’ve been unhappy for a long time, and you wouldn’t listen to me.”
“We haven’t had sex for years. I needed to find it elsewhere.”
“You were always too busy to pay attention to me. He was so accepting and interested. I never meant it to happen, but it just did.”
”She didn’t mean a thing to me. She was just there. I was out of town. We were drunk. What can I say? It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
“Do people ever fall in love with two people at the same time? I still love my partner the same as I always did, but I love him, too.”
“Maybe only one partner is just not ever going to be enough for me. I’ve done this in other relationships. I never wanted to hurt anyone, but I end up just doing that anyway. My problem.”
2. The Cover-Up
If I had a magic wand that would help me to better aid couples during an infidelity crisis, I would magically be able to get the betraying partner to immediately fully confess what they have done. They need not tell all the gory details, but anything that can allay the other partner’s distress. It is one thing not to find out about the affair. It is another to feel like you're being made crazy by inadequate information or direct lies. Unfortunately, that almost never happens. Most people, challenged with something they’ve been doing that is this hurtful, initially deny, accuse, avoid, get angry, walk out, or stress their absolute innocence, despite the evidence.
By the time betraying partners finally can no longer deny what they’ve done, they typically still continue to add more and more layers of excuses and avoidances. That makes the cover-up last longer and become more painful. Once a crack in the story is opened, the truth tends to drip out until the full story is finally exposed. 3. How Long Has the Affair Been Going On?
Infidelity is infidelity, period. But when discovered, the length of time it has been going on increases the chances of a deeper heartbreak.
A one-night stand, away from home, with a complete stranger, is much easier for some to get past than a two-year affair that is a winning competitor over the committed relationship. Both men and women who get involved with a committed partner over a long period of time feel entitled to an eventual resolution or more time with that person. They may even want the affair "outed" and take matters into their own hands to call the outcome.
In any case, the duration, intensity, and frequency of contact with another person is a crucial factor as to whether a couple can regain trust again. 4. Who Is the Rival?
Finding out that the other person is your best friend or a family member is torturous for the partner who discovers an affair. It is a double betrayal. These triangles are almost impossible to get beyond.
Interestingly enough, same-gender betrayals often create deeper wounds than opposite sex betrayals. Most cultures consider it immoral to “steal” another’s partner or to cheat on one’s own partner with another doing the same. Yet, it does happen. Good friends over a long period of time often become confidantes to the others’ crises, especially when those relationships are more vulnerable. Intimate connections of this sort can too easily spill over into a more personal relationship.
5. Was It Just a Way to Get Out of the Relationship? Sometimes when discovered, the partners having affairs express that they are glad they got caught because they wanted to get out of the committed relationship anyway.
If the other partners are still attached, didn’t realize things were that bad, or are totally surprised, they must then add additional feelings of grief and rejection to the pain of being lied to and humiliated.
Yet, some of these women and men will still do whatever they can to get their partners to come back, willing to look honestly at any contribution they might have made to the outcome. And I’ve also seen betraying partners who later realize they’ve made a terrible mistake, ask forgiveness, and try to make the relationship work again. Sometimes they are taken back. Often it is too late.
Every committed relationship faces hardships and is more vulnerable at those times. Outside temptations that offer more benefits and lesser costs can be particularly alluring. Partners who know when they are susceptible to temptation are open upfront about those desires and choose to put their energy back into each other to weaken those possibilities.
Sometimes once, sometimes occasionally, and sometimes frequently, one or both partners take the chance of an outside fling that they hope will not result in the loss of the relationship they have. But there are only so many resources in any relationship, and when prime time, energy, and investments are going elsewhere, the relationship still suffers, even if the other partner never finds out.
It most often just works out better for most people to live in one committed relationship at a time. Honesty, integrity, and loyalty are relationship characteristics that make for successful partnerships of any kind. When those qualities are compromised, for whatever reason, the outcome is most often destructive.