• Cheating: A Trauma of Trust

    One out of five married partners has cheated, according to research reported on WebMd. And while you might be tempted to lay the lion’s share of that blame squarely on the shoulders of husbands, that would be misguided — the National Opinion Research Center study WebMd cites indicates that wives and husbands are equally likely to break their marital vows of fidelity.

    Cheating can cause long-term damage no matter its form: from a one-night drunken fling to a multiyear relationship to emotional infidelity where no physical boundaries are breached. What’s of consequence in each case is the loss of trust in the relationship. This loss can make it feel as though the foundation has washed away from under you and change the way you see everything in your life.

    Cheating can cause severe emotional wounds, triggering feelings of deep sadness, anger, anxiety and grief over what was lost. Damaged trust, diminished self-esteem, jealousy and somatic disturbances can follow the trauma and persist for years afterward. And research has shown that children can be negatively impacted, even if the affair has been clandestine and the marriage stays intact.

    The stakes are high for the entire family when cheating occurs, but recovery is possible if there’s a mutual willingness to tackle the emotional issues and do the hard work necessary to heal.

    I’ve used couples therapy to help partners work through this issue successfully many times over the years. And while there’s no magic bullet, there are steps to mitigate the damage. First and foremost, the cheating needs to stop unequivocally. If there’s any ambivalence whatsoever about this, the work cannot begin.

    An affair is a form of attachment injury, where the expectation of security, safety and being able to depend on a relationship is damaged. This damage registers as a trauma in the brain, which can persist despite the passage of time. As a result, there are two ways that infidelity frequently presents in counseling.

    In the first case, the affair has only recently occurred and the wound is fresh, raw and bleeding. Other times, the infidelity has occurred some time ago and is still impacting the relationship, but far deeper beneath the surface — like a wound poorly healed that remains sensitive to the touch and easily reopened. Resentment, insecurity and distrust are still there lingering and can resurface intensely during times of stress and conflict.


    Cheating and Couples Therapy


    In therapy, a safe space is established for both the injured and injuring partner. The aggrieved partner needs reassurance that he or she can express hurt and anger in a supportive environment, while it’s important for the cheating partner to trust that he or she will not be vilified or shamed in the therapy process.

    Often, the couple is engaged in a conflict pattern that prevents a healing conversation to begin. Once the pattern is disrupted, and the couple steps out of it, they can start to talk about what occurred in a new way that allows for the sharing of more vulnerable emotions and a greater understanding regarding the circumstances that led to the injury. It’s only then that difficult feelings such as disconnection, loneliness and emotional deprivation can be explored and resolved.

    In the course of therapy, a new narrative of the relationship unfolds, one in which both partners gain a better understanding of how they got to where they are. Once the injuring partner has the ability to sit with and experience the pain he or she has caused the other, and be responsive to those feelings in a nondefensive and emotionally engaged way, true healing begins. This allows them to move forward with a greater sense of trust and confidence in the future. And the good news is this type of healing can occur whether the trauma is recent or decades old.


    Things to Avoid After Cheating Is Uncovered


    If you or your spouse has cheated and you’re not currently in couples therapy, here are some things you want to avoid, if at all possible:

    • Don’t make any hasty, permanent decisions. This is a trauma and you will likely think about it differently over time, after you’ve had a chance to process what’s happened.


    • Strongly consider the implications of telling your children. Kids can have a way of making almost anything their fault in their mind. Shelter them as best you can from the confusion and fear this type of information can provoke.


    • Don’t resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking or drug use. These behaviors will hinder your ability to manage a stressful situation. Now is the time to take even better care of yourself by eating well, getting adequate sleep and being around supportive people.


    While it rarely feels like it at the time, cheating is not an automatic death sentence for a relationship. There are many couples that have managed to recover their marriage following infidelity. While what’s been done can’t be erased, trust can be rebuilt, self-esteem can recover and — in most cases — the relationship can reemerge stronger and healthier than ever.

    If you’re struggling with infidelity in your marriage and want to begin the recovery process, please call for a complimentary consultation to see if couples therapy might be right in your situation.





    Therapy services available via Telehealth.