Infidelity can be a symptom of an already unhealthy relationship

This column is part three of a three-part series the Express has run consecutively regarding infidelity in relationships.

By Debra Macleod

People often say that their marriage ended because their spouse had an affair; however, infidelity isn’t always the cause of marital breakdown. Usually, it’s a symptom of a relationship that is already unhealthy.

If a person isn’t getting what they need from the marriage, they may go outside the marriage to have their needs met. This doesn’t excuse infidelity. There’s no excuse for it. But there may be an explanation that can help couples understand why it happened. That’s important, since they can’t rebuild their relationship until they know why it fell apart.

Trying to figure out why a spouse cheated can be a confusing, emotional process. There are three questions that – although simple and broad – can help bring some initial focus and structure to the process. After all, you need to start somewhere, right?

The first question is – what complaints has my partner expressed about our marriage?

People often say their partner’s affair ‘came out of nowhere’. Yet when they are ready to really think about it, they will often admit that there were problems. When questioned, they can usually recall a spouse’s past complaints. A wife might say, “He complained that we weren’t having as much sex,” while a husband might say, “She complained that I never listened to her or helped around the house.”

This question isn’t meant to suggest that the betrayed spouse is to blame for the affair or that his or her complaints are less important. It is meant to help a betrayed spouse discover why his or her partner turned outside the marriage.

The second question is – was this an emotional affair, a physical affair or both?

It’s a stereotype that men have physical affairs while women have emotional affairs. Both sexes have both types of affairs. And both can be very difficult to get past. An emotional affair can be especially difficult to overcome if the cheating spouse feels that he or she is in love with the other person. A physical affair can be difficult to overcome if the betrayed spouse feels sexually inadequate or cannot get the sexually explicit ‘visual’ out of his or her mind. Nonetheless, the distinction between an emotional and physical affair is important to make, as it may lend insight into what was missing from the marriage.

The third question is – what was so appealing to my spouse about that situation?

In many cases, a cheating spouse isn’t drawn to a specific person. The affair may have had little to do with physical attraction, true love or natural compatibility. It may have had more to do with how the other person made him or her feel.

This is a critical distinction to make, since it can ‘depersonalize’ the affair to some extent, thus allowing both spouses to understand it more clearly. The focus is brought back onto the marriage, and the ‘other man’ or ‘other woman’ becomes powerless and inconsequential.

After a couple has some insight into why their relationship fell victim to infidelity, they can take those first steps toward rebuilding trust. This involves two important things – transparency and repeated positive experiences.

First, transparency. A partner who has broken a spouse’s trust should be willing to account for their whereabouts at all times. They should also be willing to share passwords to their computer and online accounts, and to leave their Smartphone unlocked and in view of their spouse. Moreover, they must be willing to do this with empathy and patience, without growing indignant or saying, “Get over it! How long are you going to watch my every move?” Remember that you have broken your spouse’s trust and given him or her reason to question you.

The second thing is repeated positive experiences. Infidelity is one of the most negative experiences a person can undergo and a couple trying to rebuild a relationship must counteract a flood of bad feelings with better ones. Kind words, affectionate voice tone, loving interactions and displays of appreciation, commitment and friendship are needed to remind a couple that their marriage is worth saving.

Debra Macleod is a relationship consultant with an office in Red Deer.

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