1. What percentage of marriages or relationships will be affected by infidelity?
There is no exact number for the rate of our best estimates, which come from studies done in the last five to ten years, reveal that 45-50% of married women and 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital affairs at some point in their relationships. So somewhere around half of all Long Term Love Relationships (LTLRs) are marked by this ultimate betrayal.
Sometimes when people engage in infidelity, they tell themselves that they had no choice, that their marriage was so bad, that their spouse drove them to it. But that is never true. There’s always a choice, and infidelity is never the right one. It has a shattering, destructive effect on the LTLR, even when the infidelity is secret. Of course, when the betrayed spouse discovers the infidelity, it has a heartbreaking effect. And, whether an infidelity is discovered or not, it does serious damage to the betraying partner’s integrity and self-respect.
2. What are the chances of a couple staying together when there has been infidelity?
The chances of a couple staying together after an infidelity are better than most people think. Many of us tell ourselves and our partners that “It’s over” if they ever cheat on us. But when confronted with the stark reality of infidelity, most people don’t find it so cut-and-dried. In fact, that’s a big part of why we wrote our book, Intimacy after Infidelity. In working with couples dealing with infidelity, we found that many of them not only stay together, but do rebuild their LTLRs so that they’re happier together than they ever were before the infidelity. It’s hard work, but they’ve taught us that it’s possible.
Reports have said that 60-75% of couples who have experienced a betrayal stay together. However, this does not mean that these couples can heal their relationships and regain trust and commitment to each other. In such cases, many couples stay together after one or more infidelities not because they’re happy together but because they’re afraid of the alternative. They’re afraid of being single, the impact of divorce on their kids, the financial implications, etc.
But after the 25 years that each of us has worked in helping couples, we can say that those who commit to the hard work of dealing with the devastation of infidelity, and to being a partner who owns his or her weaknesses and mistakes, have an excellent chance of not only staying together but of coming out of the process with a strong, happy, and more fulfilling Long Term Love Relationship. A strong majority of couples in which both partners make such a commitment end up staying together because they’re happy together.
3. Does the person who had the affair have to “come clean” to improve the chances of the relationship working, or should they keep the affair to themselves?
The answer is yes; with infidelity, as in all other aspects of LTLRs, openness, honesty and the lack of deceit are vital for long-term intimacy and relationship success.
But there are three distinct scenarios to consider when answering this question. The first and most problematic is when there is an ongoing or recently ended infidelity that the betrayed partner does not know about. The only way for the LTLR to heal, to become stronger so that infidelity will not reoccur, is for the betraying partner to reveal it. This is the only way the couple can overcome the individual and relationship dysfunction that led to the infidelity. In addition, when the betrayal was long-term in duration and/or included feelings of love, the more important it is to reveal it.
The second scenario involves how open and honest to be when the betrayed partner knows about or just suspects the infidelity. Again, in order for the betrayed partner to recover and the couple to heal, it is essential that the betraying partner be as honest and open as possible. Answering the betrayed partner’s questions completely is the only way to get over the infidelity, and the only way they can work through it and get beyond the hurt to recommit to the relationship and rebuild trust.
Last are the situations in which an infidelity occurred in the distant past but has remained secret. If the LTLR has grown and matured and both partners are happy, there may be no good reason to reveal the infidelity. Revealing the infidelity in order to assuage the guilt of the betraying partner is not a good enough reason to put their partner through that pain. If the betrayed partner becomes suspicious or asks about an infidelity, then honest revelation is wise. Another reason to reveal the infidelity is when the relationship is floundering and the partners are unhappy. In this case, the past infidelity may be just the spark to initiate the necessary work in order to rebuild the LTLR.
4. Is it possible for a couple to truly “get over” an infidelity?
Absolutely yes, couples can and do get over infidelity. Not only can they overcome it so that it no longer has a significant negative impact on their relationship, but they can use it to spur them to work on their relationship and, in so doing, make their LTLR stronger and happier than it ever was before.
That isn’t to say that the couple will ever forget the infidelity or that it will become insignificant. We tell the couples we work with that even though they can move past it, the infidelity will always be a fact of their lives, just like their wedding date, the birth of their children, and health crises. It will be a reference point, like the other benchmarks. Many couples make the mistake of believing or assuming that when they “get over” the infidelity, it no longer becomes important to discuss or reference. This is not necessarily the case. Over time, the way they refer to the betrayal will likely change. It will become less “charged” with negativity, but will always be a turning point. We tell couples that this turning point is also another growth point in their relationship. It was not a mature, healthy way of dealing with a crossroad, but they can take all the credit for using it to grow and improve both individually and as a couple.
5. What do you offer your clients/readers that “affair-proofs” their relationship?
In our book and our work with clients, we teach specific tools that everyone can use to affair-proof their relationship. We teach that there are Three Intimacies:
Conflict Intimacy, and
These are the mortar, building blocks and façade of any relationship. Every long-term loving relationship has each of these.
Self Intimacy is knowing what you feel, think, and want and sharing these with your partner. It is being self-aware. When we are self-aware, we acknowledge what motivates us so that we can make healthier, more mature choices. We use our Emotional Self Awareness (ESA) Exercise as a tool to strengthen Self Intimacy
Conflict Intimacy is the ability to “do conflict well” in a relationship. This is a key tool that many couples lack. Differences and tension are inevitable in all relationships, and being able to talk about these with one another is essential. The tool (the I-to-I Exercise) we teach in our book, Intimacy after Infidelity, is how to talk about our negative feelings and experiences in an open, honest, non-destructive way. We also teach how to listen to a partner’s negative feelings openly, to be curious and not to take the comments personally. Conflict intimacy is challenging for each of us and thereforetakes practice, practice, practice. When couples can discuss their differences with respect and calm, they can begin the process of working through the negative while simultaneously remaining in touch with the positive, loving aspects of their relationship.
Affection Intimacy is the “gravy” in the relationship; it is the loving, sweet, sensual, and sexual aspects of the relationship. It reminds us of what got us into the relationship and fed the love that grew early in the courtship.
When a couple is good at Self Intimacy and Conflict Intimacy, their Affection Intimacy grows and expands. Their relationship is resilient and can handle differences and, most importantly, it has a way of constructively dealing with challenges. In this context, they can discuss personal integrity and risks to integrity. They can present fears in a way that does not create secrets or view secrets as acceptable.
6. What are some of the signs that your partner is cheating?
The clearest sign that your partner is cheating involves changes in their behavior, such as in their normal routine and how they express (or don’t express) their affection for you.
There are visual, physical, and intuitive signs. The visual include lipstick on the collar, or changes in your partner’s appearance and habit, while the physical include e-mails, text messages, or phone bills, and the intuitive are your instincts that tell you something is not right. In any of these cases, it is important that you listen to your senses and instincts. Most people will not act on the first indicator, giving their partners the benefit of the doubt. But once the signs pass the “tipping point”, it is important that you talk to your partner.
7. If you suspect your partner of cheating, how should you approach them?
If you are confronted with this frightening suspicion, you should approach your partner directly, but not in an attacking, accusatory way. You want to focus on your feelings, and your fear, on where your suspicion comes from and on your desire for the truth.
How you talk to your partner, especially in an emotionally charged situation like this, is important. We recommend that you calm yourself. Ask your partner for a good time to talk, sit down with him or her, and say what you have noticed and what you suspect, rather than accusing, yelling, or blaming. It is important to be honest with yourself that you are ready for the truth; otherwise, we invite our partner to not tell us the truth. When we accuse and blame, we are on one level giving our partner the message that we cannot or do not want to handle the truth. Thus, once you are certain that (while you may not want to risk the answer) you cannot live with the uncertainty, give your partner your observations, share your suspicions, and ask the question. It might sound like this: “Mary/John, I have noticed that something about you and your actions is different. I have noticed this for more than a month. At first I thought nothing of it, but my intuition tells me that something has changed. I believe or fear that you are involved with another man/woman. Is this true?”
While you have practiced being calm and asking the question openly, this is no guarantee that your partner will tell the truth. In fact, the chances are that he or she will lie and say no. Not because he or she wants to lie to you, but because he or she wants to lie to him/herself. It is hard for any of us to face our own weaknesses, especially when they involve hurting and devastating our partners. We predict that you will have to have the conversation with your partner more than once and, in each case, remain calm even when the answer is yes. Crying in response to the truth as well as feeling numb, scared and angry are normal, but try to listen, because it is important to know that your instincts were correct.
If your worst fear is realized, if your partner did in fact have an affair, your pain, your fear, and your rage can overwhelm you. It’s an awful situation for anyone to be in. But you can overcome it. And sometimes your relationship can overcome it.
8. If somebody has cheated before, is there a chance that they’ll cheat again?
The chances they will cheat again are very good, unless they take responsibility for it as a mistake and sincerely work on themselves and both partners work on their part in the problems in their LTLR. By doing this kind of personal and relationship work, it is more likely that the person will never cheat again because he or she is no longer willing to compromise his or her integrity and their relationship. And because, as a result of doing this work, their LTLR will be so strong and both partners feel so happy and loved in the relationship that neither of them would consider straying nor be vulnerable to it happening.
9. Is it possible for couples to have affairs and still retain a strong relationship if they’re in agreement that having affairs is OK?
A small minority of people claim that this is possible, but we’ve never seen it to be true over the long term. In fact, human nature is such that this cannot work long-term. Long Term Love Relationships are defined by the intimacy and commitment that two people share with each other. Showing that intimacy and commitment with others lessens the special bond they have, to say nothing of the jealousy, fear, sadness, and anger that affairs create even when they’ve been “agreed to”.
Steven D. Solomon, Ph.D. and Lorie J. Teagno, Ph.D. are clinical psychologists in private practice in La Jolla, California, specializing in couples therapy. They are the co-authors of Intimacy after Infidelity: How to Rebuild & Affair-Proof Your Marriage.