Is infidelity really just a way to communicate unmet needs in a relationship?
Infidelity doesn't always signal the end of a relationship. I worked with a couple several years ago who came into the mediation session with their very young baby, and told me they were planning to divorce. During the discussion, I learned that the husband, Charles, who traveled extensively on business, had cheated on his wife, Jesse, while she was pregnant. During another discussion, Charles told me that Jesse had, in the second year of their marriage (four years earlier), had a brief affair.
Charles had not fully worked through the pain he experienced at that initial betrayal, so early in their marriage, even though he outwardly forgave Jesse and took her back, and they subsequently had two children. When she was pregnant and not feeling well — thus less sexually available to him — and he was traveling, all his feelings of pain and abandonment welled up and led him to seek solace in another woman's arms.
Infidelity is often an expression of unhappiness with the relationship. In some important ways, the cheater's needs are not being met. It is a poor method of communication, but is often an attempt to communicate a message, nonetheless. This is why, for so many couples, infidelity is discovered because the cheating person "inadvertently" leaves an e-mail open on a computer, or a photo lying on the desk, or a note left in a pocket, where the spouse will likely find it. The cheater has an unconscious wish to be caught because he or she is trying to communicate with the spouse.
We all feel vulnerable about showing our sexual selves to another person, which is one of the reasons that sexual intimacy is so exciting. To have your partner choose to be sexual with someone else can feel like the deepest kind of rejection. It can be (though isn't always) the most painful thing to deal with in a marriage.
In order for a relationship to heal after infidelity, the couple has to work together to get to the core of the original problem. During discussions in mediation, Jesse said, "I thought you forgave me for that!" and Charles was able to talk about how hurt he had been at the time, how Jesse had burst all his newlywed hopes and ideals. They realized that they had both felt the same hurt, and as they began to talk, each was able to acknowledge, and apologize for, the pain of the other. They began to discuss where their relationship could go, and started couples therapy. Nine years later, they are still married.
By gaining understanding of what motivated the cheater, the spouse may come to learn that it was a desperate act. If the cheater had the insight and vocabulary to speak more directly to the spouse, perhaps they could have worked more directly on the difficult issues of the marriage. I have come to believe that most people are doing the best that they can, and if they could have found another way to express these issues, they would have.
Years ago, I worked with a couple in which the husband had left his wife for another woman. I quickly saw that the wife was a bully who did not let the husband get a word in edgewise. The wife offered a very unequal division of assets during their mediation, and she also blocked the husband's access to their child. I could see that the husband had felt stuck in an abusive relationship, and he could not figure out any way to leave it — other than to sleep with someone else. Because the wife was not able or willing to open herself up to seeing things from the husband's perspective, they were not able to finish their divorce in mediation.
If you are not able or don't want to reconcile with your ex, you should try to get the support you need to move on. Not forgiving won't get you very far, and anger hurts you more than it hurts your ex: You are the one carrying it around while walking through the grocery store, walking down the block, picking up your kids.
When I'm angry, I often feel the desire to "teach them a lesson." But only life can do that — that's not our place. If someone has cheated on you, they have fired you from taking responsibility for them.
Your first priority, if you have found out that you've been cheated on, is to take care of yourself! This discovery may be the trigger for a lot of restructuring in your life, and you may have to let go of hopes and dreams that will no longer be in your future. Be sympathetic to yourself; an affair is a lot of take in and adjust to. Spend time with people who you know, love and support you. Find a therapist to help you feel the pain and anger. Give yourself time to grieve.
And remember: the best revenge is a life well-lived!
Rachel Fishman Green, Esq.
ReSolutions Mediation Services
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