If you just found out that your partner cheated, right about now you're probably wondering, "Can I ever forgive him?" All of your well-meaning friends and family are telling you to "Get out now while you can. Once a cheater, always a cheater!" But there's a part of you that wonders if leaving is the best option. You think, "Maybe there is something salvageable here."
It's important after an affair to recognize that the really difficult times will pass, and you shouldn't make any decisions early on about what to do with your relationship. Initially after adultery, it's difficult for you to envision a new, shared future. The one person you turned to in the past for support when you were in pain is now the person causing you pain. You may feel lonely and confused. You may long for the partner who you always thought was the love of your life. You might start wondering if your relationship was ever strong or as solid as you thought.
You may even begin realizing that the marriage will need work if you are to stay together. In fact, this affair is probably a wakeup call; it's time to do some much needed repair on your relationship if you're going to make it work. There are two questions to ask yourself before you make any decisions about your relationship: "Does my partner have empathy for how I feel? And can I find empathy (not necessarily forgiveness) for him?"
Pat and John had a four year marriage. One day, Pat was on John's computer and found emails to another woman. It crushed her. She confronted John and when he realized that she caught him, he came clean saying, "I love you, and I'm so sorry. I don't even know why I did it. Maybe I commitment scared me or something."
They came to counseling and talked it over. Pat was not ready to forgive, and I told her she didn't have to. The goal of therapy was empathy, not forgiveness. She wanted to end the marriage, but after talking about their fears and their vision for the future, they each discovered that maybe the affair had happened for a reason.
She said, "Our marriage was on a bad path. We never communicated our feelings. We didn't talk about our sex life and what we really needed from each other. We were totally wrapped up in our jobs. This affair actually forced us to examine our priorities. We decided that we needed to work on our relationship if we wanted to make it work and even though I totally blame John for the affair, I wasn't ready to end the marriage."
"I know this was a huge mistake on my part," John said. "I should have told her how I felt. This crisis has forced us to realize that we really do want to continue our marriage. But she may never forgive me."
Pat said, "If I tell John I forgive him, it's like saying I am ready to forget and move on. I don't forgive him, but I am coming to understand what happened. And I know I want to make it work."
Eventually many couples experience a specific type of empathy — a new understanding of what led their partner to cheat, and how it feels for your partner to cheat on you. In fact, I see hundreds of couples in my office who come for therapy after an affair. Many have a new vision for their relationship. Some days they forgive and others they don't. Forgiveness comes in time; empathy is a choice they make every day.
Staying with your spouse after adultery is a personal and a marital decision, and for many couples it's a better choice than trading in one partner for another, or choosing divorce as an option. It's hard work, but it is possible.
Talk about your feelings with each other. Try to empathize with what it feels like on both sides of the couch, and talk about your new vision of a new monogamy. A new monogamy includes a deeper communication and a more empathetic view of love.
For more information on creating your new monogamy and a new relationship together go here.
Dr. Tammy Nelson is a world renowned sex and relationship expert and the author of The New Monogamy and Getting the Sex You Want. She can be found online at www.drtammynelson.com