Healing Infidelity: A New Narrative
One of the most conflictual relational challenges we can experience is infidelity. I personally have experienced infidelity from both sides. The first time, I was in my early 20’s. I went out to a bar, I got drunk and cheated on my partner. The second time, I was in my 30’s and my partner cheated on me. I didn’t even see it coming.
Lately, I’ve been working with couples who have come to see me as a last resort after many prior attempts at repairing their relationship after infidelity. Men have cried in my arms. Some were skittish about seeing someone else and some lashed out at me in anger and rage because I was a therapist.
I feel heartbroken for these couples. If you or someone you know is struggling from the aftermath of infidelity and you want to save your marriage, there is an effective model available. The kind that moves beyond the victim/perpetrator narrative. Many of those couples were trapped in that old narrative which was only reinforced in the prior attempts to heal and repair.
In our culture, we often experience infidelity as a violation of trust and of the vows that we both took in the relationship. This violation is often experienced as a personal attack — we personalize the infidelity.
Once we personalize it, it is very difficult to work with it. Deep hopelessness surfaces and the narrative sounds something like this: “I don’t understand the affair. I don’t want to understand it. All I know is that I want to get rid of you because you’ve caused me so much pain.”
If I were a therapist who dealt with infidelity utilizing the old narrative and saw the betrayed partner as a victim it would be extremely difficult (even though I have experienced the pain of being betrayed).
However, as an Imago therapist, I see infidelity as a rupture of connection or an exit, and my instinct is to normalize the affair (whether it’s emotional or physical) as a breach and ruptured connection. Couples rupture their relationships all the time; it’s just that they give more weight to infidelity than to most other kinds of ruptures. There is no guilt or innocence from the IMAGO perspective. We see pain as pain for both partners.
So my approach to helping couples heal from it begins with shifting their attention away from the old victim/perpetrator narrative to focusing their attention on the concept of the relational space between which is where their being together is really happening … Relationships happen in the space between you and that space is sacred.
The relational space (a term coined by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber) can be thought of as an energy field that expands itself. I also think of it as a place above right and wrong … and beyond polarities.
It is important for us to honor and respect the relational space and understand it as sacred. Because if we honor the relational space between, our relationships will grow and thrive. They will be safe places for us to reveal ourselves to the other person. But if we are not thoughtful about the relational space between us or we don’t even know about it, we will pollute automatically. A critical look, an eye roll, the finger, a mean thought, or a dismissive remark is enough to make the relational space between us unsafe, and make us withdraw back into ourselves rather than stay in connection … stay connected to our partner.
My point here is that an affair can easily happen in a relational space that already feels unsafe, and betrayal and hurt will pollute the relational space even further. When the affair is revealed, it shows just how dangerous the couple’s relational space has become. It is important now for both partners to find the courage to restore their relational space and make it safe again. To heal this sacred space, I use “the Bridge.”
I also think of affairs as having a purpose, the purpose having to do with having feelings of discomfort or frustration, isolation or pain inside of the relationship, but being unwilling or unable to talk with the partner or work with the partner to change it. So the affair emerges as an easy compensation for that pain.
So if I can help the couple back off … dealing with the affair now (meaning help them back off dealing with how much pain s/he is in), we can try to begin to understand what motivated the person to have an affair, thus rupturing the connection, polluting the relational space between. This is not easy for either of them. Taking joint responsibility for their contribution to the pollution of the space as well as the welfare of the relationship is the opening for a new relationship together. The affair doesn’t just harm the trust in the relationship, the terms of the relationship are no longer valid. The couple’s love proved itself a lot stronger than perhaps they assumed. They’ve gotten to this point, so the questions become, “Do we want to create a new marriage? Can we come to new terms together?”
If you are interested in learning more about how to heal emotionally from infidelity click here to schedule a consultation or send me an email email@example.com to request a free copy of my eBook, where I outline the step-by-step process I use with couples to help them reconnect after an affair.
Paula M. Smith, M.Div., MFT
Certified IMAGO Therapist & Marriage Builder