The Truth Behind the Cheating Heart: Four insights into infidelity

Cheating is one of the top reasons couples divorce. The loss of trust can be impossible to restore. In fact, the pain of realizing a partner’s unfaithfulness is said to be the second-only to the loss of a child. Facing the reality of infidelity is enough to shake up everything you believe to be true. But in time, those feelings can be overcome.

Processing a spouse’s infidelity takes time. And let’s face it, it may be a real effort to get beyond the initial feelings of anger, sorrow and resentment. “A betrayal of trust sends many people into a time of self-doubt, disbelief, shock, anger, hopelessness, and sadness,” writes Alec Wilson, PsyD and couples’ therapist in Portland, OR in his Therapist Portland blog. “Additionally, because of taboos associated with extramarital sex in Western culture, the discoverer of an affair may feel as if they have nowhere to turn for support and no one to talk to. They may feel shame and guilt about their partner’s affair which can lead to social isolation.”

For those recovering from a partner’s affair, Wilson provides insight into the inner workings of infidelity.

Your spouse’s affair is not your fault. Even if you made mistakes, your partner had other choices. They could’ve been honest with you about how they were feeling. They could have expressed their dissatisfaction with your relationship before they broke your trust. It’s common to want to understand exactly why your partner cheated on you, but that answer may never be forthcoming, because as Wilson explains, affairs happen for differing reasons. “There are different kinds of affairs: Emotional, sexual, short-term, long-term, one-night stands, philandering,” Wilson says. “The common denominator is that important needs are being met outside the agreed upon structure of the relationship.” Ultimately, the motive to have an affair is an immature instinct not rooted in rational thought.

Affairs are addictive. The heady feeling of being in a new relationship can be intoxicating. “People often mistake the intense rush of feelings they experience in their affair for love,” Wilson says. “They often compare these intense feelings with their primary relationship and use the difference to justify the affair.” However, this intense feeling is usually caused by the rush of something new, the secrecy, and the drama.

Affairs aren’t real life. Most elicit relationships exist in a “bubble” from the real world. “This allows affair partners to romanticize each other,” Wilson says. “When the bubble breaks, people often report being stunned by how little they truly know about their affair partner.” Often the affair ends when the “high” of the illicit relationship wears off and the relationship becomes mundane. Less than seven percent of people who leave their marriage for their affair end up  staying in the new relationship.

Affairs aren’t necessarily the end — or the beginning. As distressing as infidelity is to a marriage, a whopping 70 percent of marriages that experience affairs do not end in divorce. An affair can become a wake-up call and signal an opportunity for the couple to make significant changes and strengthen their commitment.

Of course, affairs don’t just happen between people. If your spouse has repetitively lied about activities such as porn, gambling, excessive spending or drinking, that’s a form of infidelity, too. Often there’s the same thrill of getting away with illicit behavior involved for the spouse who is “cheating.” And discovering the truth yields a similar sense of betrayal of trust for you.

Waking up to the reality that your relationship is not what you thought it was can shake the strongest person to his or her core. Your initial reaction may be to leave or insist that your spouse move out. But Wilson cautions making rash decisions until emotions have cooled.

“If you recently discovered your partner’s affair, stop for a moment before taking any action,” he advises. “You may be in more pain and confusion right now than you have ever experienced, so your judgment is understandably clouded.” Whether you decide to stay together or part, Wilson suggests working with a skilled therapist, marriage counselor, or spiritual director to sort through your grief, anger and resentment. Reliving the deceit only keeps you trapped in unhappiness. Understanding that your cheating spouse’s actions had everything to do with him/her and very little to do with you, may be the first step to letting go and moving on.