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INFIDELITY. For many if not most people, learning that their spouse has been unfaithful is one of the most devastating experiences in their life. While not everyone reacts this way, for many the impact is literally traumatic, like having a bad auto accident.

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The spouse who’s been cheated on feels wounded and bruised. Nothing in the world feels safe and predictable anymore. Everything they trusted, counted on and believed about their life, suddenly seems to be gone, and the future they had planned for and imagined is totally cast into doubt. Their sleep is disrupted as they go over and over in their mind about what happened, obsessing over whether they could have prevented it or seen it coming. Sights and sounds that trigger reminders of their discovery may cause actual emotional flashbacks months or possibly years after the event. And they may spend many sleepless nights crying and feeling more alone than they have ever felt before.

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In one way the discovery of infidelity is even worse than having a car accident. When a person goes through a trauma, like an accident or losing a house in a fire, the first natural impulse is to turn for comfort to whomever you are closest to and most connected with. But when your spouse has been unfaithful, the person you most wish could comfort you because you’re hurting so much is the very person who has caused you this pain.

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Yet contrary to the stereotype, the most common form of infidelity, and the one most likely to be treated in couples therapy, does not involve serial adulterers or Tiger Woods types, hidden ten-year affairs or wives in other states. It happens to people who say they never thought they ever would have an affair. Believe it or not, this "garden-variety" affair is often a surprise not only to the spouse who discovers it, but the spouse who has it as well. Marriages that have gone through this type of infidelity can be healed and become even stronger and better than before, but only if you know how it happened and how to make your way back.

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How It Starts

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Infidelity happens in marriages that are vulnerable. Not bad, but vulnerable. There has been a “disconnect” of some sort that has been going on for a while. This disconnect wasn’t something anyone wanted or planned; often it’s just that life was full of challenges and both spouses were just trying to make it through. Lots of compromises were made and both spouses – the one who was unfaithful and the one who was cheated on – were feeling at least vaguely dissatisfied. The old closeness, naturalness and ease weren’t there, but attempts to repair it, if there were any, didn’t work. The problem was swept under the rug in the hope that eventually it would get better “on its own.”

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Typically I find that the person who’s been unfaithful has felt that their spouse is the stronger and more forceful partner in the relationship, and that something they’ve wanted and requested for a while from their spouse (and it’s usually not sex, or not only sex) has been discounted and dismissed.

That can sound like I’m blaming the non-offending spouse. I’m not! The non-offending spouse has his or her own feelings of not being heard, recognized or listened to. She or he never set out purposefully to deprive the offending spouse. They were doing the best they could! In any case, he or she usually feels, totally understandably, that no cause or explanation can take away or excuse the extreme pain and feeling of betrayal that the infidelity has caused.

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But sometimes this type of infidelity has nothing to do with the spouse. This happens in very family-oriented couples where one or both spouses have been extremely focused on duty. It might involve a very important and highly taxing career, or a very sick parent or child. In such life-and-death situations, all thoughts of personal needs are pushed aside and never expressed for months, years, or even decades. Eventually this person who has tried never to be "selfish" becomes vulnerable to the temptation of an affair.

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In this kind of infidelity, the unfaithful spouse is almost never deliberately seeking to have an affair. Often it’s the last thing they would say they want, until it happens. Nor is sexual desire almost ever the trigger. Rather, in almost every case, it’s the feeling of being wanted and desired, coupled with the feeling of being understood. This is why so many of these kinds of affairs occur between people who know each other through work. They start as friends first.

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When a friendship slips into becoming a romantic relationship – often long before any intimate contact has occurred – powerful hormones are released, and judgment is profoundly affected. At this stage the unfaithful spouse frequently becomes infatuated with the new person, who seems perfect. While he or she may feel guilty, it’s hard not to feel a tremendous boost from suddenly feeling so attractive and desirable to someone. For some it may feel like parts of themselves are coming alive that have been denied or repressed for a very long time.

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The unfaithful spouse will now typically convince him or herself that he or she can “manage” the situation. Their spouse “never has to know.” They may rationalize that the affair is making them a better partner for their spouse, because they no longer are trying to get fulfillment from their spouse in a way that their spouse "cannot" provide, so they can accept them better for who they are.

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But it doesn’t work. Maybe the French can pull this off, but most American couples can’t. In our culture, having an extramarital relationship is far too big a secret to keep from one's spouse for it not to cause a huge internal conflict, forcing a person to feel more and more duplicitous and distant from his or her spouse. Each lie and deception makes them both guiltier and more intensely fearful about the consequences of ever coming clean -- which in turn, increases the tension and the distance. Sooner or later, something gives and the affair is discovered.

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The Discovery

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Commonly, when the affair is discovered, the unfaithful partner “snaps back” into reality. Most of the time the unfaithful spouse experiences tremendous guilt at the intense pain he or she has caused. Of course, typically the one who’s been cheated on feels hurt, enraged, wants the cheater to stay away from them, and understandably doesn’t much care about what the unfaithful spouse is going through.

Yet ironically, simply no longer having to lie anymore makes many unfaithful spouses immediately feel more connected and committed to their spouses. And the very pain and rage that their spouse is feeling, while terribly painful to hear, often makes the unfaithful spouse value their marriage more. They realize that they really do matter to their partner.

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But the unfaithful spouse may still have a hard time completely letting go of the extramarital relationship. In this type of affair, this person typically started out as a friend and someone they turned to during a difficult time. They may feel some loyalty to this person, and a feeling of guilt that they have caused this person a lot of pain by letting it happen.

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Nevertheless, the extramarital relationship must completely end in order for the marriage to heal and for the non-offending spouse ever to feel safe and secure again, a prerequisite for any marital repair.

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The Aftermath

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The first three weeks after the affair is discovered are critical. Emotions are often explosive. What you do during these three weeks can make recovery far more difficult and even impossible. Two of the worst things to do are:

1) Demanding to hear all the details. The images you will then be able to visualize can get burnt into your brain and come back to haunt you for years.

2) Telling the wrong people about what happened. Broadcasting your spouse's wrongdoing can make it socially awkward -- even embarrassing -- to stay together. Some friends or family members may refuse to accept or forgive your spouse even if you decide to. You even may be pressured by some to break up to "preserve your self-respect," because they insist that “once a cheater, always a cheater.”

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The Long Road Back

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It’s not easy for a marriage to heal from infidelity. Trust and safety must be regained. Usually the spouse who’s been cheated on needs a long time before he or she can feel truly safe and secure with his or her partner again. The unfaithful spouse needs to fully understand and accept this, and be willing to do things to allay their spouse’s fears as well as to fully and repeatedly express and demonstrate their desire to repair the marriage.

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Meanwhile, once the immediate raw emotions have calmed down, both spouses need to be willing to look at what was going on in their marriage that made it vulnerable in the first place, and to take risks to share and be open with each other in ways that aren't always easy and may even be a little scary, so that the closeness and intimacy they both really want can be reclaimed.

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If there was love and a real closeness and connection before in their marriage (even if it has been many years), and a sincere desire in both spouses to have that connection again, a marriage can come through this type of infidelity “stronger in the broken places” – closer, stronger, and more honest and real than it may ever have been.

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Has your marriage or relationship gone through the crisis of infidelity? Contact me or call me at (240) 315-8100, and let me help you begin the healing process now.