If cheating spouses knew all that goes into surviving the guilt of infidelity, they would probably reconsider their straying.
Betrayal is undeniably devastating to the unsuspecting spouse. But it also wounds and scars the one who cheats.
Infidelity means different things to different people. There’s “the obvious,” of course. But there are also the various shades of gray between it and completely transparent faithfulness.
What matters is how you and your spouse define infidelity. And it’s important that you do define it.
It’s also important that you and your spouse are on the same page about that definition in the context of your marriage.
Whether the topic is emotional intimacy with someone outside the marriage or “doing business” at a strip club, infidelity isn’t self-defined. It’s defined within the marriage.
And, if you want to avoid the painful work of surviving the guilt of infidelity, you will define it early.
After all, faithfulness is rooted in trust. And unfaithfulness is the destruction of trust.
It’s easy enough to expect that your spouse doesn’t have sex with anyone but you. But true intimacy involves trust in the tiniest nuances of a relationship.
It’s about the secrets only the two of you share. It’s about what you know, deep in your own heart, about your spouse’s heart. What moves her, inspires her, frightens her, wounds her? What elevates him, validates him, deflates him?
When you violate your marriage’s definition of fidelity, you can’t undo the trespass. The foundational trust of your relationship is damaged, if not completely shattered.
If your spouse doesn’t discover the affair and you haven’t disclosed it, the destruction of trust will begin within yourself.
By the very nature of cheating, you will know you have crossed a line that can’t be uncrossed. You will have taken something sacred to the intimacy of your marriage and shared it with someone else.
And, even if your spouse doesn’t know right away, you will always know. You will consciously cover your tracks while guilt and shame unconsciously deconstruct your sense of self.
You may even begin distrusting and/or blaming your spouse. After all, you can’t trust yourself, even though your spouse still trusts you. So maybe s/he can’t be trusted, either.
But that will change as soon as your infidelity is exposed.
You will instantly lose your spouse’s trust.
You will realize the fragility of this cornerstone to your relationship.
And you will see your past and future flash before your eyes as you wonder if you can ever regain what has been lost.
And this — this floundering without the anchor of trust and the quest to reclaim it — will be the crux of surviving the guilt of infidelity.
If you knew, before cheating, that your most transparent, trustworthy efforts afterward would fall on a dismissive heart, would you think twice?
If you knew that the road to healing your marriage would be lonely and deeply painful, would you reconsider?
These are important questions to ask when you’re feeling tempted to stray. There are just some things that can’t be undone, swept under a rug, or forgotten.
What you need to know about surviving the guilt of infidelity is rooted in the quest and commitment to regain trust.
Not the trust you gained on a positive curve during your dating years and pre-affair marriage. But trust that has plummeted below threshold. Trust that now makes everything done on its watch seem foolish, unreal, untrue.
If you have hopes of saving your marriage, your life will have to become completely and transparently honest. And that starts with ending the affair. Completely. No phone calls, no texts, no “being friends.”
Only then can the work of rebuilding trust — within yourself and within your marriage — begin.
You will have to become more forthcoming, accountable, and rigorously honest than you have ever been.
You will have to offer information you don’t think is necessary to share, let alone offer.
You will forfeit your privacy, your “adult freedoms,” and your expectation of timely forgiveness.
And you will most likely need the help of marriage counselors to safely guide you through the answering of painful, exposing questions.
Before you think that rigorous honesty will be a natural derivative of self-flagellating guilt, think again.
From passive truth-telling to partial disclosure to minimizing your betrayed spouse’s responses, there are several ways to sabotage your own commitment to rigorous honesty.
But rigorous honesty is imperative. And it starts with yourself.
If you don’t do the reflective work to come to grips with why you cheated, honesty with your spouse will be impossible.
Remorse will be impossible, too, as you will lack the empathy to step into your spouse’s devastation and feel his/her pain.
Guilt and remorse may seem synonymous when it comes to how a cheating spouse should feel. But surviving the guilt of infidelity depends, in large part, on your capacity for and the depth and expression of remorse.
The difference may seem subtle, but, to a betrayed spouse whose world has been shattered, it’s everything.
Feeling guilty keeps the focus on you. You got caught. You confessed. You went against your moral compass and feel a healthy dose of warranted shame.
You’re sorry. You want to be forgiven. And you want things back the way they were so you can stop feeling this horrible guilt.
But the twist of the knife comes when your shattered spouse is indifferent to — even angered by — your guilt. “Oh, youuu feel guilty?”
Of course you feel guilty. And you should.
But what your spouse wants and desperately needs is your remorse.
When you can shift your focus from how you feel to how your spouse feels, healing can begin.
Genuine sorrow for the pain you have caused will cultivate a genuine yearning and effort to assuage it, even at the expense of your own.
And that commitment to understanding and healing a pain outside your own will sustain you through the grueling work of saving your marriage.
It will also help you survive — and rise above — the guilt of infidelity.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.