Consoling the person betrayed by infidelity comes naturally. Rally your judgments against the lying, cheating you-know-what, and no doubt you will be a source of comfort and solidarity. But what about the person surviving the guilt of infidelity? The person who shattered trust, hearts, and vows? Is there no redemption, no healing, no future for the one who strayed?
Infidelity, no matter its common behaviors and painful consequences, has its history of trends and statistics. Men are guilty. Women are guilty. And demographic and social factors like age, race, political affiliation, family background, and religious observance all influence its rate.
The reasons for infidelity are varied, as well. They can range from a person’s low self-esteem to his or her desire to leave a relationship and choosing sabotage over direct communication. And there’s every reason in-between.
One thing’s for sure. Infidelity is messy. It turns life inside out for a lot of people — including the ones left surviving the guilt of infidelity.
A significant percentage of marriages don’t survive infidelity. But almost a quarter of them do. And if a marriage is to survive an affair, both parties need to heal — the betrayed and the betrayer.
How couples handle the aftermath of infidelity depends, in part, on the nature of the infidelity. Was it a one-time indiscretion or a long-term, emotionally-vested affair? Was it discovered or confessed?
Sometimes it depends on which spouse committed the indiscretion on how couples get through the rubble caused by infidelity.
Trust takes a long time to repair (assuming it gets that far), and life can feel all but handcuffed for the spouse surviving the guilt of infidelity. Women who are betrayed are more likely to withhold sex. Men who are betrayed are more likely to monitor outside communication and friendships. The cheating spouse can feel so guilty depression and anxiety can set in, or the cheater can lose his/her sense of self.
Surviving the guilt of infidelity is just as important — and just as possible — as surviving the betrayal of infidelity.
Affairs are rarely, if ever, one-sided or straightforward. They have their tendrils in personal history, unrealistic and unmet expectations, miscommunication, and the countless complexities and nuances of a relationship.
And if allowed to speak, affairs can be messengers of opportunity. No matter what, affairs lead to increased personal awareness and choice.
Relationships are where we work through our unfinished business from our family of origin and earlier relationships. And, as unwelcome as an affair is in a marriage, its occurrence doesn’t pass without leaving seeds for change and potential growth. The key to surviving the guilt of infidelity is a commitment to helping those seeds grow.
Follow these critical steps for surviving the guilt of infidelity:
There is no way to heal from guilt if you are continuing to create more of it.
You have choices to make. If you intend to stay in your marriage, the affair has to end – wholly and immediately. (And even that doesn’t guarantee you can save your marriage.)
Understand why you cheated.
This examination of conscience may take you back into childhood. It may bring up painful feelings that have nothing to do with your indiscretion, such as toxic shame or a limiting belief that you are flawed or unworthy of love. Perhaps, you will need to take responsibility for not identifying/admitting to yourself the needs that went unmet in your marriage, or talking about unmet needs with your partner.
This journey to understanding the reasons for your actions is crucial to surviving the guilt of infidelity. It’s so helpful when you can explain yourself to yourself. As a caveat, don’t assume your partner will be interested in the reasons for your actions. If you offer up reasons, your partner may perceive you as using the reasons as an excuse and get more inflamed. Tread gently or not at all, especially in the early weeks after the affair has come to light.
Your ability to rise above the guilt will depend, in part, on how well you come to understand yourself and your motivations. Your liberation — and your hope for a renewed marriage will hinge on the lessons you learn.
Account for all those you have hurt — including yourself.
Everyone will agree that your infidelity has shattered lives. But you and a few others may be the only ones who recognize how you have also hurt yourself.
You have tossed aside your moral compass and ripped at the fiber of your integrity. In the aftermath, your word means nothing, even when you keep it. You have gone against your own beliefs and values, and the road ahead looks long, painful, humiliating, and lonely.
You haven’t just betrayed your spouse — you have betrayed yourself.
Accept what has happened.
You cannot change it.
No amount of ruminating or wishing is going to take back the affair. You can choose to bury your head in your hands or stand square to the reality and ask, “What now?”
Now is the time for definitive, unequivocal action:
-Accept what happened.
-Decide the present.
-Change the future.
Vow to yourself not to waste time staying stuck in denial or even rejection of what happened. Your release will come only after you have accepted and owned your transgressions.
Easier said than done, obviously. The haunting feelings of guilt make forgiveness seem impossible – and the lack of forgiveness intensifies the guilt, a vicious cycle.
But remember that beating yourself up mercilessly heals no one. It certainly won’t cure your marriage, let alone help a happy new marriage emerge from the destruction. You need to be standing on your own two feet in your integrity to be a partner in a healthy relationship.
Forgiveness is difficult. But it makes everything — even surviving the guilt of infidelity — possible.
Commit to honesty and faithfulness.
Your spouse may or may not be open to reconciling with you. If he or she is, you have the opportunity to prove your commitment to honesty, transparency, and the road to re-earn trust.
But if your spouse chooses to part ways, you still have to prove to yourself that you are honest, faithful, and deserving of trust.
In every part of your life — children, friendships, work, self-care — you will be given countless little opportunities to rebuild. Life is not going to abandon you. It is going to trust you to connect one moment, one temptation, one challenge to the next with heightened awareness and commitment.
And once again, you will be asked to choose.
Learn from the experience.
Those who practice the Twelve Steps know that their commitment to the program is not dependent on what anyone else does. Even if a person makes amends to someone and that person refuses to forgive, the lesson and impact of the amends do not disappear.
The person in recovery chooses to seek the lessons regardless of what others say or do.
A person trying to survive the guilt of infidelity would be wise to take that page from the Twelve Steps. You choose the lessons without any guaranty of forgiveness, a saved marriage, or return to the status quo. You choose the life-changing lessons because they are essential to change and personal growth. You choose the lessons so you can look yourself in the eye and feel good about the person you are becoming.
Reach out for help.
Infidelity breeds suffocating loneliness for all parties. The confusion, shame, shock, and pain often cause people to pull inward and isolate themselves from others.
Even if you and your spouse aren’t ready to decide the destiny of your marriage, you can still begin the therapeutic process.
People are complicated. Relationships are even more complex. And infidelity takes relationship issues to an exponential level.
The aftermath of an affair is a fragile and painful time for everyone involved. Therapists who specialize in marriage, family, infidelity, and divorce issues can guide you through them and help limit collateral damage. Marriage counselors can help you process anger, hurt, fear, and other feelings, to understand the meaning of the affair, and gain clarity about the future of the marriage.
Infidelity is an extreme and painful way to learn about yourself and your relationship. The cheating spouse often suffers a barrage of anger and blame so fierce that surviving the guilt of infidelity can feel impossible.
But healing is a gift offered to everyone who chooses it and is willing to do its bidding. Healing belongs to the offender as much as to the offended — and for the price of the guilt, it transforms into hope.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats in the quaint seaport, Portsmouth, NH. To learn more about Mary Ellen and her work, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.