If you have had an affair, you may still be in a conundrum of guilt, shame, and indecisiveness. Surviving infidelity as the cheater rarely elicits empathy or help from his/her circle of influence. That outreach is usually reserved for the betrayed.
It’s difficult to get an accurate count of just how many people cheat on their relationships. Perceptions of just what constitutes cheating have a broader-than-absolute spectrum, not everyone is forthcoming, and not all marriages survive.
It’s estimated, however, that 30-60% of married individuals in the US will cheat on their spouses at some point in their marriages. Trending differences exist for different age groups and genders, but what’s important here is the fact that infidelity happens. A lot.
That means that, in any given marriage in which there has been infidelity, a minimum of two people have very important decisions to make. It also means that a lot of people are buried in the wreckage of this devastating but not infrequent choice. Children, family, friends, co-workers, church community — directly or indirectly they all feel the impact to a relationship that they, too, once trusted.
But two people are often overlooked when it comes to the importance placed on healing after infidelity: the cheating spouse and the affair partner. They, too, suffer. They, too, need to heal and find their way back to wholeness.
In terms of surviving infidelity as the cheater in a marriage, the million-dollar question is whether to stay in or leave the marriage. (And that assumes that the betrayed spouse wants to stay in the marriage.) Either way, at least two people will get their taste of rejection.
Do relationships that started as affairs survive? Of course, there are always exceptions – but of those affair relationships that lead to marriage, 75% end in divorce after only five years.
Surprisingly, of the 40-50% of marriages that end in divorce, only 15% of those divorces are attributed to infidelity. Even if marriages marred by infidelity eventually dissolve, most do so for other reasons. “Unreasonable behavior” accounts for almost half of all divorces.
That means most first marriages that have suffered an affair somehow manage to stay intact. And if that is going to be the goal, or even the default outcome, then both spouses and the marriage need to heal.
Surviving-infidelity-as-the-cheater has to be treated with as much care and importance as surviving-infidelity-as-the-betrayed.
Here are 6 tips for surviving infidelity as the cheater and making your marriage work.
End the affair.
This is more obvious than it is easy, especially if you have developed a deep emotional relationship with your affair partner. Affairs this involved can feel like a second marriage, and can be extremely difficult to walk away from.
“Right and wrong” aside for a moment, you may care very deeply about the welfare of your affair partner, even if you know you need to return to your marriage. Only you can do the soul-searching that determines which direction you need to take.
But if repairing your marriage is your goal, then you have no choice but to end your affair. Completely. No contact, no occasional messages, no searching on social media, no while-I’m-in-the-neighborhood drive-bys.
You and your spouse will have a long, difficult journey ahead of you. And there’s no way you can do authentic work if you are still dividing your energy and affections.
Do your soul-searching.
Surviving infidelity as the cheater in a relationship is going to demand seemingly endless answers and explanations from you. You can’t be honest with your spouse until you are first honest with yourself.
Examine everything from the purity of your remorse (Do you regret cheating or just getting caught?) to your reasons for cheating. Remember that your reasons (emotional/sexual abandonment, thrill-seeking, etc.) are not justifications. Explanations help you to examine and strengthen your marriage. And your self-examination must be brutally honest and raw if your spouse is to trust your resolve to stay married.
Commit to complete honesty.
You will have to accept that your spouse’s trust is going to be hard-won. You have annihilated it in a way that isn’t repaired by a few all-exposing conversations in marriage counseling. Your work will be ongoing, as will the questions. It’s important that you know this up front so that you are lovingly responsive and not defensively reactive.
This process is a very fragile one. Your spouse will inevitably segue into questions that reflect rumination on sordid details. For this reason, you should consider seeing a marriage therapist/therapy couple that specializes in infidelity.
A professional committed to the welfare of your marriage will be able to help you safely navigate these delicate conversations. S/he will know how to balance your spouse’s need to know about the affair relationship against the risk of unnecessary trauma.
Only you will fully understand the weight of guilt that goes along with surviving infidelity as the cheater. It will always be part of the context of your relationship as you work to re-earn the trust of your spouse. Know that it may take longer than you envision.
It’s imperative that you accept full responsibility for your choice to have an affair in lieu of dealing with issues in your marriage.
This does not mean that your spouse bears no responsibility for his/her behavior in your relationship. It simply means that you were not forced to have an affair. You chose that as your way of dealing with your feelings and the issues in your marriage.
No matter how cornered you feel when communicating with your spouse about the affair, you must never blame him/her. Again, a skilled professional can help guide these conversations in a way that is safe and productive for both of you.
Be willing to create a new marriage.
At this point, you really have no choice if you are going to stay in your marriage. Yes, you could do what many couples do out of pragmatic concerns and fear. You could choose to co-exist and sweep the experience under the rug of “saving face” and avoiding permanent change.
But if you want to make your marriage truly work, you and your spouse will need to design a new relationship. You’ll both need to decide what you are going to contribute and change, beyond just surviving infidelity? How will you better satisfy each other’s needs and expectation? Just what can you expect from one another?
As the cheater, you will undoubtedly feel that the burden of change sits squarely on your shoulders. But by staying the course and proving your commitment to “remarrying” your spouse, you will open the door to new possibilities. And you will set the stage for leaving the affair in the past as a painful — but not wasted — learning experience.
Learn and forgive.
No experience is worth this kind of effort if you learn nothing from it. Use this opportunity to stand up and take notice of your patterns, beliefs and fears. How did they come into being? What do you need to work on? What are your strengths and gifts that you can call into play to help you and your spouse triumph on this journey?
Your commitment to learning from your betrayal and its damage to so many people will set the stage for you to forgive yourself.
The irony of surviving infidelity — as the cheater and as the betrayed — is that it calls to the fore the best, most determined attributes of yourselves. It requires you to do what you will inevitably wish you had done in the first place.
The gift buried in the rending experience of infidelity is that it forces a decision about the quality of your life going forward. There is no longer the option of staying unaware. Everything becomes a choice. Everything becomes a personal responsibility.
And, with the commitment to the redemptive work ahead, everything also becomes a possibility.