Infidelity: When to Make Up, When to Break Up?
What a great discussion on my radio show yesterday with Aaron Anderson, a therapist and owner of The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. The topic? ‘Infidelity: when to make up, when to break up’. Aaron writes for several websites and magazines, and is on the board of directors for The Colorado Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. He teaches Marriage and Family Therapy at Colorado University. He’s also the editor of The Relationship Prescription where you can find expert information for all your important relationships without the psychobabble. I have loosely transcribed some of the juicy highlights of the radio show below.
Infidelity: When to make up, when to break up?
Sandy: How common is infidelity?
Aaron: TROJAN condoms did a study that said 45-50% spouses have affairs, but that research might be a little skewed. Most reliable research shows that 27-35% of current relationships have had an affair on their current partner; 27% of women, 35% of men. In my practice, almost 50% of my clients come to me because of infidelity.
Sandy: How would you define infidelity?
Aaron: Swinging and polyamorous couples don’t define affairs as cheating. When there’s a sexual boundary broken, that’s the most clear cut definition. There are also emotional affairs, evidenced by texting in the middle of the night, texting naughty pictures to someone outside of the relationship. Each couple needs to define what infidelity means to them. It’s a conversation that needs to happen in the marriage or relationship.
Sandy: How do you bridge the gaps in communication that often lead to affairs?
Aaron: Create an environment of safety so communication happens. If the couple is not feeling romantically connected, it will likely be hurtful and distance builds. Couples should find a way to create a safe space for open and honest communication about anything that comes up.
Sandy: Infidelity is a serious relationship violation. Can couples recover from infidelity alone or do they need a professional?
Aaron: It’s a complex issue. Don’t try to do work on it alone. Buy self-help books, talk it out with trusted friends, or more importantly, work with a therapist. There are so many ways to get help.
Sandy: How do you know when the relationship is over?
Aaron: It’s time to break up when:
- There is a pattern/a regular history of frequent infidelities. Unless they get help, it will likely happen again.
- The person who had the affair isn’t willing to accept ownership for the affair. They blame their partner. “I wouldn’t have had the affair if you hadn’t ______.” This can cause the ‘victims’ to blame themselves, to watch their p’s and q’s. That’s a form of emotional abuse, and it isn’t healthy at all.
- If your parent was a philanderer, you might recognize that that wasn’t ‘normal’, but you don’t know any different. You might normalize those patterns. The best thing to do is a lot of self-exploration in your relationship. If you find you keep hitting the same brick wall in relationships, look inside and work on the issues. It often has something to do with patterns from your family of origin.
- Other red flags that are good signs that infidelity might be around the corner are a bland and stale relationship. Couples want to feel alive and excited. They seek that somewhere else.
Sandy: How can you tell if your relationship is vulnerable to an affair?
Aaron: The best way to tell if your relationship is vulnerable to an affair is to look at your significant other. Ask yourself what characteristics that they’re displaying that are normal/abnormal. When things are going well, they display affection, etc. When things are not going well, they become bored, abstain from sex, start staying out later.
It’s important for the participating partner to accept ownership and make a decision to change.
Emotional affairs are much more difficult to recover from. Why? Because people can understand sex as a good feeling. But in terms of emotions, there are feelings that people made vows about, ’til death do us part’. You betrayed your partner and gave those feelings to someone else.
Sandy: What are signs that relationship can be repaired?
Aaron: Your partner comes to you and confesses (not the other way around, where you discover the affair). They say they still have strong feelings for you and don’t want to have any more affairs.
You can repair when the participating partner is willing to do certain things to help the victim heal. For example, a man who lied to his wife about his salary, and was spending the secret portion of the salary on prostitution and gambling. The restitution he wanted to make was to reveal his true salary. To help her feel safer, he agreed to set up a separate account she’d have access to. He’ll put all the extra money he was spending into that account, which will be for the kids’ college tuition, home improvements, etc. He says he’s doing for her, not to defend himself.
Pay attention as to whether the participating partner is doing things for themselves or for the partnership. Affairs are for your own pleasure without regard to the other spouse as to how it will make them feel.
The victims can heal by looking inside themselves and taking a full inventory. Ask yourself, “Can I handle the ups and downs that will happen?” If the answer is yes, that’s another sign you can make up. You do it from a place of self-reliance. Not, ‘I need them, can’t live without them.’ That’s an unhealthy sign. You should probably break up. But if it’s from a healthy place, you’ll be able to handle it because you’re coming from a good place.
To hear the whole interview, click here.
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