Dr. Nancy Gambescia, sexologist, author, couples therapist and CCAF Training Faculty, discusses the topic of infidelity: How is it defined? What is the therapist to do with this complicated situation? And what about forgiveness? We are so fortunate to have Dr. Gambescia share her insight into this painful and complex issue.
When a partner consistently hides their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from the other, a violation of the couple’s intimacy contract has taken place.
This is infidelity – the failure to abide by the couples’ contract about intimacy.
Couples’ agreements about intimacy may be negotiated and stated explicitly, or just implied. But when infidelity enters the relationship, a breach has occurred, whether emotional, physical, or both. Secrecy, lies, and other forms of dishonesty are harbingers of infidelity, even if no physical contact has occurred as in cyber-infidelity.
When infidelity occurs, intimacy is diverted away from the primary couple relationship and expressed through other outlets or relationships.
The Grey Area: Is it infidelity?
Typically, the point of departure from the couple’s agreement regarding intimacy becomes an area of intense conflict. Often the partners disagree about whether or not infidelity has occurred. One way of determining that a line has been crossed is to trace the onset of deceptive communication.
Deception hides the behaviors involved with maintaining the affair and is often both very confusing and frightening for the betrayed partner.
Discovery or disclosure of infidelity precipitates a crisis in the relationship. Common initial reactions include shock, anger, and denial. The partners struggle with grief, self-doubt, and pessimism. Previously held assumptions about loyalty, love, and the couple’s sense of “we-ness” are suddenly in question. Often, partners wonder if the relationship is irreparably damaged as it rapidly moves from a context of security to uncertainty.
The role of forgiveness
By the time the couple seeks treatment, varying degrees of dishonesty and discord are present. They come to therapy full of confusion, volatility, uncertainty, and pessimism. Each partner has extremely different reactions and it is challenging for either to understand how the other feels. Often, the betrayed partner is hurt and angry while the unfaithful partner is shameful, defensive, and sensitive to criticism.
Infidelity is a relationship issue
It is important to consider infidelity as a relationship issue, even if there is a clear offending partner. With infidelity, partners suffer together, and they must heal together to overcome considerable relational trauma and injury.
The process of rebuilding is typically fraught with emotional ups and downs. The couple can be helped to find reasons to stay together, develop the motivation to work on their relationship, and to forgive. This is accomplished by gradually recognizing the unifying factors that brought them together in the first place: empathy, hope, humility, and relational commitment. Commitment can be a struggle for a couple recovering from infidelity. Understandably, it is difficult for the partners to stay focused on healing in the presence of pain, misunderstanding, and pessimism. It is often easier to remain polarized through blaming and sustained anger.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding infidelity, forgiveness is a central aspect of relationship healing. Considering the intense pain and confusion following the discovery of infidelity, partners, particularly the betrayed, may find the notion of forgiveness difficult to contemplate.
Four essential factors must be in place in order for forgiveness to occur: 1) a high degree of relational commitment, 2) genuine apologies and remorse from the unfaithful partner, 3) restitution for the emotional damage sustained, and 4) reassurance over time that the offending partner will not repeat the injuries.
The mutual desire to recover the relationship often provides the strongest motivation for engaging in the process of forgiveness.
Weeks, G., Gambescia, N., & Jennings, R. (2003). Treating infidelity: Therapeutic dilemmas and effective strategies. New York: W. W. Norton.