Infidelity: Defining the Narrative of Your Relationship

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Susan was a beautiful and vibrant 54-year-old woman who had just celebrated 32 years of marriage to Steve when she found out he’d been carrying on a 10-year affair with Marsha, a 42-year-old business associate.

“I was devastated,” Susan blurted out between tears. “I mean I know these things happen – but to other people. I never thought it would happen to me.”

Over the years I’ve found it’s one of the more common injuries that occurs where an addiction has corroded the intimacy bond that is crucial to healthy relationships.-Paul HokemeyerToo ashamed to tell anyone, she came to me with her secret and laid it at my feet. It was a position of honor that I find myself in frequently and one that I never take lightly. As a marriage and family therapist who specializes in the treatment of addictive disorders, infidelity is a phenomenon I’ve become an expert in treating. Over the years I’ve found it’s one of the more common injuries that occurs where an addiction has corroded the intimacy bond that is crucial to healthy relationships.

And while no two cases are ever the same, an infidelity always involves three distinct features that must be addressed and treated.

  • Breach of Trust: When one person in a committed relationship goes outside its agreed perimeters to partake in emotional or physical intimacy with someone else, the foundation of the primary relationship is severely damaged. The passive party to the infidelity feels violated, completely confused as to how the person they trusted with their emotional and physical vulnerability could betray them.
  • Shame: The fundamental characteristic of shame is that it’s emotionally and physical painful. It feels like a punch in the stomach. Shame arises when we are given a demeaning label that we can’t eliminate through our actions. So the passive party to the infidelity gets labeled a victim while the active party gets labeled an aggressor and infidel.
  • Guilt: In contrast to shame, which derives from fingers pointing in towards us, guilt is an internal construct that arises when we point fingers at ourselves. It’s our internal and moral code of conduct that causes us to self-regulate our actions in the world. Like shame, guilt exists in both parties to the infidelity. The passive party feels like they did something “wrong” to cause their partner to wander, while the active partner feels diminished for their actions.

Treating Infidelity in Relationships

In treating infidelity, it’s important that the parties work with a therapist who they trust and who reflects back to them their own morals and values rather then dictating down to them notions of “right” or “wrong.” In this regard, therapy becomes a collaborative process where the individuals and the couple figure out how the infidelity fits into the complete trajectory of their marriage, their individual lives and the lives of their children.

To do this, they need to go back and look at what brought them together, what religious and community values they share, where they differ, and what they want for their future. It’s a process that requires a high tolerance for discomfort, the ability to process anger, resentment and hostility in constructive rather than destructive and punitive ways; and, a willingness to be open to incorporating a new reality into the narrative of their relationship.

For relationships exist as a narrative. They consist of a beginning, middle and an end. While an infidelity will certainly impact the story line of a relationship, it need not define its entirety. Parties to an infidelity need to make sure that they remain in control of their author’s pen and finish the script in a way that honors who they are and what they want in this world.

Processing an infidelity in their relationship requires couples to let go of fantasies of what they thought their lives should be…-Paul Hokemeyer

Processing an infidelity in their relationship requires couples to let go of fantasies of what they thought their lives should be and integrate the truth of what is. Is this a difficult and humbling process? Yes, it unquestionably is, but it’s also a process that enables individuals, couples and families to embrace richer and more meaningful lives. Need it be humiliating? Absolutely not.

In this regard, the parties need to make sure they work with a therapist who helps them work through the shame and guilt of the breach of trust in a way that gives them a voice while working towards a solution that results in a happy and rewarding ending to their relational story.

Read more Pro Talk articles by Dr. Paul Hokemeyer

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