What to understand when your SO cheats
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My husband and I have been married for over 15 years and have three beautiful children. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years but I honestly thought things were going well between us. About three months ago, I found out he had an affair with an ex-girlfriend. He says it’s over now and was a huge mistake and that he still loves me and wants me to forgive him. I do still love him and want to make things work, but I still can’t wrap my head around why he did what he did. Can you help me understand?
Can’t Move Forward
Lori and Jeff: Ultimately, people stray because they want to feel something different. The specific feelings they seek vary from one cheater to the next: appreciated, valued, seen, powerful, sexy, attractive, alive. But what they have in common is an inability or unwillingness to do the work to create the feelings they want. Instead, they take the shortcut and look to the outside world for a magic wand (or a scenario in which they can believe their wand is magic). And, with social media, texting and apps, external gratification has become more accessible — you can connect with a past lover, or the cute office newbie with a click or swipe and send salacious secrets while in the same room as your spouse.
Jeff: There are theories that suggest we see ourselves as a reflection of how we think our partners see us. During the intoxicating honeymoon phase of a relationship — before we’ve revealed any of our flaws or imperfections — we look into the mirror that is our lover’s eyes, and we look pretty damn good. Over time, as we start to show more of our true selves, blemishes and all, we become more vulnerable to the realities of criticism and judgment and we often start to see a less flattering reflection.
Along comes someone with a shiny new mirror, offering the opportunity to start the cycle all over again with a reflection that is more reminiscent of former confidence and self-assurance. Sometimes the promise of a mended ego makes such an offer difficult to resist.
Lori: Sometimes hearing the “why” is as painful as the betrayal itself. In fact, sometimes it’s so painful that partners who have been cheated on don’t actually want to hear the truth at all. They want to hear the magical answer that will suddenly make them trust their partner again while simultaneously healing the emotional wounds that resulted from their partner choosing to indulge in someone else. Harsh? Maybe. But I’d be accelerating your marriage down a course to catastrophe if I didn’t help you reframe your question. Instead of “Why did HE do this?” you need to ask, “How did WE get here?”
There are some affairs that happen to caring and emotionally engaged spouses; affairs in which the cheated-on partner had very little to do with the cheater’s choice to stray. But for a significant number of couples, affairs are just the tip of the problems penetrating their marriages, including unmet needs, complacency and disconnect. This scenario is particularly plausible if you thought everything was going so well, that you’re completely caught off guard by your husband straying. I’m not implying that anyone can be responsible for a partner cheating — that’s 100% the cheater’s choice. But for any couple trying to move forward from an affair, both have to look at how they’ve been showing up in the marriage. If you’re willing to be honest with yourself, deep down you probably already have the answers you seek.
Lori and Jeff: For many couples, an affair comes with agonizing grief and loss; loss of the marriage you had or at least thought you had. But for many adultery-marred marriages, the affair can shake a couple out of their ruts and create an opportunity to build a deeper, more fulfilling bond — if you’re both willing to do the work.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.