Marital infidelity often makes front page news, especially when it involves such notable public figures as former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and former Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards.
Infidelity happens in the lives of ordinary people, too. According to a 2006 report on American Sexual Behavior by the National Opinion Research Center, 25% of married men and 13% of married women have had affairs. Affairs can be devastating to a marriage and can cause tremendous emotional distress to the offended spouse and children in the marriage.
An affair is based on deception and betrayal, and it is often, but not always, a symptom of marital issues that have not been faced. It can also involve intra psychic problems on the part of the offending spouse. Affairs can be emotional as well as sexual and can be long-lasting or one night stands. The emergence of Internet affairs is a recent phenomenon made possible by the development of technology.
Generally, emotional affairs with sexual relationships are the most devastating to the marital relationship.
Affairs may start with inappropriate self-disclosure to another person, as self-disclosure of highly personal issues can lead to intimacy. This often indicates that the married couple cannot effectively communicate feelings or needs. Psychiatric implications of affairs include depression, severe anxiety, and trauma on the part of the betrayed spouse. The offending souse can also become depressed and anxious if threatened with the loss of a valued relationship.
Warning signs are sometimes present and can include disinterest, lying, lack of transparency with financial matters, inappropriate travel or e-mails and cell phone calls. Treatment requires determining commitment to work on the marriage, rebuilding trust, complete transparency, recognizing that anger is often a reaction to being hurt, and taking responsibility for the affair. When the offending spouse is genuinely sorry for the affair, the hurt partner needs to verbalize the acceptance of the apology and a willingness to start the forgiveness process. Forgiveness and rebuilding trust can be a long, arduous process. The couple will need to identify and implement behavioral changes that enhance their relationship and provide self soothing techniques for the hurt spouse .Therapy often involves conjoint treatment with individual sessions for each spouse. Therapy can be difficult, and at times medication may be recommended to treat the severe distress that is experienced. In treatment, the couple will need to address the needs of their children, too.
Cheating does not have to end a relationship. It can lead to rebuilding the marriage, but there has to be commitment, a willingness to take full responsibility for offending behavior, and a readiness to learn and change on the part of both partners. Once the couple is back on track, they will need to be acutely aware of warning signs of future marital distress.
Author: Phillip L. Elbaum, LCSW, CADC
Phillip L. Elbaum, MSW, LCSW, CADC, is a licensed clinical social worker who has a clinical practice in Deerfield, Illinois.
Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.