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What Does His Infidelity Mean?

I never thought  I would be the recipient of a letter that informed me that my partner was cheating on me.  I had heard that story before and have to say that I don’t know which way to turn, what to believe, or how to trust what he says… I feel like I am starting from square one again and although our relationship works so well in so many ways I am not sure how to think about this act of infidelity and afraid that it will make trusting him again impossible.  Any help?

Discovering infidelity no matter how it happens to you is one of the most emotionally jarring experiences many people face. It brings up a huge number of questions about oneself and relationship, in a myriad of ways –from feeling attractive, adequate, and worthy.  In addition to questioning your ability to trust someone else, it also can make you doubtful about trusting yourself and your own judgment. Infidelity is the one breach of trust that strikes a chord so deeply in most people that experience it, that many look back on it as the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

Whether it is true as it has recently been suggested that male sexual drives predispose them to “a need for sexual diversity”, the incidence of infidelity in the US is so common that more people are affected than not. The percentage of people impacted by infidelity is between 30-60% of all married couples, depending on the study cited. The work of David Barash in the Myth of Monogamy is a great primer in understanding why infidelity is more the norm than the exception. ‘We are not naturally monogamous. Anthropologists report that the overwhelming majority of human societies either are polygamous or were polygamous prior to the cultural homogenization of recent decades.’ In a recent study of committed partners, fully 95% of men and 80% of women fantasized about sex with other partners.

For many couples, the range of emotions that are experienced with infidelity is not dissimilar to a death. All emotions are fair game- from anger, denial, depression and just as in any grief cycle are changeable and forceful. The discovery of infidelity often marks the beginning of the end for many relationships. In the US more than many European cultures, it is a breach of trust that carries much more meaning than other types of dishonesty and betrayal. Considering the many forms of dishonesty that couples are willing to forgive and forget,  acts of sexual betrayal are charged with something deeper and often unnamed.

Indeed, the work of forgiveness and coming to terms with each other again is a deliberate exercise in understanding and naming our own needs. The weaknesses in the communication abilities between the partners takes on urgency, and learning to articulate honestly and clearly is key to healing. Many of our values which we may have previously taken for granted as known and shared have to be re-examined and agreed upon. Both partners must willingly agree to a new level of transparency and vulnerability in the relationship if the new bridge of trust between them is going to hold.

For couples who get to the other side of the infidelity breach, the relationship in many ways does feel like a new one.   Coming to understand one’s sexuality and feel safe about sharing it within the relationship takes time, but is often the reward of the healing work after infidelity. If the relationship had not held a shared language for the sexuality of both partners, the one that emerges from this crisis will. Resolving to stay together after infidelity can mark the beginning of a more open and daring intimate life.  It isn’t an easy journey back, but it can be done.