By: Abigale Hassel
I am sure you have heard the saying, “once a cheater, always a cheater”, but that is not always true. In my experience counseling couples recovering from infidelity, I have observed that cheaters fall into one of 3 main categories. First there is the Narcissist. This type is the serial cheater who has no remorse and may even feel entitled to cheat, simply because he or she wants to. This is the type who probably will continue to cheat, whether he or she is caught or not. The second type is the addict. This person is either addicted to sex or is addicted to the excitement of having “the forbidden fruit”. This type may actually have remorse, but may need professional help to stop. Finally, the third type is your average person. There may or may not be marital issues, but this person usually enters the slippery slope of befriending someone of the opposite sex. The “friendship” grows very important to this person. The cheater may begin by sharing personal information about the marital issues and there may be more and more time and energy invested into the “friendship” until the cheater slides into an emotional affair, a physical affair or both. Most of the time, this person has remorse and when faced with the possibility of losing his or her marriage, he or she desperately seeks to heal the marriage. If you are reading this and you have cheated, and if you fit into category number 3, please take the following rules of infidelity recovery seriously, that is, of course, if you want to save your marriage.
Rule #1: Immediately cut contact with the other person (OP).
This is rule number one for a reason. In order to be fully emotionally available to your hurting spouse, you must not be emotionally connected to the OP. You must cut contact completely and fully. I will use the analogy of the alcoholic. In order for an alcoholic to stay clean and sober, he must never take another alcoholic beverage again. He must remove himself from the people, places and things that tempt him. He must learn new coping skills so that the need for the alcohol disappears. You must sever the attachment you had with the OP completely so that you can emotionally re-attach to your spouse. Remember, you took vows with your spouse, not the OP. You owe the OP nothing. He or she knew you were married when he or she chose to have an affair with a married person. Just like all of us, the OP must deal with the consequences of his or her choices and actions.
This rule gets a bit tricky if the affair partner was a co-worker; however, if your betrayed spouse is too tortured by you working with the OP, you may need to find other employment. I am not suggesting that you quit immediately. I understand that finances may be tough and you cannot leave your present job until you find another one, but if you want to save your marriage, you may need to consider this. While you are still in your present job and if you still work with the OP, you must take all measures to limit contact to work related issues only and never communicate outside of the workplace. Make your boundaries clear and known to the OP. Again, remember, you took vows with your spouse, not the OP, and you owe the OP nothing. In her book, Not Just Friends, Dr. Shirley Glass explains that a committed relationship has walls (or boundaries) that protect the relationship from harm. When one enters into an affair, the affair partner gets a window into the marital relationship, while the spouse has a wall of secrecy between him or her and the affair relationship. To heal your marriage, the window and the wall must be reversed. We will return to this analogy again.
Rule#2: Allow complete access and transparency.
Transparency means it is time to open the books, figuratively and literally. Give your spouse access to cell phones, email, and social media accounts. Give your spouse all of your passwords. Not only should you expect your spouse to check on you for a while, you should want him or her to check. Basically, your betrayed spouse must catch you “being good” in order to be able to trust you again.
I often see a lot of resistance from cheating spouses on this rule. They believe they still have a right to their privacy. They do not want to be treated like a child and they feel insulted, because they “swear” they have ended the affair. My simple response to these objections is this. Do want your privacy or do you want to save your marriage? You saying “I swear” now means nothing. You have destroyed the blind, unconditional trust your spouse once had in you. Your spouse’s world has been blown apart by your lies and betrayal. This is an extreme situation and extreme situations call for extreme measures. For now, you must give up your “right” to privacy. I promise you that if you do this, after a period of time of being caught being good, your spouse’s need to check up on you will diminish. People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing. Is this not the least you can do to help your spouse heal?
Rule #3: Be accountable.
This goes along with being transparent. Basically, being accountable means being where you say you are going to be when you say you are going to be there. It means following through with your promises. It means having an explanation if you are late and not meeting questions with defensiveness or resistance.
This rule becomes difficult for some cheating spouses because it can get tiresome having to detail every move that is made. This can be scary for some. I recently counseled a couple in which the husband was the cheating spouse. He really resisted this rule. He told his betrayed wife that he did not want to spend his life “living under a microscope”. In his case, he still felt a lot of shame about what he had done and having to be accountable for every step he took just fed his feelings of shame. I understand that adults in a committed relationship do not think they should have to tell their spouse every time they run an errand or go to lunch with some coworkers, but this is a different circumstance. That would be true if the trust your spouse had for you was still intact, but it is not and that is your fault. Are you willing to help your spouse trust you again so you can save your marriage? How is this rule looking now?
Rule #4: Answer all of your spouse’s questions completely and honestly.
This rule is sometimes difficult for the cheating spouse to understand. He or she may wonder why the betrayed spouse needs to hear all of the nitty gritty details of the affair. Often, the initial inclination for the cheating spouse is to leave out details, down play certain events, or do something that is referred to as “trickle truthing” (Glass, 2003), which is the act of admitting to the details of the affair little by little to avoid the distress of the betrayed spouse learning the entirety of the offense. A cheating spouse has many reasons to trickle truth. He or she may think he or she is protecting the betrayed spouse from further hurt. He or she may be protecting himself or herself from further shame, or he or she may even be protecting the OP to some extent. Let me be absolutely clear here. You are not protecting your spouse. If there are details you have not revealed to your spouse and they are found out some other way, the damage that will result will be far worse than your spouse knowing the entire truth of your betrayal. Each discovery of new information or details sets your betrayed spouse back, so answer the questions as they are asked, no matter how difficult and uncomfortable it may be.
Let me share what one of my clients told her husband when he could not understand why she was asking so many specific questions about his affair with a coworker. She told him this, “I feel as if another woman is walking around with knowledge of my husband that only I should know. I feel as if she has stolen a piece of you from me. The only way for me to feel that I have you back fully is if I know everything she knows.” As hard as it is for the betrayed spouse to hear the intimate details of your affair, you need to be completely honest and specific about what you did. If things do not make sense in the mind of the betrayed spouse because you left out significant details, he or she will try to fill the gaps in their minds. Sometimes what goes on in the imagination of the betrayed spouse is far worse than what actually took place. Not only are you not protecting your spouse from further pain by hiding details, you are actually causing more pain and turmoil for your spouse. As hard as it may be, you must answer the questions about the affair, honestly and completely. That way, your spouse will know that you are able to tell the truth, no matter how difficult it is for you. That is how you earn back trust.
Rule #5: Allow your spouse to set the pace of recovery, NOT YOU!
The process of recovering from infidelity for couples is a very long and hard one. There are many ups and downs, bumps in the roads and setbacks, for both the cheating spouse and the betrayed spouse. The one who cheated may feel deep remorse and he or she may feel as if they have done everything they can do to help the hurting spouse. All they want to do is put their egregious act behind them and move forward. That is all well and good, but that is unrealistic and unfair. Experts agree that it takes at least 2-5 years for a couple to get past an affair and return to a state of normalcy within the relationship again (Bercht, 2004; Glass, 2003).
Here is an example from another couple I counseled; we will call them Jack and Karen. Jack cheated on Karen and the affair ended when Karen found out about Jack’s infidelity when she overheard him talking on the phone. Jack was very patient and nurturing at first. He answered all of Karen’s questions, but he grew impatient after a while. Karen started to ask repetitive questions. At times, she argued with Jack because she did not like the answers she heard and this frustrated Jack to no end. One day, out of sheer exhaustion and exasperation, he asked, “How long is she going to keep me hanging on the cross like this?” My response was, “As long as it takes.” I then shared an analogy a colleague once shared with me, “You see your wife is struggling to climb the mountain. You have already reached the top and you are tired of looking down the mountain since you want to keep moving, but your wife is struggling to get to the top. She is stuck. You cannot yell down to her from the top saying, ‘Hurry up and get here already. We need to keep moving forward!’ You have to get down there and help her climb.” You inflicted trauma upon your spouse. Why do you expect him or her to suffer in silence? It does not matter if your affair lasted a few days or a few years; you betrayed your spouse and it is going to take a lot of time and work for your spouse to resolve the trauma and grief over the loss of the purity of the marriage. This you must accept. Your betrayed spouse dictates the timeframe of recovery; not you.
Rule #6: Offer constant encouragement, reassurance, and apologies if necessary.
In his book Relationship Rescue (2000), and on his popular daytime TV show, Dr. Phil McGraw said that the one who cheats is solely responsible for his or her affair. No matter what problems exist in the relationship and no matter how the betrayed spouse behaves, he or she did not make you cheat. You chose to do that. There are ways to deal with unhappiness in a marriage, but I assure you, cheating is absolutely not one of them. Cheating is merely a way to escape and avoid dealing with either the marital issues or your own personal shortcomings. Cheating is about ego. It is selfish. Short of holding a gun to your head and forcing you to go outside the marriage, your spouse is not to blame for your affair. Own your stuff fully.
In owning your stuff, you must take full responsibility for your choice to cheat. Forget about the excuses, “I did not mean for it to happen” or “I never meant to hurt you.” Guess what. It did happen by choice; it was no accident. You may not have meant to hurt your spouse, but you did, badly. It will take you fully owning what you did, expressing remorse and constantly reassuring your spouse that you will never repeat this mistake again for him or her to fully heal. As many times as you think you have apologized, do it again and again if your spouse needs you to. You turned your spouse’s world upside down. You were the one your spouse thought he or she could always count on and you were the one who caused your spouse more pain than he or she could ever have imagined. Do you think having to constantly apologize is hard? Well think about how hard it is to be your spouse right now. Do you want to make amends and save your marriage? Then get over it!
Rule #7: Protect the marriage.
Protecting the marriage is a multi-faceted endeavor. It involves what I mentioned earlier, which is reversing the window and the wall. The OP must have no access to you or to your marriage and you have to start letting your spouse in on what you did, why you did it and how you were able to do it. This takes maturity and a lot of introspection. You have to know why and how you were able to go outside your marriage and break your marriage vows. Only when you fully own your behavior and learn from your mistakes can you avoid repeating the problematic behavior.
Protecting the marriage also entails surrounding yourself with “friends of the marriage” (Bercht, 2004; Glass, 2003). This means that you must have people in your life who support your marriage, who support your choice to save the marriage and who do not try and undermine or sabotage the process. I counseled a couple in which the husband, I will call him Ron, was the cheater. Ron’s best friend was still single and it was obvious that he did not like Ron’s wife very much. Ron’s friend constantly talked badly about Ron’s wife and he frequently encouraged Ron to leave his wife. It confused Ron and deeply hurt his wife. Ron had been friends with this man for several years and his allegiance was split. If you are in a similar situation as Ron, I am sorry to tell you that if you want to save your marriage, you may have to cut this type of toxic person from your life. If people around you do not support you in this very important and difficult infidelity recovery process, then you need to let them go.
Protecting the marriage also means refraining from speaking badly about your spouse. The protective wall around the marriage means that outsiders are not privy to the problems within the walls. That is a private matter between a husband and wife. If you have trusted friends of the marriage and you need to talk, then do so, but only with friends of the same gender. By speaking badly about your spouse to anyone and everyone, you are making yourself vulnerable. Along with refraining from speaking ill of your spouse, you must also refrain from flirting with those of the opposite sex. By doing so, you are not only inviting trouble, but you are disrespecting your spouse. To those who have little regard for the institution of marriage, flirting gives the impression that you do not care about your spouse’s feelings. If you do not care, why should they?
What I am about to suggest is very controversial and many may not agree, but this part of protecting the marriage is crucial, especially in the beginning stages of infidelity recovery. You cannot have close friendships with those of the opposite sex. Under normal circumstances, it may be possible to have a friend of the opposite sex without your spouse feeling threatened or jealous, but these are not normal circumstances and, do not forget, that is your fault. Do not have lunch alone with someone of the opposite sex, no coffee, no extended conversations and no social activities with someone of the opposite sex. Do not forget also that you were initially “just friends” with your affair partner. You have already proven that you do not understand healthy boundaries, so it is absolutely unrealistic for you to expect that your spouse will be comfortable with you having a close friendship with a person of the opposite sex now. I will use this analogy to help you understand better. If you are on a diet and you love chocolate, you would not keep fudge brownies in the house. Sure, your resolve may be strong for the moment and you may even be able to resist those brownies, but you are still vulnerable and you still need to learn why you turned to food for comfort. It is much better to keep the brownies out of the house until you fully understand your weakness for chocolate. Sure, you may be able to have a friendship with someone of the opposite sex, but you first need to learn what healthy boundaries entail and you need to understand how you were vulnerable to having an affair. Is it worth torturing your spouse and risking your marriage to prove you can handle such a friendship? I do not think it is.
Rule #8: Agree to go to marriage counseling.
All of the preceding rules are difficult to follow, especially if the cheating spouse is still rationalizing and justifying his or her choice to cheat. The betrayed spouse has every right to the range of emotions he or she will inevitably be feeling. The betrayed spouse experiences both a trauma effect and a grief response when an affair is discovered. Some betrayed spouses may even suffer a post traumatic response similar to that of PTSD. The grief comes from the loss of the security he or she once felt. There is a loss of trust. There is a feeling of being violated by the OP. There could also be other fallout from affairs such as sexually transmitted diseases or even pregnancies. So much damage has been caused. With such intense emotions, you most certainly need guidance from a professional to sift through the aftermath of your indiscretion.
It is essential to find a therapist who is experienced in helping couples through infidelity recovery. Dr. Glass addresses this issue in Not Just Friends. Her premise is that if couples are not progressing in therapy, it may not be because the marriage cannot be saved, but because the couple has an inexperienced therapist who may side with one spouse over the other or who may be obviously judgmental. A good therapist who is experienced in the field of infidelity recovery will impartially guide a couple through the process, gently holding the cheating spouse accountable, while helping him or her understand what led him or her to infidelity. Once the infidelity issues are fully dealt with, then and only then can the couple deal with the marital issues. The betrayed spouse must own his or her contribution to the marital issues, but, to repeat, the cheating spouse is 100% responsible for his or her affair.
I would like to end this discussion with some words of encouragement. Couples can survive infidelity. Not only can they survive, but they can also thrive. The journey through infidelity recovery forces both spouses to do an enormous amount of introspection. Both can learn so much about themselves and they may even resolve old issues that needed to be addressed, but may not have been had the infidelity not occurred. Relationships are kicked from their complacency, forcing couples to look at what was not working between them. Spouses learn about both themselves and about each other and they may become closer than they have ever been. They learn that marriage is precious, that it takes work, but they also learn that it is worth the effort. No one would ever choose to be betrayed and hurt, but since it did happen, since you, the cheating spouse, chose to go outside the marriage, good can come from this enormous mistake, but only if you do the work and follow the rules to help your spouse heal from your infidelity. Good luck and God bless.
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Bercht, A. (2004). My Husband’s Affair became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.
Victoria B.C.: Trafford.
Glass, S.P. (2003). Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After
Infidelity. New York: Free Press.
McGraw, P.C. (2000). Relationship Rescue: A seven Step Strategy For Reconnecting With
Your Partner. New York: Hyperion.
Abigale S. Hassel is a licensed Clinical Social Worker, and individual and couples counselor. MSW, LCSW, OSW-C.
**The advice provided represents the opinions of the author. It is not to be considered therapy or professional advice of any kind. If you require such advice, you should consult an appropriate professional. Refer to the Marriage Rocks Website Terms and Conditions (link in page footer) for other applicable terms and conditions.**