Please note: In this article, I use the terms "marriage, spouse, relationships, and partner." All of my points are equally applicable to any couple in an exclusive relationship. Similarly, "infidelity and cheating" are used interchangeably.
Not all houses are the same
I generally tell my clients that an infidelity in a relationship is like an earthquake to a house. It can reduce the house to rubble or just cause minor damage, depending on how the house was built in the first place, and the level of the earthquake which may vary from a Richter Scale Rating of 1.4, a minor tremor, to an utterly devastating earthquake with a logarithmic Richter Scale Rating of 9.8.
In view of the fact that Tokyo has a reputation for earthquakes, houses in Tokyo are required to be built so as to suffer minimal or no damage should there be an earthquake. Clearly, houses that do not abide by the building code may absolutely collapse. And so it is with marriages. Some relationships can weather a high level earthquake on the Richter Scale, but others will not withstand even a “low level” tremor.
The following are crucial elements in determining the future of the marriage: The nature and history of the marriage prior to the crisis, the subjective feelings of the hurt partner, the follow up by the offending partner in engaging in the healing process, the maturity and skills of both individuals as well as their philosophies and concept of the marital relationship, their love and level of commitment to each other, and their inner as well as outer constraints to divorce.
The pain of betrayal, the depth of depression and the feelings of utter devastation will not be assuaged if the offending partner throws out a superficial "I'm sorry" and is impatient with the hurt partner's complaints and expressions of pain. In such a case this traumatic event in the marriage may turn out to be too much for the relationship to bear and can collapse the marriage. On the other hand, in spite of all the feelings of pain, hurt, betrayal, rage depression, and devastation, the cloud that envelops the couple after an act of infidelity could be a cloud with a silver lining if it propels the couple into the care of an experienced marriage counselor and they immerse themselves into the process of healing, growth and rediscovery.
Spring, PhD writes interestingly on the difference between a meaningless, fleeting unearned "cheap forgiveness" and "true forgiveness " which is lasting and deep, and can only be achieved when earned with patience and perseverance by the offending party.
For more information on this delicate and complex process see "How Can I Forgive You?" by Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD, and Not "Just Friends" Part IV "The Healing Journey" pp. 313-356 by Shirley Glass, PhD.
Now, although the metaphor "infidelity = earthquake to house" is apt, there are many weaknesses in it. In exploring these weaknesses, I will have an opportunity to make a number of points about the various nuances that go into the making and breaking of a marriage, and show how there is a lot of hope for a marriage that goes through an earthquake.
The Differences Between A Real House And A Marriage "House"
The strength of a real house can be measured by its construction, and experts can predict fairly well how it would stand up under different conditions. Assuming a very mild earthquake: A thatched hut would collapse, a wood framed house with shingled walls would sustain noticeable damage, but a steel framed house with brick walls may not sustain any damage.
Now here is one weakness in the metaphor: Unlike the thatched hut where the damage is highly predictable (collapse), this is not the case with a marriage. How can one predict whether a marriage will hold together? Yes, where the marriage is weak (the thatched hut), an infidelity could destroy the edifice. But it doesn't have to. There are so many variables in a marriage. Further, in fact, there could be a positive side to the infidelity. This crisis in the marriage could be a wakeup call, and with highly skilled professional help the marriage may not only survive but may emerge stronger than it was before the infidelity.
Now, If the marriage was "brick walled with steel girders" prior to the infidelity, in theory a very mild earthquake should cause no damage, but in fact even in a very good "A" marriage, an infidelity will cause damage and it must be addressed immediately by a professional. If ignored or "smoothed over" by the couple, the damage may very well be "successfully" denied for years and the couple will seemingly have put the event behind them. But in my experience, the damage is still there, lingers in the heart of the hurt party, festers, and if unattended by an experienced professional, may very well eat away at the marriage like termites quietly and slowly destroying the foundation of a house, or build up steam and explode like a volcano, even years later.
Another weakness in the metaphor: No one can predict the harm of an infidelity to a particular marriage. In the case of the wife mentioned above who was "ready to sign the (divorce) papers," in response to my question about their happiness in the marriage prior to the infidelity, both said that it had been an "A" marriage. But yet, she was so furious after her husband's infidelity that she felt like divorcing him on the spot.
Now, some may question: "How can there even be an infidelity in a very good marriage?" Unfortunately, even very good marriages are not infidelity-proof. Janet Spring, PhD, writes in her book "After The Affair" that most men who have affairs have no complaints about their marriage. My own professional experience is similar: When I ask the offending husband "How would you rate your happiness in the marriage before the affair?" it is amazing how many say "I was perfectly happy. It was an 'A' marriage."
The Difference Between A Real Earthquake and The Infidelity "Earthquake"
Another weakness in the metaphor comparing an infidelty to an earthquake: Whereas, the intensity of a real earthquake can be measured objectively by the Richter scale, an infidelity cannot; It is subjectively experienced by the hurt party. For example, an emotional email flirtation by her husband, with a woman he never met, might be more hurtful to one spouse than a one night stand to another. When I think of the wide range of the wife's possible reactions to her husband's affair(s) that I have experienced, two very different situations come to mind.
At one extreme: An attractive, friendly young couple, who got along very well, were successful at work, and were quite happy with each other came to me because the wife had reached her limit and wanted her husband to "just cut it out" and stop fooling around with other women. She was aware of at least five other women with whom her husband had had sex, and was getting tired of it all and very annoyed. It was almost at the level of a spouse getting annoyed because her husband bites his nails or slurps his soup. She was not shaken up, depressed, furious, nor scared for the stability of her marriage…just annoyed, fed up, and wanted him to stop.
At the other end of the continuum: a 60 year old man came to me because his wife has been hounding him for the past ten years for what she considered an infidelity that he had committed. Apparently, while his wife was out of town, he took his (female) neighbor out for lunch. The wife did not accuse or suspect him of anything else, but she couldn't tolerate what she considered an infidelity and had been suffering, and making him suffer ever since she came back from her the trip ten years ago.
Another factor in measuring the damage of the "earthquake" : Males and females react differently to emotional vs. physical affairs of their partners. In a recent article in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, researchers confirmed what previous researchers found. In general, women are more hurt by their husband's emotional involvement with the other woman, whereas men are more hurt and angry by their wife's physical involvement with the other man.
Many wives are extremely upset by their husband's attention to pornographic sites, and certainly cybersex. They consider these behaviors an infidelity. I've had numerous situations where a single email, text message, or a suspicious repetition of a number on a cell phone bill has set off a major battle over trust.
An Infidelity Is A Problem That Should Never Be Underestimated
If not treated properly, an infidelity leaves a residue of lack of trust, lingering pain and resentment and will weaken the relationship for years to come, if not absolutely destroy it at some future point. I remember a physician's wife telling me "He was unfaithful with one of his staff 14 years ago, and the relationship was never the same." Apparently they had "smoothed it over" and went about their business in a state of partial denial. But the pain was there. They had come to me because of a recent infidelity on the husband's part...again, with a member of his staff. The pain of the recent infidelity was greatly magnified because it was augmented by the ever-present pain of her husband's original misdeed, and by her new suspicions that there may have been other incidents that she did not know about. At the couple's third session with me, the wife said: "I've had enough," and she quit therapy, choosing to go to a lawyer instead. When discussing a past or present infidelity I will often say to a couple. "If you cover a pile of garbage with a white sheet, it will not remove the garbage….this problem will not go away; it has to be dealt with."
Assessing The Damage
Coming back to my metaphor of a house that sustains an earthquake. If the owner wants to save the house, he will call in a contractor who will assess the damage. This may include live electrical wires, leaking pipes, broken windows, damaged roof, collapsed wall, etc. All of these have to be repaired to make the house livable. In the case of an infidelity, the husband is not only the precipitant of the earthquake, but he is also the contractor. But whereas a contractor takes out his pad and writes down the damage that he sees with his own eyes, the husband must learn from his wife the nature and extent of the damage to her and to the marriage, as she sees it. This takes place during a structured healing process, under the guidance of the counselor, during which time spouses immerse themselves into many structured warm, loving, attentive and sensitive conversations with each other.
The Silver Lining Around The Cloud Of Infidelity
In some cases, the couple may say to the contractor: "As long as so many windows are broken, let's replace all of the windows with the kind I've always wanted, and since that wall collapsed, let's just push out the house, enlarge that room and convert it into a dream family room with a cathedral ceiling, skylights, fireplace, picture windows, and a huge TV. Further, I've always wanted a fantastic sound system for music in every room, etc."
I then say to the husband:
"You are not just the contractor who assesses the damage. You are also the electrician, a huge outdoor swimming pool, roofer, carpenter, mason, glazier etc. who must fix the damage."
After the repairs and renovations are completed, the couple ends up with a better house than they ever had before. Now, at this point you know why I believe:
"Yes, there can be a silver lining around the cloud caused by infidelity."
If both partners throw themselves wholeheartedly into the healing process, the crisis could become a stepping stone to better and increased communication between the couple, greater bonding, a much deeper understanding of each other, a greater appreciation of what marriage and love is all about, a happier and more mature relationship and a greater love for each other than they ever had before the infidelity lifting the marriage to a level it had never reached before. I have seen this happen again and again, so many times.
How Does The Counseling Process Help?
Couples come out of the counseling process with a marriage far stronger than they ever had. The marriages are saved by a structured counseling process and the healing that takes place. At the beginning of the process, the offending party learns the emotional consequences of his behavior and how much damage he actually did. He is then in a position to demonstrate true regret and repentance. He tries to understand and identify with the pain he inflicted on his spouse, and rather than brush off his errant behavior with such insensitive comments as “it’s over, it’s past, get over it, or forget it” shows a new sensitivity to, respect for, and appreciation of the spouse that he very nearly lost.
With the help of counseling, the husband whose eyes may have been only partially opened to his wife’s anger and pain, is now exposed to the full range and depth of her feelings as he suffers them with her, and supports her during the course of the healing process. He gains a much better understanding of what his wife is all about, what he is all about and what marriage is all about. The marriage is then stabilized on a healthier level and there is an increase of communication and bonding
Additionally, the lines will have been drawn and both understand that this type of behavior is totally unacceptable, and if repeated will spell the end of the relationship. After such a trauma, both members realize that they cannot take their partner for granted, that a marriage is not indestructible, and that it would be a mistake for the offending male to slip back into his former way of thinking. It would be more realistic to say “his former way of not thinking.”
But please note: Whereas the cloud hits the wife suddenly, the Silver Lining comes gradually and only by dint of hard work and in direct relation to how hard the couple works on healing the wounds and repairing the damage.
And although the pain will be greatly diluted, and the great hurt will hopefully be forgiven over time with the addition of many new loving experiences, the memory will linger…yet it, too, will fade over time and lose its negative power.
Faint as it is, the memory will serve a positive purpose. It will be a constant reminder of how important each person is to the other and how sacred is their marriage. It will keep both of them on their toes to constantly think of their partner's happiness and never take the marriage for granted.