Why you should care
Because there’s a 20 to 25 percent chance the “love of your life” is stepping out.
Kourtney used to say that if her husband ever cheated on her, she’d “leave him in a heartbeat.” But after she got a hold of her husband’s laptop one night and found eight graphic selfies that another woman had sent to him, things didn’t seem so black-and-white. Oh, she was furious about what turned out to be an affair, and even “took the wedding photo off the wall and threw it across the kitchen, and shattered glass went everywhere.” Yet Kourtney, who only wants to use her first name, didn’t leave. “I chose to stay.”
Despite all the chatter about the death of monogamy, some couples are deciding to remain married — even after one spouse cheats on the other. According to a recent study by researchers at Indiana University, nearly 1 in 5 women and almost 1 in 4 men in monogamous relationships reported having cheated. It’s unclear exactly how many knew that their significant other strayed, though infidelity rates have held fairly steady over time — while divorce rates peaked in the 1980s. These days, couples and therapists say, infidelity is much more survivable than many of us think.
Both partners often show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
As Kourtney discovered, gadgets like smartphones and tablets have certainly made it easier to slip a sexy pic someone’s way and facilitate a steamy affair. But they’ve also made it easier (for some, at least) to find an incriminating email, text message or online dating profile. “It’s not that the affairs happen more or less, but they certainly are uncovered more,” says Jay Lebow, a psychologist and marriage and family therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. People generally also want to have better relationships, and they tend to talk more about them, Lebow says, so they’re more likely to ask questions if a partner becomes distant. Hence all those questions about that new Facebook friend.
But what happens when someone stays after a loved one strays? Both partners often show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, says Kristina Coop Gordon, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, who — along with colleagues Donald H. Baucom and Douglas K. Snyder — developed the first empirically tested method for treating couples in this situation. Betrayed spouses typically experience symptoms common among people who’ve suffered physical trauma, including flashbacks and numbness, while betrayers may feel anxiety provoked by the thought that they’re not actually the person they thought they were, says Gordon.
What’s realistic is to move to a point where it doesn’t dominate your life …
A growing group of therapists is now working to help couples recognize and process these different feelings when one partner drifts but the couple decides to stick it out together. One change they’ve noticed in recent years is how much people tend to expect from their partners — and how much it can hurt when they learn of their spouse’s cheating ways. “We tend to want our partner to be everything — our best friend, our confidant, our lover, our financial partner,” says Elana Katz, a family therapist and senior faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York. But most people have fewer confidants today than they did in the past, and because expectations are higher, when an affair comes to light, it can be very alarming, Katz says.
Gordon and her colleagues focus on getting betrayed partners to forgive — but not necessarily forget. “There’s no way in heck that you will look back on the affair and feel happy about it or even not feel angry about it,” Gordon says. “What’s realistic is to move to a point where it doesn’t dominate your life and you don’t hold it over the other person.” She’s also working on a program designed to spark the kind of soul-searching discussions an affair tends to provoke — before an affair ever happens.
Certainly, not everyone can get past an affair. Just ask Katherine Eisold Miller. The New York City-based collaborative divorce attorney estimates that infidelity has been a factor in as many as half of the divorces she has worked on throughout her 28-year career. Most divorces are difficult, of course, but when one partner has been unfaithful, “there’s an edge in the discussions that wouldn’t otherwise be there,” Miller says.
Holly Sox could have ended up in one of those contentious proceedings. But after discovering that her husband, Mike, had had an affair a few years ago, the South Carolina resident says that a combination of therapy, their faith and advice from couples on the site SurvivingInfidelity.com (which they don’t have a financial stake in) helped them build a stronger relationship. In fact, they have even renewed their wedding vows. “The worst day I’ve had in the last three years,” says Sox, “is still better than the best day we had before.”