Unfaithfulness in a relationship is a painful and destroying experience for all involved. Meaningful Minds Clinical Psychologist, Ethelwyn Rebelo looks at why it happens and how to deal with it.
When speaking of her husband’s on-going love relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, Princess Diana described her marriage as having broken up because it had been too “crowded”. Her awareness of his persistent infidelity, caused her such distress that she became depressed, cut herself and threw herself down stairs in an attempt to kill herself. A woman admired by thousands came to doubt her worth and to desperately seek love and healing in the arms of other men. As the words of a song tell us: “breaking up is hard to do”.
It is especially hard for the person who has been left behind because his or her spouse has fallen in love with someone else. After a break-up as a result of infidelity, betrayed people go through periods of intense loss and loneliness. The world looks the same, but it no longer feels the same. Recovering properly from this traumatic experience takes time, reflection and the support of others.
Breaking up, however, does not need to follow from infidelity. An affair may be a fling, a passing connection of bodies and desires which in no way competes with the bond that two married, or emotionally and sexually-committed people, share with each other. If the guilty party is willing to discuss the fling in detail: to explain his or her feelings thoroughly - and the injured party is ready to forgive - then the couple may be able to move on. In many instances, explanations of infidelity need to be shared repeatedly between a couple in order to enable the injured party to process and to understand the experience: both for what it was, and for what it wasn’t.
A Gap in the Relationship?
There needs to be reflection also as to whether a gap had emerged in the relationship, a gap which the guilty party had sought to fill with someone else. The gap may be a lack of emotional understanding (perhaps as a result of poor communication skills); insufficient quality time spent together; an absence of mutual interests; a deteriorating sex life and so on. Gaps may be filled by best friends, close family members and by children - as well as by affairs or flings.
However filling a gap by betraying your loved-one is not the most constructive way of dealing with the problem. Whatever the difficulties experienced by a couple, the correct way of responding is to discuss them openly and to try to solve the issues involved, either together or with the help of a couples therapist. My first supervisor of couples therapy pointed out to me that the difference between couples that stay together and couples that fall apart is not that the couples who split have problems and that those who stay together have no problems, it is just that the latter take more constructive steps to repair their difficulties.
In a recent magazine article, the famous South African golfer: Gary Player, and his wife, Vivienne, were celebrated for their sixty years of being together. The interview of the couple revealed that the couple were completely compatible with regard to interests, goals, emotional commitment and romance. There were no suggestions of any gaps in their marriage. They discussed their mutual enjoyment of golf in the interview, their regular messages of love to one another, their nurturing of trust and allegiance and their continuous romantic behaviour in relation to each other.
The Casanova Complex and Other Reasons for Infidelity
Of course, not all infidelity results from gaps in what parties offer each other. Some people have affairs because they have poor self esteem. Serial betrayers may appear to be confident and assured, but deep down they may harbour uncertainty regarding how attractive or lovable they really are. They therefore need to keep having affairs to reassure themselves, again and again, that they are desirable to others. Think of Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky and many others. This phenomenon has been termed the Casanova Complex and it may be exhibited by both men and women. Casanovas themselves may not necessarily seek break ups, although their partners, unlike Hilary Clinton, might.
In addition to the Casanova Complex, where there is little emotional commitment and
connection between parties, or one partner starts to think “I can do better with someone else”, the chances of a break up are significantly increased. A lack of emotional commitment and a negative comparison are both factors that bring about very serious cracks in a relationship.
“I can do better with someone else” may translate to “I can be happier with someone younger” during a “mid-life crisis”, in which an individual chases after the desire to feel young again. New relationships are associated with early life and new beginnings. As old age and death loom over the horizon, a new relationship helps to blind the unfaithful individual, at least temporarily, to their advance.
In such instances, the innocent partner may endure immense pain at the loss of a life-long family structure and feel cast adrift in an unfamiliar pattern of living in which connection and meaning have to be found in new places.
What to do
Trust, emotional commitment and tolerance are the key ingredients for any intimate relationship. They have to be worked at and nurtured. People who feel and express gratitude towards their partners and affirm them regularly, keep the foundations of their bond closely cemented together.
If you are a victim of infidelity and struggling with it, obtain help for your feelings of sadness and loss by means of supportive friendships and, if required, psychotherapy. Furthermore, if your sleep and appetite have been affected; you are sad and tired most of the time; and feel worthless and hopeless, you may required medication for a period.
In psychotherapy it may be useful to explore the factors that led to the break up: to specify the areas where your partner was at fault and the areas where you too might have slipped up. If you conclude that you were to blame to some extent, forgive yourself for it. You are human and like all humans, you will make mistakes.
Psychotherapy should help you to identify irrational thought patterns that lead to punitive feelings of rejection, hopelessness and unworthiness in relation to yourself. It will also assist you to identify new paths of growth and possibility. All rebirths require a death. The death of a relationship as a result of infidelity, may be the push that the innocent party needs to bring about a rebirth within his or her life so that it offers more happiness and satisfaction.
If you are not in a state of mind to think about future possibilities and rebirths because you are suffering from depression, ensure your depression is treated. Then make an effort to connect with old friends; start new hobbies and pursue new interests where you might also meet new people.
Try to avoid getting into a dance of rage with your ex-partner, particularly if you have children together. Remember you both remain their parents. As such, your relationship with your ex has not been lost, it has merely changed in definition. If you can re-define it as a relationship of amicable and co-operative parenting of your mutual offspring, this beats being enemies and mutual saboteurs.